Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks have lined up as the Bucs' starting cornerbacks all spring and throughout training camp, so there isn't much question as to who the starters will be for Week 1. But the team has been experimenting with three different players as the nickel corner - Sterling Moore, Isaiah Frey and Leonard Johnson - and all three have an opportunity to secure the starting spot before the regular season kicks off.
Defenses across the league employed nickel packages for more than fifty percent of their snaps last year, and that number is expected to increase in 2015. The player responsible for coming on the field in that situation needs to be versatile, Head Coach Lovie Smith said, comparing their skill set to those of a linebacker, corner and safety all packaged as one.
If one of those three potential starters has stood out during camp so far, it's been Moore.
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When he arrived in Tampa this spring after being signed as a free agent, Moore expressed his desire to work on both the outside and inside. Throughout OTAs and mini-camp, he worked almost exclusively on the outside while Frey and Johnson worked as the nickel back. But as training camp has gone on, he's gotten some work in the slot and had some success.
On Wednesday, Moore had a particularly strong practice, intercepting two passes while working in the slot.
"If you are the nickel, same as we talked about with some of the defensive linemen, you need to be (versatile) with the nickel position too," Coach Smith said. "Nickel can also play a little bit of corner. Right now, Sterling (Moore) has done both. We want to let Isaiah (Frey) do it. Leonard (Johnson) has done both too. Again, we are just trying to get as many good combinations as we can and let it play out that way. We have been pleased with what Sterling has done there. Yesterday, of course, he showed up a lot more. In the first week you are there you get a couple picks, we take notice at that."
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Moore is attempting to unseat Johnson and Frey, who both spent time in the slot for the Bucs in 2014. Johnson saw significantly more playing time than Frey, handling 232 snaps in the slot, compared to Frey's 76. Moore played 115 snaps in the slot for Dallas in 2014. Moore had the most successful season, allowing a QB rating of 93.8 to opposing passers, while Johnson gave up a rating of 130.4 and Frey surrendered a passer rating of 100.
Frey (11) played the most snaps in the slot last weekend against the Vikings while Johnson (10) followed and Moore didn't play in the slot at all. But the Bucs still have three more preseason games to play, and all three still have a chance to solidify their status as the starter.
"You have to be able to make them when you get an opportunity," Smith said. "We haven't been pleased with the amount of production we have gotten from the nickel position. That's why we are looking for some different options in there also. In the past, we've had a nickel get five interceptions. (Sterling will) have opportunities. They will have opportunities."