M.J. Stewart Brings Toughness, Versatility to Nickel Battle

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' depth chart lists two starting cornerbacks, and Vernon Hargreaves and Carlton Davis seem to have those spots well in hand. That doesn't mean that the other six cornerbacks on the roster will have to go through Hargreaves or Davis to get playing time, however. In fact, there is essentially another starting spot up for grabs, even if it's not designated as such on the depth chart.

That would be the nickel back position, one that grows in prevalence and importance every year as the NFL becomes increasingly pass-happy.

"The nickel is now a starting cornerback in the NFL," said Buccaneers Cornerbacks Coach Kevin Ross. "There are always three wide receivers on the field, so that guy, he's no longer what you'd call your third corner. He's a starting corner in the NFL right now."

That's pretty evident to the naked eye when the game is on, but it's also backed up by the statistics. Last year, the Buccaneers' defense was on the field for 1,055 snaps. (There were officially 998 plays run by Tampa Bay opponents in 2018, but some plays that are erased by penalties are still tallied in snap counts.) According to Sportradar, those opponents had three wideouts on the field for 746 plays, or roughly 70% of the time. That means the Bucs' defense was playing with at least three corners an equal amount of the time.

Which means, if we're conceding the likelihood that Hargreaves and Davis will hold onto their jobs on the outside when the regular season arrives, the most important preseason battle in the cornerback group is for that job in the slot. And it's not an easy job to master…though it can lead to superstardom if one does truly master it. Ronde Barber will be inducted into the Buccaneers' Ring of Honor this season and may still be ticketed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in part because his part-time work in the slot (he also started on the outside in the base defense) gave him an opportunity to fill his career stat line to bursting with tackles, sacks, interceptions and big plays.

"That guy he has to be versatile," said Ross. "He has to be able to blitz, he has to be able to tackle, he has to be able to cover, short and deep, in this system."

The Buccaneers played their first preseason game last Friday and, sure enough, they opened up in a nickel package because the Steelers sent three receivers out for the first snap. The extra DB who came on, replacing one of the down linemen, was second-year man M.J. Stewart. That would indicate that Stewart is at the front of that competition, though it's unlikely anything has been decided yet.

"He's doing pretty well," said Ross of Stewart, who was a second-round draft pick out of North Carolina a year ago. "He's learning our concepts. He's starting to understand passing concepts and where he needs to be in the defense. He's doing well. The toughness is there; he just needs to get more feel of routes and stuff like that."

Stewart was essentially the Buccaneers' nickel back for the first half of last season, but he got hurt, missed five games and didn't reclaim the job upon his return to action. He had his share of rookie struggles, but it's tough to single out any one player in a secondary that produced very poor results all around. The Bucs have a new defensive system, of course, under Head Coach Bruce Arians and Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles, so his 2018 experience in the slot is probably not a direct comparison to what he's been asked to do now. But the requirements to play that position, in an area with so much traffic, are the same.

"He's durable," said Ross of Stewart. "He's a great tackler. He tackles well in space, he can get off blocks and he can blitz."

Ross said that, in addition to Stewart, rookie Sean Murphy-Bunting and fourth-year man De'Vante Harris are getting snaps in the slot. And, again, there will be plenty of those to go around. The Buccaneers put seven different cornerbacks on the field at various points last year and they combined for 2,720 snaps. Overall, Buccaneer defenders were on the field for a total of 11,605 combined snaps, so those corner snaps accounted for about 2.6 "positions" out of the 11 that are on the field at one time. That's not quite a full starter, but it's close.

No matter how the Buccaneers open the season with their cornerback depth chart, they're likely to need more than three before it's all said and done. And while the young corners got off to a good start in training camp, injuries have since taken a bit of a toll. The group is mostly healthy now and about to head into a 10-day stretch that will include two games (versus Miami and Cleveland) and two joint practices with the Dolphins. They'll be tested, and that should help clarify the nickel competition.

"We sometimes employ seven or eight DBs at a time on defense, so they'll all get their opportunities to show what they can do," said Ross. "These next couple days against Miami, the following week against Cleveland, who has great wide receivers, we'll find out how we're living."

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