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Potential Buccaneer Draft Targets: Defensive Backs

With some of their recent draft hits in the secondary departing in free agency the last two years, the Bucs could choose to reload at cornerback and/or safety in this year's draft

Branch

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven't drafted a cornerback in the first round since 2016, nor a safety in the first round since 2012, the latter of which occurred before the arrival of current General Manager Jason Licht in 2014. That does not mean, however, that Licht and his crew have been ignoring the secondary over the last nine draft weekends. On the contrary, they attacked the safety and cornerback positions repeatedly and with much success from 2018 through 2020, and that played no small role in the Buccaneers' successful pursuit of a championship in 2020.

In those three consecutive drafts, the Buccaneers used seven picks in the second through fourth rounds to nab defensive backs. Almost all became starters at some point over their first four seasons, and five of them finished out their rookie deals and got second contracts. A sixth, safety Antoine Winfield, will certainly join them when it's time.

Of course, not all of those players got their second deals in Tampa. The Bucs were able to retain standout cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean on multi-year deals but over the past two years have seen safety Jordan Whitehead (Jets), safety Mike Edwards (Chiefs) and cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (Titans) find new homes. The Buccaneers have aggressively tried to retain their homegrown talent over the last several seasons, but it's essentially impossible to keep them all.

As such, the Buccaneers could use a little reloading in the secondary heading into the 2023 draft…and probably just about every draft after that, as defensive back depth is difficult to cultivate and maintain. As we continue our week-long look at potential draft targets for the Buccaneers, we now turn our attention to the back end of the defense. (The schedule for and links to the six different positions being discuss are listed below.) Some of these players will probably end up as first-round picks, but we'll also look at some later-round options that could fit what the Bucs need.

Monday, April 17: Quarterback

Tuesday, April 18: Offensive Line

Wednesday, April 19: Running Back

Thursday, April 20: Edge Rusher

Friday, April 21: Defensive Backs

Monday, April 24: Tight Ends

(NOTE: The following is the analysis of the author alone. It is not meant to reflect or reveal thoughts or strategies regarding the 2023 draft by Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht, Head Coach Todd Bowles or any member of the scouting or coaching staffs.)

If so, here are some options.

Brian Branch, Alabama

Branch's draft stock, at least in the media, tends to be all over the board because on one hand he's clearly a terrific football player but on the other he lacks ideal size for a physical position and his measurables at the Combine didn't blow scouts out of the water. However, the Buccaneers had no problem drafting the 5-9, 203-pound Winfield in the second round in 2020 and have never regretted the decision.

Branch is generally considered the top safety available in this year's draft, though he may not actually play that position in the NFL, at least not exclusively. He played primarily in the slot for Alabama and could end up as an elite nickel corner at the pro level. In that regard, he also resembles Winfield, who last season played a dual role for the Bucs as a free safety and a nickel back, and handled both responsibilities well. Since Head Coach Todd Bowles intends to let Winfield focus on the safety position in 2023, the team has a need for someone to play in the slot.

Branch has the range of talents the Bucs have long coveted in a slot defender. In addition to quick feet, good instincts and smooth change-of-direction skills, he's also a very good tackler, which is another reason teams you will get over his lack of size. Branch is also a talented blitzer, like Winfield, and thus could contribute to the pass rush when he's near the line of scrimmage. He allowed just one completion of over 20 yards last season for Alabama.

Though his precise draft stock is hard to pinpoint, as noted, there is still a very good chance that Branch will be selected in the first round, which might require the Bucs to invest their 19th-overall pick if they want to add him to the secondary. Branch could conceivably slip to the second round, but he would probably be an early Day Two pick and thus be out of range for Tampa Bay at number 50.

Deonte Banks, Maryland

Banks is another potential target that would almost certainly require the use of a first-round pick. Most mock drafts consider Illinois' Devon Witherspoon and Oregon's Christian Gonzalez as the clear cream of the cornerback crop this year, but Banks is commonly in the discussion for the third spot along with the likes of Joey Porter Jr., Kelee Ringo and Emmanuel Forbes.

As noted, the Bucs have recently locked in Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean to long-term deals, and both get most of their work on the outside. Banks also played outside corner at Maryland and projects as such in the NFL, which might seem to make him a redundant option for the Buccaneers so early in the draft. Still, a team can never have enough cornerback depth and Licht has made it clear that the Buccaneers will also operate with an eye on the future during draft weekend.

Furthermore, the 6-1, 200-pound Banks is the type of corner the Bucs like, with good size, a long wingspan and toughness. He would likely thrive in press-man coverage but also has the eyes and instincts to hold up in zone coverage, as well. In addition, Banks plays the run well and is a very willing and physical tackler. After a productive career at Maryland, Banks likely solidified his status as a first-round pick by posting elite testing numbers at the Combine, including a 4.35-second 40-yard dash and a 42-inch vertical leap that was best among all cornerbacks.

Cam Smith, South Carolina

If the Buccaneers choose to go in a different direction in the first round, there is enough depth in this year's cornerback class to leave some intriguing options on Day Two. And, as noted above, Licht and the Buccaneers have a had a lot of success addressing the secondary in that range in recent years. Smith is not widely considered a first-round pick because his game needs some refinement and he has a somewhat lean frame, so the Buccaneers could possibly land him in Rounds Two or Three.

Smith offers the sort of inside-outside flexibility that could get him on the field quickly even if both Davis and Dean are in the lineup. He plays with an edge and could be a tone-setter for the defense at a position that is usually in the thick of things. Smith matches routes well and gets in and out of his breaks quickly, with excellent footwork and good catch-up speed if a receiver breaks open initially.

Though he weighs in at just 180 pounds, Smith has a very long wingspan and he is extremely competitive with receivers when the ball is arriving. He would probably need to refine his tackling skills if he is going to play in the slot, but his competitiveness and physicality is a good place to start in that process.

Sydney Brown, Illinois

As noted, the Buccaneers probably won't be in position to land Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon, but they could still draft a former Illini in Brown, perhaps as late as the fourth round. This year's safety crop is not considered a particularly strong one, and teams may wait a while before diving into the position. Brown measured in at just under 5-10 and 211 pounds at the Combine and has a chiseled physique, all of which is reminiscent of Jordan Whitehead (5-10, 200), who the Buccaneers nabbed in the fourth round in 2018.

Brown was very productive at Illinois, particularly last season, during which he racked up six interceptions, 13 passes defensed, 59 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. He followed that up with a good Combine performance, running the 40 in 4.47 seconds and notching a 40.5-inch vertical leap. He often played around the line of scrimmage for the Illini and has a very intense style of play. He was a team captain for Illinois, something Buccaneer scouts always consider a positive in their evaluations. Brown also willingly played a big role on special teams and would almost certainly be a big contributor in that area from the very beginning of his NFL career.

With Edwards leaving for Kansas City, Keanu Neal signing with the Steelers and Logan Ryan remaining on the market, the Buccaneers are definitely a little light at safety. The recent signing of former Seahawk Ryan Neal, in what seemed like a steal after Seattle revoked their restricted free agent tender, means the Bucs do have a good option to start alongside Winfield at the back end of the defense. However, they could use more depth along with second-year man Nolan Turner. Beyond his special teams duties, Brown projects as more of a strong safety and would thus be a good fit alongside Winfield if he were to crack the starting lineup.

Julius Brents, Kansas State

Brents is another cornerback the Bucs could target if their shopping for depth in the third round, or in that approximate range. If the coaches do indeed covet a big cornerback with good length, they would find it in the former Wildcat, who spent three years at Iowa before transferring to K-State. Brents is just under 6-3 and 200 pounds and he has an incredible 82 and 5/8-inch wing span.

Despite his size, Brents moves very fluidly and his long strides allow him to eat up ground quickly. His outstanding results in the three-cone drill and short shuttle – he was second in both categories among all players at the Combine – suggest that he will be able to quickly match a receiver's movements and stay tight in coverage on short and intermediate routes. His long arms make him dangerous in press-man coverage and he led the Wildcats last season with four interceptions. He has the competitiveness and drive that the Buccaneers covet in all of their draft picks.

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