There are no challenge flags in practice, so Mike Edwards gets to keep his game ball. Well, actually, there aren't game balls in practice either, come to think of it. At the least, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookie safety knows that his teammates and a rather large crowd inside the team's indoor facility will continue to believe he made one of the best plays of practice on Tuesday.
That play was an interception of a tipped pass, one that caused a high, arcing deflection in Edwards' general vicinity. It wasn't that close to him, however, so he had to dive to keep the ball off the turf, which he believes he did. To that point, Edwards must respectfully disagree with Bruce Arians, which is probably the only way a rookie should disagree with his head coach, and even then out of earshot.
"I feel like I caught that," said a smiling Edwards. "We'll see. We'll see."
Counterpoint, courtesy of the coach: "Oh, I think that ball hit the ground, but that's okay. He's doing really, really well and I'm glad to see him jump up and run with it. Maybe they'll have to challenge it, but no he's doing really, really well."
There will actually be a review, when the coaches go over the practice tape, as they do in great detail after every workout. Arians expects to find evidence of an incompletion rather than an interception, but still recognized the play for being athletic and enthusiastic. Arians, in fact, thought the practice as a whole, which opened a three-day mandatory mini-camp, was a good one, with a balance of wins on both sides of the ball.
"Really pleased with this practice," said Arians. "A lot of effort. A lot of attention to detail. Defense had some really good moments. Offense had some really good moments. So, the Bucs win. It's never a good one when one side or the other wins the whole practice. But, overall I thought it was really solid."
The important part of Edwards play, whether the pigskin kissed the synthetic blades or not, is that Edwards reacted swiftly. Moving quickly to chase a tipped ball is a matter of instincts and athleticism, but Edwards and his fellow rookie defensive backs need to get to the point where all of their reactions are fast. That will be the result of an ingrained knowledge of the defense, allowing for quicker mental processing, and the Buccaneers' coaches want the rookies to be at that point when training camp starts in late July.
"They're picking up the system well and they're moving around well," said Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. "The key is to get them prepared for training camp so they can play fast."
The Buccaneers drafted Edwards out of Kentucky in the third round of this year's draft, not long after they selected Auburn cornerback Jamel Dean. Before either of those two picks, the Bucs also nabbed Central Michigan cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting early in the second round. It seems clear that the Bucs intend to rely on those young players rather early in their careers because they are the newcomers in what Arians considered a significantly improved secondary.
"I think we're really, really good," said Arians last week of the defensive backfield. "With Carlton [Davis] and Vernon [Hargreaves], we knew we had two solid corners, now we've got five solid corners. I think Ryan [Smith] came a long way. So, yeah, I think – – earmark this as a problem spot back in January, that's totally fixed. Let's knock on wood they stay healthy."
Davis and Hargreaves appear to be the front-runners for the two outside corner spots but the nickel position is up for grabs and the safety spot needs to be sorted out. Even if there aren't enough starting spots for all the young players, it is highly likely that all of them will be involved in the defense in some way during their shared rookie campaign. Edwards is pleased that Arians and his staff are already impressed with what the rookies are doing.
"It's very encouraging," said Edwards. "That's why he brought us in. He knew us guys could produce early and make a big impact, and that's what we're trying to show out here at practice. Us guys, [we're] trying to compete at a high level, compete with all the other DBs. We're all family, but at the end of the day we're competing also. We're coming in here trying to compete and play."
Obviously, Tampa Bay's pass defense had a rough year in 2018, ranking 26th in yards allowed per game and giving up an opponent passer rating of 110.9. Opposing teams rang up 36 touchdown passes against the Bucs but were picked off just nine times. Edwards, Dean and Murphy-Bunting all showed a nose for the football at their respective colleges and will be counted on to add more big plays to the secondary, such as diving interceptions, and the tipped passes that lead to them.
To get to that point as quickly as possible, Edwards and his fellow rookies will need to be playing fast when training camp starts, as Bowles noted. Edwards expects to be there.
"Yeah, definitely," he said. "I feel like the rookie mini-camp and the first couple OTAs I was kind of playing not slow but not as fast as I could, trying to learn the system. I'm picking it up pretty well and definitely when training camp starts I feel like I'll be 100 percent out there, running fast, playing fast.
"It's definitely bigger than college, just the speed of the game. I feel like once I get my feet wet and get out there it will come naturally. I'll be good."