It may not be clear on this March weekend who the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting safeties will be in September. However, there are clearly some good options.
That wasn't quite as obvious 72 hours ago, when Bradley McDougald and Chris Conte were set to become unrestricted free agents after combining for 27 starts at safety in Tampa in 2016. But there was a plan in place. A little bit off the internal list of free agents and a little bit off the external list and suddenly the Bucs are as deep at safety as they were last season, with a strong competition and the possibility of even more help at the position in the upcoming draft. As for the potential return of McDougald, too, Licht simply said that free agency is "still a process" and the team is "going through a lot of different options."
Specifically, the Buccaneers re-signed Conte on Thursday and lured J.J. Wilcox over from the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. Still very much in the picture is sixth-year veteran Keith Tandy, who was nothing short of spectacular in a five-game chance to start at the end of 2016. As the newcomer, Wilcox is the least known of those assets, at least to Buccaneer fans, but he's started 38 games over the past four seasons in Dallas.
"He's going to compete for a starting role along with Chris, along with Keith at that safety position," said General Manager Jason Licht. "He's a really hard-hitting physical player that really still has an upside at safety. He played running back most of his career at college, with one year at safety. That's a position that's tough to learn and grow into, and it's starting to come. Really it's almost like getting a younger player – he's young, he's 26 – because of the inexperience he has at the position. But yet, he has started quite a few games there."
The 6-2, 220-pound Wilcox looks the part, and he has a reputation of being a rugged tackler. He's the kind of player a lot of teams like to target in free agency – he's heading into the prime of his career, he's already had some demonstrated success at the NFL level, and he has real room to grow. Wilcox agrees that his best is yet to come.
"I think the best year I've had was last year, by far," said Wilcox, even though he only started four games after opening 29 contests over the previous two seasons. "Despite it not going the way I wanted it to, from starter to reserve role, I think I'm growing in the right direction and growing to understand football, understand the plays, understand the concepts the offense is trying to use to attack me. I definitely think I'm on the rise and just steadily growing in the this game.
"I limited my mistakes, limited my missed tackles, knew when to go to get the ball, when to lay the big wood, knowing when to turn it on, when not to turn it on. It's definitely just learning the timing. Now I'm just grateful for this opportunity."
Photos from Chris Conte's 2016 campaign.
The Bucs did not officially label their safeties as "free" and strong" in 2016, and it's pretty clear that both players have to be able to hold up in deep coverage and in the box. Versatility across the board might also allow the Buccaneers to make use of all three of the aforementioned safeties in sizeable roles, as Dallas did last year with Wilcox, Barry Church and Byron Jones.
"I played free for three years in Dallas and then last year I switched to strong safety," said Wilcox. "I've got a little bit of both in my toolbox and I think Coach [Mike] Smith saw that. The more you can do in this league, the better, and I try to pride myself in being an athletic safety.
Conte started the first 11 games of last season along McDougald and had turned in several game-changing plays during the Bucs' five-game winning streak. However, he missed two games down the stretch due to injury and by the time he had returned, Tandy was just too hot to take off the field. That Conte did not regain his starting spot is not an indication that he fell out of favor with the Bucs' coaching staff, a point made obvious by his re-signing on Thursday.
"Chris is very tough," said Licht. "Chris works his butt off. Chris is up here in the office right now working with Mike Smith. When we signed him and agreed to terms, he was here within 15 minutes, and I thought he was coming to shake hands or something. No, he wanted to meet with [Defensive Backs Coach] Brett Maxie. He made some big strides last year, made a couple big plays for us to turn those games around. He's coming along and things are starting to gel for him in this scheme."
The Buccaneers re-signed Tandy a year ago even though he had made just seven starts in his first four seasons. They liked what he brought on special teams, his professional approach to the game and his ability to step in on defense and not be liability. It's possible that his finish to 2016, while a small sample size, was an indication that he can do a lot more. If that's true, the Buccaneers may have a very fierce competition at the safety spot when training camp arrives.
And if that's the case, Wilcox already knows how to handle such a situation, based on his experience from last year.
"It's just the competition, and the Cowboys just thought maybe it was best to put a rotation in," he said. "You've got to do what you can control. The main thing I could control was to be a team player and go try to win games."