Though he was the third of three corners drafted by Dallas in 2000, Mario Edwards was a starter by his second season
We're not crazy. We're not here to suggest that Mario Edwards has flown completely under the NFL radar.
That's hard to do when you play for America's Team, when you spend years starting for one of the league's best defenses, then trade in that gig for a spot on what may be the best NFL D of the past decade.
Still, there's a bit of stealth to this maneuver by Edwards and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Dozens and dozens of unrestricted free agents changed teams or re-signed with their existing squads during March, after the market opened on the third of the month. The Bucs were heavily involved in that mass exchange, in fact, picking up such important cogs as Charlie Garner, Derrick Deese, Todd Steussie, Brian Griese and (via trade) Joey Galloway.
It was well into April, however, before the Bucs signed Edwards, after the free agency waters had calmed considerably, in Tampa and around the league. The late date does not necessarily speak to the importance of any given signing, of course. Still, following the signing-a-day pace of March, the move seemed like a bit of an afterthought.
On the contrary, it may be one of the most important additions the team makes all year.
Consider for a minute what the addition of Edwards, who started the past three seasons for the Cowboys, does for Tampa Bay's defense.
One, by adding a starting-caliber corner the team assuages the fear of a 2003 repeat, when an injury to Brian Kelly threw the secondary into chaos. The Buccaneers obviously hope for a healthy season from their Pro Bowl-caliber starting pair of Kelly and Ronde Barber, but Edwards provides excellent insurance. The season before, Kelly tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions as the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII, but he was sorely missed for most of 2003 and the Bucs missed the playoffs for the first time since 1998.
"I thought it was a good situation for me to come in and help this team get to another Super Bowl," said Edwards. "They were just a few plays away last year from making it to the Super Bowl. They're a Super Bowl-contending team and I played ball here at Florida State, so it's just a good time to come back to Florida and help this team."
Two, with Edwards coming on for the nickel package, the Bucs can confidently put Ronde Barber in the slot, allowing Edwards to patrol the outside. The Bucs have been using that strategy with Barber for years, resulting in a multitude of blitz sacks and interceptions in the seams. Still, without an attractive option in the outside cover role, the team may have felt compelled to keep Barber in his normal spot on third downs.
"Ronde is the best nickel cornerback in the game, in my opinion," said Edwards. "He can blitz, he can cover. It's only right to put him where he's most comfortable. He went inside in the nickel package last year, I see on the film. It's a natural fit for him."
Three, the Bucs now have a second tall cover man to team with Kelly on the perimeter. Edwards stands 6-0, 200 pounds, which makes him one of the Bucs' taller cornerbacks. By contrast, former nickel back and part-time starter Tim Wansley was just 5-8. If there was any doubt that tall corners are a necessity nowadays, it was squashed by this year's draft, when Larry Fitzgerald led a battalion of young skyscraping receivers into the league.
"It's a luxury to have two big corners who can cover," said Edwards. "BK surely can cover, and he's been in this system for awhile and has done a good job here."
Edwards, as you can see, has a way of deflecting praise to his teammates. That doesn't mean he lacks in confidence or in any way devalues his own importance. Edwards, in fact, has a motto to describe what it takes to play his position: 'No confidence, no corner.'
"I think I bring a lot of pride to the game," he said. "I came from a defense ranked number-one against the pass last year, and we've been ranked near the top for the last four years. So I come from a pretty good system – a damn good system. Obviously, you can never have too many good corners. Coming here was a no-brainer for me."
Even without the fanfare? One could argue that, given Edwards' starting experience and the importance of the position being filled, this was one of the key signings of the offseason. In three seasons as a Cowboy starter, Edward piled up 175 tackles, four interceptions and 27 passes defensed.
He's used to it, though. The Cowboys drafted three cornerbacks in 2000, and he was the third, taken out of Florida State in the sixth round. The other two, Dwayne Goodrich and Kareem Larrimore, never started and are no longer in the league. Edwards became a starter in just his second season, the same year Dallas' defense unexpectedly rose to prominence. There was quite a lag between the emergence of Dallas' defense and its recognition, and the same seems to be true for Edwards as an individual.
"But that's to my advantage," he argued. "To me, it's not the guys who get all the hoopla out there. It's the guys who, when you turn on the film, you see them out there doing what they're supposed to do. I think I'm one of those guys. You turn the film on, and you see a guy doing what he's supposed to do."
Edwards comes well-equipped to succeed on his new team. He has the sort of 'man-on-an-island' confidence that one needs at cornerback, and he has been matched against big-time competition since his time at FSU. In Dallas, he played a lot of 'zero coverage,' meaning he was man-to-man with a receiver with no safety help. Those cover skills will help him from time to time in the Bucs' system, though Tampa Bay plays a lot more zone and counts on their corners for tackling support.
"I think this system is very corner-friendly," said Edwards. "I can succeed in this system. I played hurt the last two years, rotator cuff and AC joint. I think tackling is another strength of mine, but I can get better at it."
As much as he has flown under the radar, Edwards seems to have a little swagger to him, perhaps the residual effect of starring for such teams as the Seminoles and the Cowboys. That, perhaps, is number Four in our list above. The Bucs have lost a few of their long-time defensive stalwarts, but they shouldn't be lacking in players who believe they can get the job done.
"Yeah, I show a lot of confidence out there," said Edwards. "On that island, man, you have to have confidence. You need that out there when you're by yourself."