Each week during the offseason, Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith will dip into the inbox to answer questions from Buccaneer fans. This week we talk about slot corners, draft slots and Canadian players.*
Fans can submit questions for upcoming mailbags via Twitter to @ScottSBucs (#BucsMailbag), through a message on the Buccaneers Official Facebook Page or via email at *firstname.lastname@example.org. The One Buc Mailbag runs every Thursday and is not necessarily meant to reflect the opinions of the team's management or coaching staff.
*1. Slotting in the Slot. Mr. Scott… So the Bucs didn't draft a cornerback in the first round like you predicted they would. A couple times I think. That got me thinking- I know they have there two starters in Hargreaves and Grimes but who is going to be the nickelback this year? I keep hearing how important that position is how it's like another starter on the defense so I hope we have a good answer there. Seems like one of the few places where it's not really obvious whose going to play. Appreciate your thoughts on that. - Drew Duffy (via email to
Well, as for the idea of drafting a cornerback in Round One, I mostly noted that I thought it would be a good idea, given where the Bucs sat at #19 and the depth of good prospects at that position. I guess I did predict it once, since I gave Tampa Bay Marlon Humphrey in our little mock draft competition between Buccaneers.com contributors. Mostly, I noted how difficult it was to figure the Bucs out this year, after three straight drafts in which Tampa Bay's first-round pick was relatively predictable. That's evident in our four mock drafts, in which each of us gave the Bucs a player at a different position (Andrew Norton got the position right with Miami tight end David Njoku).
In fact, it was so unpredictable that virtually no one could have seen the eventual actual pick coming. O.J. Howard dropping to #19?! General Manager Jason Licht called that a "pipe dream" and said he was "still kind of shaken" when he discussed the pick at the end of Round One on Thursday evening. You'll have to take my word for it, but I can honestly say that I would never have predicted a cornerback at #19 if I had any thought that Howard would be there. Actually, I did say something to that effect in the mailbag from April 20.
However, the fact that the Buccaneers didn't draft any cornerbacks does weaken my pre-draft stance quite a bit. Tampa Bay addressed the secondary in Round Two, but at safety instead of cornerback. It's likely that Texas A&M safety Justin Evans was ranked higher on the Buccaneers' draft board than any remaining cornerback. That said, there were still some good corner prospects left, so it's safe to say that Licht and company prioritized the safety position.
Which brings us to the actual question here from Drew. Who will be the Buccaneers' primary nickel corner in 2017. The reason that it is a valid question despite the cornerback group coming back largely the same as it was last year, is that the position was never settled for very long during the 2016 season. The Bucs started the year using rookie first-rounder Vernon Hargreaves in a combo role, playing outside in base snaps and in the slot when the defense went to the nickel. That brought in veteran Alterraun Verner to play on the outside in the nickel. (Verner's release in February is the biggest change to the cornerback group this year.) After about three games with that alignment, the coaching staff decided to let Hargreaves focus on one position – on the outside where he is more comfortable at this point – and inserted Jude Adjei-Barimah into the slot. That worked well for a while, particularly when the defense as a whole started to hit its stride at midseason. However, a suspension plus an injury for Adjei-Barimah sent the Bucs back to their Hargreaves-combo-role plan for about a game and a half, after which undrafted rookie Javien Elliott took over in the slot to finish the season. Elliott played well but it's still safe to say he is a relatively unproven player.
Elliott is certainly proven enough to be considered a top competitor to land the nickel role, especially since he is essentially the incumbent. On the other hand, Jude Adjei-Barimah has some bit of incumbency there, too, and he's got two years of NFL experience under his belt. The Buccaneers also have veteran Josh Robinson on hand, though Robinson was almost exclusively a special teams player in 2016, and a very, very good one.
So Elliott and Adjei-Barimah are obvious candidates for the competition, but here's a name you shouldn't sleep on: Ryan Smith. The Buccaneers drafted Smith in the fourth round in 2015, which is already a good indication of how he stood out as a prospect. He was the first NCCU player drafted in nearly a decade the first taken higher than the fifth round since 1989. Though he played mostly cornerback in college, the Bucs thought he would fit best at safety in the NFL.
Smith began practicing at that position as soon as he arrived in Tampa and remained on that part of the depth chart throughout the year. However, at some point during the year the coaching staff began playing him at cornerback on the scout team. He was so impressive there that, just as the season end, it was announced that Smith would be moving back to corner permanently in 2017. The Buccaneers think very highly of his chances.
Smith is already a very good special teams player and will likely team with Robinson as the Bucs' outside gunners on punt return, where he played for a good portion of last year after Russell Shepard started playing more on offense. Shepard has moved on to the Carolina Panthers, so Smith should be first in line to join Robinson. In the meantime, the 6-0, 190-pound Smith will battle for playing time at corner, and perhaps that will come in the slot. Beyond him, Elliott and Adjei-Barimah, the Bucs' cornerback roster is filled out by second-year player Cody Riggs and undrafted rookies Maurice Fleming and Jonathan Moxey.
Or, at least that was true until Wednesday, when the Buccaneers signed veteran cornerback Robert McClain. McClain has bounced around a little bit in recent years but he has experience in Mike Smith's defense from their time together in Atlanta from 2012-14. McClain played in 47 games in that span with 15 starts, recording three interceptions and 20 passes defensed. His best year was probably 2012, when he broke up 10 passes, recovered two fumbles and made 55 tackles. At 5-9, 180, he seems like he could be a nickel candidate if he can regain the form he showed under Smith.
2. Draft and Trade.
Casey Phillips and I actually addressed this question on Insider Live on Wednesday, but at that point we were only guessing. My thought was that, yes, a team could trade such a player, and I based that mainly on the fact that I couldn't think of any reason they would not be allowed to do so.
Well, we were right in that regard. Based on a similar tweet Peter also sent, it's clear that he's talking about the undrafted rookies the Bucs signed right after the draft, not the draft picks themselves. Quite simply, yes, those players could theoretically be traded. In practice, it's unlikely, and they will just be waived, as the Bucs did earlier this week with Iowa cornerback Greg Mabin.
Since that answer is pretty basic and boring, I also checked on whether a team could trade one of its draft picks after he had been signed. Well, the fact is that a team technically could trade a draft pick before or after they sign him to his first contract. However, there are good reasons that neither of those two things are likely to happen.
First, a team can trade the rights of an unsigned draft pick to another team, but there are practical reasons that this would be nearly impossible, and it's all because of the rookie wage scale introduced by the new CBA in 2011. At the end of the draft, each team is given a specific allotment of dollars they are allowed to spend on their draft class, based on a figure that is attached to each spot on the draft. Hypothetically, let's say that the six payment-slot figures generated by the six players the Bucs drafted this year adds up to $10 million. That's what they can spend, collectively, to sign those six guys.
Here's where it gets tricky: If you trade a draft pick's rights before he is signed, the player goes but his part of the rookie salary allotment stays with your team. That's all fine and dandy for the team that's trading the player away, but the team that receives the player does not also receive an allotment to sign him. So if that team had $10 million to spend on their own seven draft picks, they're still only going to have $10 million to spend on eight. You can bet the agents for the original seven picks aren't giving up their expected portions of that rookie allotment for their guys, so it's going to be well-nigh impossible to get a deal done with the newly-acquired player.
That wouldn't be a problem with a draft pick who had been signed, because he would have already gotten his contract done. No, in this case it's a problem for the original team, because a large portion of that contract, particularly for early picks, is going to be signing bonus, and that's going to be a quickly sunk cost. If the Buccaneers give first-round pick O.J. Howard a $5 million signing bonus (totally making that number up) as part of his five-year deal, they're going to have to pay that right away and they won't be getting it back. In contrast, the player's 2017 season salary is likely to be much lower. So the team getting him in a trade would be getting quite the deal. I can't see a team willing to accept that sunk cost so soon after drafting a player.
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If something like this were to happen, it would almost certainly be with a player drafted very late, so that the bonus isn't that big, or as Peter suggests, with an undrafted free agent. Still, it would be quite uncommon.
Oh, and the Bucs aren't going to trade O.J. Howard.
3. It's Laval.
Just wondering if you are aware that you spelled the name of the Canadian college Laval wrong on Twitter. You spelled it Larval…which is sort of funny I guess, but also pretty dumb on your part. I saw that you got some responses correcting you but hadn't seen any tweets back from you on the matter. What do you have to say for yourself?
- Scott S., Tampa
Okay, I made that question up. I felt I needed to do a little penance on that one.
As most of the people who corrected me probably guessed, that was the classic auto-correct accident. That's not an excuse; you're supposed to NOTICE when that happens and then FIX IT before tweeting it out. Instead, I missed it and got more responses in French than I've ever had before. And I mean French as in the actual language, not as in, "Pardon my French," although there was some of that type, too.
Here's a representative one. The dude in the avatar actually looks like he's laughing at me, but I'm sure that's his stock picture:
I didn't respond because by the time I looked back through my responses it was well past the initial rush and I didn't think there was much point in bringing it back up. Our very clever social media expert said I could claim I was going for some kind of larval-metamorphosis pun because the Laval player in question, tight end Antony Auclair, is a developing prospect, but that just seemed to cute.
So I'm owning up to it here, in part because I would feel bad if I offended any football fans in Canada. Auclair is actually one of the young prospects I'm most excited about, and I think it would be great if he became the first player from Université Laval to make it in the NFL. I actually interviewed him (albeit very briefly) after practice last Saturday for a piece I put on this website about all the Canadian influences the team had in its rookie mini-camp.
I also interviewed a journalist from Quebec for the piece. He was in town to cover the mini-camp participation of Auclair, as well as tryout linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga, an undrafted player from Maine who grew up in Quebec. This friendly visitor told me it would be a big deal in Quebec if Auclair made it in the NFL. I'd like to see that happen; when and if it does, I promise I will tweet about LAVAL tight end Antony Auclair.