Every NFL training camp is the same…and every NFL training camp is different.
The dual purpose of camp is the same whether you're in Tampa, Mankato or Oxnard: Form a 53-man roster and get ready for Week One. The beats are the same from year to year, the days are long and tiring, the fans are happy for the annual chance to see their team up close.
Photos from Vernon Hargreaves' 2016 campaign.
On the other hand, no two teams and no two seasons are the same, and thus there are different areas of emphasis in every camp. A year ago in Tampa, the Buccaneers were rebuilding their defensive end depth; this year the two safety jobs are up for grabs. Around the Bucs' division this summer, the Panthers are patching together an offensive line, the Saints have a running back glut to figure out and the Falcons are looking for a new starting right guard.
More often than not, however, this statement applies to any given team in any given year: It needs to develop depth at cornerback.
Again, the NFC South is a perfect example. Last year the Buccaneers were breaking in two new starters at cornerback, the Panthers were examining three rookie draftees after letting Josh Norman walk and the Saints were sorting out an uncertain group in the secondary. As it would turn out, injuries would force Saints and Panthers, and even the Falcons, to dip well into their cornerback depth before the season was over.
The 2016 Buccaneers, on the other hand, largely avoided injury at that position. New starters Vernon Hargreaves (via the first round of the draft) and Brent Grimes (via free agency) opened every game and played close to 100% of the team's defensive snaps. Jude Adjei-Barimah, the midseason nickel back, missed the last third of the campaign due to injury and a suspension, but otherwise the team's cornerback depth chart looked much the same at the end of the year.
But now it's a new year and, yes, depth at cornerback is an issue worth examining as the Bucs prepare to open training camp at the end of this week. In fact, that's the latest topic in our One Dozen Debates series, as we look at the issues that will define this year's training camp. From the uncertain depth chart at safety to the presence of *Hard Knocks *to the next step in the development of Jameis Winston, we'll look at one question a day, and that will take us right into the start of football on July 28.
We may not have all the answers just yet, but we'll try to define the issues. Read along with us and each day you can let us know where you stand on each debate.
- Monday, July 17: How will the depth chart at safety shake out?
- Tuesday, July 18: Can the Bucs improve in the red zone?
- Wednesday, July 19: Which Buc can break the 10-sack drought?
- Thursday, July 20: Who will emerge as the Buccaneers' kicker in 2017?
- Friday, July 21: Will the presence of the Hard Knocks crew affect the Bucs' preparations?
- Saturday, July 22: Is the new offensive line alignment going to work?
- Sunday, July 23: Is there enough depth at cornerback?
- Monday, July 24: How will Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard co-exist?
- Tuesday, July 25: Can the defense repeat its 2017 turnover magic?
- Wednesday, July 26: What will the running game look like during Doug Martin's absence?
- Thursday, July 27: What's the next step for Jameis Winston?
- Friday, July 28: Is Tampa Bay going back to the playoffs in 2017?
Debate #7: Is there enough depth at cornerback?
Cornerback depth is an elusive commodity. The Buccaneers have used the practice squad and the back end of the roster to try to develop additional NFL-caliber corners for years. Sometimes it works, as with Adjei-Barimah, Leonard Johnson and Javien Elliott of recent vintage. Often, the young corners have relatively short Tampa tenures: Crezdon Butler, Isaiah Frey, Brandon Dixon, C.J. Roberts, Joel Ross, and so on. The team will never stop trying because there are essentially three starting cornerbacks on any defense and it's rare for all three to be occupied by the same player for 16 games. Even with the dependable Grimes-Hargreaves duo last year, the team did try three different players at nickel back.*As training camp begins, this year's newcomers include undrafted free agents Maurice Fleming and Jonathan Moxey, plus veteran Robert McClain, who was signed in May and has experience in Mike Smith's defense from his Atlanta days. Practice-squad holdover Cody Riggs isn't new, but he only joined the team last December. Those four join the aforementioned duo of Hargreaves and Grimes, which are about as sure of a starting tandem as the Bucs have at any position heading into camp. Elliott finished the season as the nickel back but Adjei-Barimah had the job before he was hurt. Veteran Josh Robinson re-signed with the Buccaneers after a stellar year on special teams, though he did not log a defensive snap last year. Second-year man Ryan Smith, a fourth-round pick in 2016, is the wild card as he moves back to his primary college position after an attempted conversion to safety. That's 10 players from which the Buccaneers will likely form a cornerback depth chart of either five or six men. As good as Grimes was in 2016 – and he was really good – and as much star potential as Hargreaves has, they can't do it alone. Given the lineup laid out above, it's possible the Buccaneers will be relying on some inexperienced players to soak up major snaps. Is there enough talent there? *
In terms of depth, we must first remember that we're talking about two things: Backups and potential fill-ins for Grimes and Hargreaves and, separately, a couple men to play nickel back. Now, there are some candidates who can certainly do both, like McClain and Adjei-Barimah, but there is a definite separation of duties there. An easy way to look at it is to say there are three starting jobs (two outside and one nickel) and it would be nice to have a trusted backup at each spot. That's six total players.*The Buccaneers are very high on Smith as he moves back to corner, and he could be the front-runner to emerge as the primary reserve on the outside. Robinson is likely to keep a job given his significant value on special teams. McClain, Elliott and Adjei-Barimah are expected to compete for the slot position, but will the Bucs keep one, two or three players specifically for that job? And has the team found one or two hidden gems in Fleming and Moxey. As noted above with the likes of Elliott, Johnson and Adjei-Barimah, undrafted corners have often panned out in Tampa, as that never-ending search for depth continues. *It's safe to say the Buccaneers' coaches and personnel men are high on the potential of many of the cornerbacks listed above. It's also fair to say that, in many cases, that potential still has to be proven. And so it is as it almost always is: Developing depth at cornerback should be one of the most important storylines of training camp.