View pictures from the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp practice on Saturday at One Buccaneer Place.
Midway through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first practice of training camp, M.J. Stewart lined up as the slot cornerback on the second team defense, his eyes on wideout Erv Philips, a fellow rookie. Philips came of the line and made a quick cut over the middle, but Stewart stuck with him and got a hand in front to knock down a quick pass.
Later in that same practice, now playing outside cornerback on the left side of the defense, Stewart once again found himself across from Philips, who released to the outside and shot up the sideline. The pass came in Philips' direction but Stewart was once again in position, 30 yards downfield, to knock it away.
It was a good start for the rookie corner out of North Carolina, but that second play actually gave him a highlight on the practice tape and something to work on.
"I had bad technique on one of those but I finished really good," said Stewart. "That's what football is about when you're a DB – even if you have bad technique you've got to finish. And then you've got to work on your technique and get it right the next time."
That opening camp practice, which was conducted on turf after lightning forced the Buccaneers into their new indoor facility, was on Thursday. Two more field sessions, both outside on grass, have followed but the team is still very early in its preparations for the start of the regular season. There is much to be sorted out in the secondary, with Brent Grimes likely the only sure thing at left corner. Vernon Hargreaves, a 2016 first-round pick, is still getting his role sorted out, which currently has him running across from Grimes on the base first team and in the slot in the first-team nickel package. Meanwhile the team is figuring out how to integrate into their secondary a trio of draft picks: Stewart, cornerback Carlton Davis and safety Jordan Whitehead.
Davis drew a lot of attention in offseason workouts, largely because he was getting a lot of first-team snaps with Grimes often absent and Ryan Smith banged up. Early in camp, Stewart has created a bit of a buzz for himself, partially because his versatility is getting him onto the field in a variety of ways.
"He's doing good; M.J.'s a good football player," said Buccaneers Secondary Coach Jon Hoke. "He's going to help our football team. He's playing inside, he's playing outside, so he's got on his plate but he's doing a great job. I'm looking forward to him playing for us."
After the draft, in which the Bucs took Stewart and Davis within 10 picks of each other in the second round, the Buccaneers indicated that they specifically liked Stewart's skills as a slot corner, while Davis was appealing for his size and ability to match up with bigger receivers. Stewart also has the skills to play outside, though, and he only increases his chances of finding a role in the defense by offering that versatility. The pre-draft scouting report on NFL.com by Lance Zierlein summed it up thusly: "Stewart can be deployed in a variety of positions in the secondary which should lend itself to early playing time for him with a starter's role in the future."
On Friday, Hargreaves got spiked in the shin and suffered a laceration that required stitches; he'll miss a few days of practice. With Hargreaves out on Saturday, Stewart moved up into the starting nickel package, covering the slot with Grimes and Smith on the outside. Stewart's quickness and physical style of play helped him do well in the slot at North Carolina, but he says there's a big mental aspect to that job, as well.
"It's just like anything you do as a DB – you need patience and good eyes, and you've got to be smart," said Stewart. "That's what this game is all about. It's all about your IQ when you get to this level. I feel like I'm a complete DB. I'm not perfect but I'm striving to be there. I pride myself in being able to play well both inside and outside."
Head Coach Dirk Koetter rarely gets effusive about rookies early in training camp, and this year's crop of young DBs is no different. He said on Saturday that it was too early to really assess how Stewart, Davis and Whitehead are doing. The reality is that all three are probably making as many mistakes as they are splash plays like the ones Stewart turned in on Friday. That's okay, though; it's all part of the process for Stewart.
"It's going really good," said the rookie defender. "I'm progressing every day. I make new mistakes every day, then clean up those mistakes and that's the only way you get better."