The Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent two second-round draft picks on cornerbacks this past spring, plus a high fourth-rounder on a safety, signaling a coming youth movement in their secondary. As it turns out, the kids are taking over faster than expected.
All three of those NFL newcomers – cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis and safety Jordan Whitehead – turned heads during training camp, suggesting that they had a future in the Buccaneers' defensive lineup. None of them, however, had an obvious and clear path to an immediate starting gig because the team did have returning incumbents at all of the positions in the secondary. The rookie who seemed closest to a regular job on defense was Davis who was battling to be the second outside corner opposite Brent Grimes when starter Vernon Hargreaves moved into the slot in the nickel package.
Fast-forward to Week Four, as the Buccaneers prepare for a matchup of 2-1 teams in Chicago, and all three of those 2018 draftees would likely be on the field if the team started in the nickel. Whitehead, the smallish safety from Pitt who hits like a bigger man, is the most recent rookie to get the call as the Buccaneers try to hold the secondary together in the face of several injuries.
The Buccaneers started the season with Grimes shelved by a groin injury, then lost Hargreaves for the season to a shoulder injury late in Week One. Grimes has since returned but the absence of Hargreaves had an immediate impact on both rookie corners. Davis became an every-down starter on the outside while Stewart took over the top job in the slot. And that's how Davis has already played 196 snaps through three games, second only in the secondary to safety Justin Evans, and Stewart has played 128.
Whitehead only got one snap in the opener at New Orleans but has since logged 91 over the last two games due to two early exits by Chris Conte and a brief departure from Evans in the Week Two win over Philadelphia. Now Conte has been placed on injured reserve and that presumably makes Whitehead the starter alongside Evans.
"I was fortunate to have Chris," said Whitehead. "I got to watch him, learn from him. Since I've been here he's been teaching me and doing a great job doing that. I thank Chris for that. It's just the next-man-up mentality. Injuries happen throughout the season, a couple guys in the secondary go down and guys are just forced in there to play. Every day we just take it as being a pro, being a starter. You're a backup but you want to go in the film room and all that, know your assignments and details."
At 5-10 and 188 pounds, the rookie safety gives up some size and wingspan to the 6-2, 203-pound Conte, but Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith says that Whitehead is still more of a strong safety type than a free safety, meaning he's going to deliver some hard hits and stand up to big ballcarriers and pass-catchers.
"He is a heat-seeking missile in terms of going after the ball," said Smith, who thought Whitehead had a fine half of football in relief of Conte on Monday night. "That's one of the things he does very well. He's a guy that can really track the ball in the run game and when he gets to you he's going to wallop you with a good punch. That's one of the things that I think is his strength. He's sudden."
Whitehead says his approach to succeeding as a new starter and keeping the secondary from becoming less effective is to stay within his assignments, not try to do more than he's supposed to and otherwise play fast and physical.
"I think I worked hard coming up to this point," he said. "Coaches pushed me, been on me, made sure I knew everything. Same with the players – [they've] been on me to make sure everything's right. For times like this, when you never know who's number is going to be called, just be ready. That was my main thing – always know my stuff when a coach asked me anything, just for times like this."
The next challenge for the Buccaneers' suddenly youthful secondary is Chicago's second-year passer, Mitchell Trubisky. The good news is that Whitehead and his fellow rookies have already been tested by some of the game's best, including prolific veterans Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, as well as Nick Foles, the reigning Super Bowl MVP.
"Every day is a new day for those guys, but we've been very pleased with how they've worked for us thus far," said Smith. "They've been battle-tested that's for sure. You face two Hall of Fame quarterbacks and a guy that was MVP of the Super Bowl, so they haven't had any slack that's for sure."
That youth movement in the secondary actually began last year when Evans arrived as a second-round pick. The Bucs also have first-year man Isaiah Johnson the depth chart, and the safety they signed on Wednesday, former Giant Andrew Adams, is actually the most experienced NFL player in the room. Grimes has plenty of veteran savvy, of course, but the rookies will largely have to lean on each other as they continue to learn the NFL. That's fine with Whitehead.
"When I came in, those are the guys I hung with," he said. "When you're a rookie you don't know anybody, so those were the guys that kind of stuck together. We pushed each other every day to try to get through camp and the learning curve. Right now, we're excited to play with each other. We're on the field together now. We're rookies, so we've got each other's backs. We've got everybody's back, but since we're rookies we're just making sure all of us are on our details."