This offseason, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers addressed one of their most pressing needs (no pun intended) by using their first draft pick on Vernon Hargreaves and giving a sizeable free agency contract to Brent Grimes. Just three years ago, the Buccaneers used their first draft pick (albeit a second-rounder) on Johnthan Banks, and just two years ago they invested heavily in free agent Alterraun Verner.
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Grimes and Hargreaves – and the latter in particular – seem to represent the future of the cornerback position in Tampa. That does not mean, however, that Banks and Verner have been relegated to the past. At present, all four are in the thick of a rather unpredictable competition to earn playing time in Mike Smith's new defense, as are the likes of Jude Adjei-Barimah, Josh Robinson and Joel Ross.
Pictures of the Buccaneers' first-round draft pick during Rookie Mini-Camp and OTAs.
In fact, while the front-line positions at linebacker and safety seem relatively set and the defensive line is likely to be a many-faceted rotation, the battle for the starting cornerback spots (including nickel back) will likely be the most interesting one of training camp. And that battle won't really begin until camp does.
"Nothing is decided during OTAs," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter, right after the Buccaneers finished their last OTA practice. "We can all have our opinions on how guys look, but we're going to be playing real football when we get back and that's going to be when guys will really have a chance to prove it."
That said, the competitors can set the stage for their competition as they absorb Smith's defense during OTAs and the three-day mini-camp that will cap the offseason next week. Koetter and his staff may not be making any depth chart decisions in May and June, but these pre-camp practices can still be an opportunity to impress. That's particularly true of Hargreaves, the one player in the competition who is also making the transition to the professional game after a standout college career at Florida.
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"He's got great quickness, tremendous explosiveness, he's smart, competitive, he's playing two spots – he's playing corner and nickel," said Koetter. "[He's] exactly what we thought when we drafted him. When you're a first-round draft pick you're going to play. You're going to play most of the time.
"We know we improved our depth at corner. Brent Grimes has been down the last few days. We have great competition. We're trying to get competition at every position. Vernon Hargreaves and Alterraun Verner have both stood out as far as the last few days, as far as making plays."
A look at the Buccaneers' cornerback during spring workouts.
The Buccaneers believed Hargreaves could excel in any style of defense when they drafted him, and they knew Grimes could succeed in Smith's scheme because the two were previously together in Atlanta. For Verner and Banks, Smith's arrival represents another chance to fulfill the expectations that originally came with their high-profile acquisitions. Verner, who maintained a team-first attitude last season while losing playing time to Adjei-Barimah and Sterling Moore, is in a good position to take advantage of that second chance.
"Sometimes you have something happen and you fall down like others have, including myself, so it's just a professional game," said Verner. "You're up and you're down, but just like at corner you have to have a short memory and you can't dwell on the past and just move forward.
"You can't sit around and complain about it. You have to be able to make the best of that situation and you know that's all it was. I love playing this game."
Like Verner, Banks was in and out of the lineup last fall as the Bucs searched for a winning combination in the secondary. In his first two seasons, he started 30 games and recorded seven interceptions and 16 passes defensed, the most in both categories by any Buccaneer defender during that span. If Hargreaves ends up starting on the outside but moving to the slot in nickel packages, Banks (like Verner) would appear to be a strong candidate to come in as the third corner. Banks is in the last year of his original rookie contract and would obviously like another chance to show off what he can do. Koetter knows that every competitor in the corner battle has plenty of motivation, however.
"This is a competition," said Koetter. "It's a big year for a lot of guys. We can say that about 90 guys out here and 53 spots. Banks is competing; that's what he's doing and he's made some plays. He made a beautiful play two days ago down in the red zone. Mike [Evans] had him beat on a double move, he caught up and knocked the ball away, saved a touchdown."
On the practice field, Banks stands out among the team's current cast of corners because of his 6-2 height, which might be considered an edge in this competition as the Bucs prepare to face the likes of Kelvin Benjamin and Julio Jones. Grimes, Hargreaves, Robinson, Ross and Verner are all listed at 5-10 while Adjei-Barimah is 5-11. However, it doesn't sound as if size is going to be a deciding factor for the Bucs' decision-makers.
"There's plenty of research both ways about the size in corners," said Koetter. "There are some misnomers out there, and then there are just as many corners that are 5'10' that have been successful as corners that are 6'4', so the guys are who they are. We're happy with our guys and we're going to keep working with them."