View some select shots of the Buccaneer's cornerbacks.
Tampa Bay Buccaneer players report for training camp next week, and on July 30 they will hold their first open-to-the-public practice. Over the three weeks or so that follows, plus the overlapping month of preseason games, Buccaneer fans will have an opportunity to watch the 2016 team take shape right before their eyes.
They will also bear witness to the resolution of some very important questions for this Buccaneer team. In our last full week before the start of camp, we're taking a closer look at five of those questions. We've already discussed the shaping of the Bucs' receiving corps and the depth on the defensive line; now we contemplate one of the most unpredictable sections of the 2016 depth chart.
3. Who will rise from among a deep group of cornerback candidates?
As we noted yesterday, the Buccaneers addressed a need at defensive end this offseason both through unrestricted free agency and the upper reaches of the draft. They did the exact same thing at their other most obvious position of need, cornerback.
In fact, the draft capital spent on cornerback was even greater than at end, as the Bucs' used the 11th overall selection on University of Florida star Vernon Hargreaves. And while the team signed one free agent defensive end in Robert Ayers it doubled down at cornerback with Brent Grimes and Josh Robinson. The result is a position that looks quite a bit deeper heading into 2016 after a rough 2015 campaign, but not one that is easy to put in order on a depth chart.
Given his three straight Pro Bowl trips, his relatively high cap figure in 2016 and his 13 interceptions over the past three seasons, Grimes seems like the best bet to grab one of the starting spots. In addition, after a strong series of OTA and mini-camp practices, Hargreaves is almost certain to see a significant amount of playing time. In fact, Head Coach Dirk Koetter made that very point, in so many words, several times during mini-camp. The main question in terms of Hargreaves' playing time is where it will occur – on the outside, in the slot or in some combination of both jobs.
What makes this question of cornerback depth a little trickier is that, given the amount of time a defense typically spends in nickel packages, the Bucs will essentially have three starters. Robinson is obviously a candidate for the third spot, as are holdovers Alterraun Verner, Johnthan Banks and Jude Adjei-Barimah. At various times during the offseason program, Verner and Adjei Barimah, in particular, drew praise for how they were performing in the new defense being installed by Mike Smith.
The Buccaneers' 53-Man roster.
Smith's arrival is another complicating factor, though almost certainly a very positive one. His system is likely to be more consistently aggressive than the Buccaneers' former defense, which means more work near the line in press coverage for the cornerbacks. Since the team's returning corners have not been asked to do much of that in recent years, training camp now becomes a proving ground as to which ones will be best at that kind of work. With the pads going on and contact allowed in training camp after a long offseason of shadow work, that competition is about to heat up considerably.
The current cornerback group is rounded out by first-year player Joel Ross and undrafted rookie Javien Elliott. While they will be given every chance to succeed, it's obvious that they are longer shots to rise to the top of the depth chart than Hargreaves or the team's group of veterans.
Those four veterans all have some level of NFL success on their resumes. Verner signed a lucrative deal to come to Tampa in 2014 and, at 27, should still be in the prime of his career. His team-first attitude in the wake of a disappointing 2015 season has helped him remain focused on regaining the level of production that made him a Pro Bowler in Tennessee in 2013. A reunion with one of his former Titans coaches, Brett Maxie, should help as well. The Buccaneers want more playmakers in their secondary, and Verner had 111 interceptions and 50 passes defensed from 2010-13 in Tennessee.
Banks, a second-round pick in 2013, saw his playing time decrease dramatically last year, but it's worth noting that he started 30 games and picked off seven passes during his first two NFL seasons. He had some ups and downs even in those two years, but his 6-2 stature sets him apart among a group of corners otherwise all standing 5-10 or 5-11. How he fits in Smith's system is probably one of the bigger mysteries for the secondary heading into camp, but that in turn leaves open the possibility for a very pleasant surprise.
Adjei-Barimah paired with the since-departed Sterling Moore to give the Bucs their steadiest run of cornerback production for about seven games last year. An undrafted rookie last year who only signed on the very eve of training camp, Adjei-Barimah made a very surprising rise up the depth chart but now has a legitimate track record and a good shot of making the team once again.
Robinson signed a one-year deal not long after the Buccaneers had added Grimes, and it's easy to see why the team was interested even after landing their first target. Experienced cornerback depth is difficult to gather in the NFL and the Bucs have often lacked it in recent years. Robinson had some pretty significant swings in playing time during his four years in Minnesota, but for a good part of 2014 he was one of the Vikings' better corners as he recorded three interceptions and eight passes defensed.
After a 2015 season in which there really were no long-term starters at either cornerback position, there are no true incumbents to be unseated in 2016. That's the landscape into which the Buccaneers added Grimes and Hargreaves. However, three other returning players have previously started for the team, and Robinson opened 21 games for the Vikings. All of those candidates essentially started on a level playing field thanks to the import of a new defense, with the exception of Grimes, who previously played for Smith in Atlanta. Who's going to rise to the top of the depth chart from that deep and intriguing group of cornerbacks? That's one important question to which we'll almost certainly get an answer in the coming weeks.