In March, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter said it was "logical" to think his team would target the secondary in the first round of the draft after focusing on the defensive line in free agency. That didn't happen – the Buccaneers used the 12th overall pick to nab Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea – but that logic eventually prevailed in Round Two.
Tampa Bay addressed that need with the selection of North Carolina cornerback M.J. Stewart with the 53rd overall pick, their second selection on Friday night. They were able to do so thanks to a trade they pulled off the night before, scoring two extra second-round picks in a deal with the Buffalo Bills.
Tampa Bay moved down from the seventh spot in Round One to the 12th pick and got the pick they used on Stewart plus the 56th selection. Tampa Bay also included its late seventh-round selection in the deal, but the trade gave the Bucs critical additional assets after they used their own second-rounder (#38) on USC running back Ronald Jones.
The upshot was Stewart, a productive, physical and versatile defender who can play all over the secondary. Stewart broke up 41 passes during his four seasons with the Tar Heels and was also an active tackler with 199 total stops. His career totals also included 11.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
View pictures of Buccaneers' second-round pick, UNC CB M.J. Stewart. Photos by AP Images.
Tampa Bay's pass defense was in need of attention after ranking last in the NFL in 2017 and surrendering 260.6 aerial yards per game. An ineffective pass rush was part of that, as opposing passers had too long to throw and too many open sightlines, but the team used free agency and the trade market to add defensive linemen Beau Allen, Vinny Curry, Jason Pierre-Paul and Mitch Unrein. After the further addition of Vea to beef up the middle of the line, the secondary was left as the level of defense most in need of a talent infusion.
Cornerback was clearly a position of need for the Buccaneers, even after Brent Grimes agreed to return for a third season in Tampa, signing a one-year contract in March. Grimes has been the team's best cornerback the past two seasons and remains impressively athletic and productive at the age of 35, but the team needed more long-term options at the position. The Buccaneers are expecting a rebound from 2016 first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves after an injury-marred sophomore campaign but also plan to use him in the slot. That would give Jackson an opportunity to compete with third-year man Ryan Smith for the outside spot opposite Grimes. In addition, a team's cornerback depth is usually tested during a long season, as it was repeatedly in 2017, and one bit of that depth is gone with the departure of Robert McClain.
This marks the second year in a row that the Buccaneers have spent a valuable second-round pick on a new piece for their secondary. Last year's second-rounder, Texas A&M safety Justin Evans, quickly seized an every-down role in the Bucs' defense and proved to be a playmaker, tying for the team lead with three interceptions. However, this is just the fourth time in 43 college drafts that the Buccaneers have specifically taken a cornerback in the second round. While the most recent of those previous three second-round corners, Johnthan Banks in 2013, didn't work out in the long run, the first two had very good careers in Tampa. Ricky Reynolds and Brian Kelly, second-round selections in 1987 and 1998, respectively, played a combined 17 seasons for the Buccaneers and recorded 39 interceptions between them in those years.
Stewart was just the fifth cornerback selected in this year's draft, following Ohio State's Denzel Ward (fourth pick), Louisville's Jaire Alexander (18th), Central Florida's Mike Hughes (30th) and Iowa's Josh Jackson (45th). He is the second of the three picks Tampa Bay will make in the second round, barring a trade. The last and only other time the Buccaneers made three selections in the second round of a single draft was in 1987, when they landed Reynolds, linebacker Winston Moss and running back Don Smith.
With the No. 53 pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected cornerback M.J. Stewart from the University of North Carolina. The pick was part of a package Tampa Bay received from Arizona in a first-round trade.
The Arlington, Va. native played for the Tar Heels from 2014 to 2017. This past season, the senior recorded 45 total tackles, 5.0 for loss and 2.0 sacks.