During the Tampa Bay Buccaneers minicamp in June, cornerback Carlton Davis said he believes his performance is at an All-Pro level, but that on some plays he's only All-Pro for 80% of the action. The other 20%, the part of his game he still needs to get to that level, is is taking the football away.
Clearly, Davis expects to close that gap in 2022, his fifth season and his first since signing a lucrative new deal that suggests he is indeed among the NFL's elite at his position. He has to do so in order to meet his goals, which he stated with matter-of-fact confidence on Monday after the Buccaneers' latest training camp practice.
"I want to dominate the league," said Davis. "I want to be the premier corner in the league. I want to be the most feared corner. I want to lead the league in pass break-ups [and] interceptions, and I want every NFL team to know that I'm an issue."
Davis already has experience leading the league in breaking up passes. After an up-and-down rookie season in 2018 on a Bucs defense that was among the league's worst against the pass, Davis has thrived since the arrival of Todd Bowles and his aggressive scheme in 2019. In the three seasons since, the former Auburn star has recorded 48 passes defensed, the most in the NFL in that span. That's true despite the fact that he has missed 11 games due to injury over the past three years.
Davis is just ahead of recent Pro Bowlers James Bradberry and J.C. Jackson on that list. In fact, of the eight players with the most passes defensed since 2019, Davis is the only one who has not been to a Pro Bowl at least once in those three seasons. The difference, of course, is interceptions, which is what brings in the votes for postseason awards. Jackson, for instances, had 22 interceptions in that span. Davis had six.
That's why his interception of a pass deflected by Logan Ryan early in the first practice of this year's camp didn't get Davis too excited. It will mean a lot more if that happens in September, October and beyond.
"Training camp is cool, but I want to make that official during the season, the regular season," said Davis. "That's when it really counts."
Multiple defensive backs and assistant coaches noted the same thing during offseason and minicamp media sessions: The Bucs want more takeaways on defense. It's not as if they have struggled in that regard, relative to the rest of the league. In the Bowles era, the Buccaneers have 82 takeaways, which is the third-most in the NFL in that span. They had 29 of them last year, which was tied for fifth in the league, and 17 of those were interceptions, which was tied for eighth.
Still, that's the goal, and it makes sense because takeaways win ballgames. Davis wants more for himself to ascend to the next level, but he also thinks the defense as a whole can – and will – do better in 2022.
"We've been working on it," he said. "More ball drills during our individual periods. Just being more ball savvy. We play defense, but we've got to be more offensive when it comes to seeing the ball, attacking the ball and wanting to have it. The mind's got to be focused on getting the ball. I think this year we're more focused on creating those turnovers and trying to get 30-plus as a group."
If Davis is specifically referring to all takeaways, including fumble recoveries, than that's a very reasonable goal. Again, the Bucs had 29 last year and the league-leading Cowboys had 34. However, if he was talking about interceptions in particular, that's a tall order. The last defense to snare 30-plus interceptions in a single season was that of the Green Bay Packers in 2011. Dallas did get 26 last year, and New England got 25, so teams occasionally get close. The Bucs last had 30-plus interceptions in a season in their 2002 Super Bowl season and their highest total since is 22 in 2008.
But hey, if you're personal goal is to be the very best cornerback in the league, than your expectations for the defense as a whole should be sky-high too. Fortunately, Davis is also grounded, knowing that he won't get to his anticipated level without grinding it out day by day.
"I feel closer every day," said Davis of reaching that state of dominance. "Every day is a grind. In order to achieve your goal, it takes one day at a time, one play at a time, one moment at a time. Just trying to get better in that moment, in that play, and turning the page the next day to correct your mistakes and move forward. And I feel like I'm doing that every day and I'm just trying to compete with anybody at the highest level."
As it turns out, he gets to do that right in the Bucs' own backyard. The greatest quarterback of all time is trying to complete passes against him and he's supported by a nearly bottomless well of top-notch pass-catching talent. On Monday, Head Coach Todd Bowles, speaking on a different topic, dusted off a common saying about competing against the best: "Iron sharpens iron." That's Davis's view of his current situation, and he loves it. He wants Brady and company to help sharpen him into "the most feared corner" in the league.
"Football. Football, man," said Davis. "You got to love it. To do this, you literally have to love it and be able to create that juice from within. Just to be able to go out there and compete…like bro, Tom Brady is our quarterback. Like I'm going to get something every day. How can you not get hype? This dude is the best football player to ever play. Mike Evans is one of the best receivers to ever play the game. So being able to come out here and compete – and then I'm in Florida – so like you can't beat that. You literally can't beat it, it's a win-win here. But yeah, that gets me juiced up in the morning, just being able to come and compete. Coming from where I came from, it's a blessing to be here and be able to win rings with the greats and have a chance to be one of them."