It is not yet completely clear what a Todd Bowles defense is going to look like in Tampa, but it is clear that it will be different from what the Buccaneers have known for quite some time. Most fundamentally, it will operate more frequently out of a 3-4 base, which was last a staple in Tampa more than a quarter-century ago. And it is almost sure to be more aggressive, given the established tendencies of Bowles, the new defensive coordinator, and his former and present boss, Bruce Arians.
For Tampa Bay cornerbacks, that means a much bigger dose of man-to-man coverage. Arians thinks that will be a good change for the personnel on hand.
"There's speed in the secondary," said the Buccaneers' new head coach. "I think what we're going to do with them is going to be more advantageous to them. Get up and get [on them]. 'I've got you – beat my ass.' We're not sitting back, reading and reacting, schemes and stuff. We'll have some of that, but we're going to get in face and play man-to-man and get after you."
The cornerbacks that Arians is going to trust to make this work in 2019 are Vernon Hargreaves and Carlton Davis. Hargreaves was the Buccaneers' first-round pick in 2016; Davis came aboard as a second-rounder last year. Hargreaves had a promising rookie campaign but has been plagued by injuries the last two years and has seen his role shift on several occasions between the outside and the slot. Davis was one of two corners the Bucs took in the same round a year ago, and in his case he was selected specifically because the team liked his big frame and press-coverage abilities.
In a way, neither of the two is proven, but it's not hard to understand why Arians has confidence in the pair. Hargreaves had a strong offseason and training camp in 2018 after his struggles in 2017 and was playing well in the season opener before a shoulder injury cost him the rest of the schedule. Davis was thrown quickly into action as a rookie thanks to injuries such as the one suffered by Hargreaves and, as is typical for an NFL newcomer, had his ups and downs. His arrow was pointing up as the season's second half unfolded.
"I have great confidence in Vernon and Carlton," said Arians. "If we have to take Vernon into nickel, then I don't know who that is yet. So let's find a nickel. Let's leave Vernon out there where I know he can play and be effective, and find a nickel."
Though his season ended abruptly, Hargreaves started the 2018 campaign in a dual role, starting on the outside in a base package but moving into the slot in a nickel defense. He was simply the Bucs' best option at both positions at the time. That might still be the case as the 2019 offseason begins, but Arians would obviously like to change that scenario. Help could come in the draft, or it might already be on the roster. The Bucs have another second-year corner in M.J. Stewart, but they might see if he can convert to safety. The other options at the moment are Ryan Smith, David Rivers and De'Vante Harris. Smith has seen the most action of the three, but all of it on the outside.
"Is he on the roster right now?" asked Arians of the answer in the slot. "I don't know, because I haven't seen these young guys. I saw them playing Cover Two, quarters…I never saw them playing man-to-man."
Arians, however, has seen enough of Hargreaves to be confident in what he can do. And that goes all the way back to 2016, when the Buccaneers and Cardinals were preparing for the draft. They obviously both liked the University of Florida star; Tampa Bay took him 11th overall and Arians wouldn't have minded getting his hands on the former Gator.
"I have to go back to the draft," said Arians. "We really liked him, we had him really high on our board. We thought he could do what we do. Then…injuries, you know. And it's not like he got them playing nickel; they're just freaky injuries. You've just got to knock on wood and hope they're gone. People say he's a bust. I know he's been hurt all the time but it wasn't his fault. I think Vernon has all the talent in the world, works hard, is smart. He can be successful, he's just got to stay healthy."
If, indeed, the Buccaneers have brought on a new coaching staff that happens to run a scheme that will bring out the best in Hargreaves in his fourth season, than that's a stroke of good fortune for him. And at this point, that only seems fair.