Ryan Smith, a fourth-year cornerback drafted in the fourth round in 2016, is 25 years old, having hit that quarter-century mark last September. Smith is still very much a young player, and he also happens to be the oldest cornerback on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' roster.
The pervasive youth of the Buccaneers' cornerback room, which might need some help renting a car, is the product of a heavy recent investment in the position. Earlier in that same 2016 draft, Tampa Bay used its first-round pick on Vernon Hargreaves, who is still just 24. Two drafts later, the team acquired two extra second-rounders in a minor trade down and used both of them on the corner position, nabbing M.J. Stewart (now 23) and Carlton Davis (22). Veteran cornerback Brent Grimes, who was previously the elder statesmen in that room, walked away with an expiring contract this spring and Bucs subsequently added two more Day Two draft picks in Sean Murphy-Bunting (21) and Jamel Dean (22).
Theoretically, a younger group should be a better bit to stay healthy overall in the next few years, though luck hasn't been on their side in the last couple seasons. And while there is no sure thing in the draft, the best way to hit on picks is to have more of them. If Hargreaves can deliver on the promise he seemed to be showing before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury last season and if the recent raft of draft picks has a good success rate, the Buccaneers could end up with their deepest and most impactful cornerback position in a long time.
Head Coach Bruce Arians believes that will be the case.
"I think we’re really, really good," he said. "With Carlton and Vernon, we knew we had two solid corners, now we’ve got five solid corners. I think Ryan 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."
The Buccaneers will also be counting on their evaluation of the position to be accurate, and that can't really be proven until the games begin. In the meantime, with the roster mostly set but the depth chart still in contention, let's re-evaluate the cornerback position after an eventful offseason. As we've done with all the positions, we'll provide an overview of the assets at the position, discuss what some of the numbers from last season indicate about its strengths and weaknesses and then finish with one burning question for 2019.
We started this series on the offensive side of the ball and examined, in order, quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive tackles and interior linemen. The defense was next, starting with the three spots that make up the front seven – the defensive linemen, outside linebackers and inside linebackers. Now we move further back to the secondary, beginning today with the cover men: Cornerbacks.
Addition(s): Jalen Allison (undrafted free agent), Jamel Dean (third-round draft pick), Sean Murphy-Bunting (second-round draft pick)
Subtraction(s): Javien Elliott (free agent, remains unsigned), Brent Grimes (unrestricted free agent, remains unsigned), David Rivers (waived)
Returning Players: Carlton Davis, Vernon Hargreaves*, De'Vante Harris, Ryan Smith
(* Hargreaves was on injured reserve at the end of the 2018 season.)
Stewart could eventually be considered a "subtraction" from this group if he moves into more of a safety role, and we will include him when we look at that position next week. On the other hand, even as a safety, Stewart is still in the running for the slot corner job, so he is a consideration here. At the moment, Stewart is the only defensive back on the roster who is listed as a "DB" rather than specifically a safety or corner. (Deone Bucannon is also listed as a "S/LB" but seems most likely to get work at linebacker.)
"We're trying to cross-train a lot of these guys," said Cornerbacks Coach Kevin Ross. "Some will be nickels and corners, some may be corners and safeties. We're trying to cross-train them to find out what they can do well, and whatever they do well that's where they're going to end up playing."
That's undoubtedly true but the Buccaneers did go into the offseason with at least a little advanced clarity on the depth chart. In March, Arians pointedly noted that he thought the team had two good, starting press corners in Hargreaves and Davis, while noting that the slot position still needed to be figured out.
"They have a lot of potential," said Ross of Hargreaves and Davis. "The thing is with those guys, we have to keep them healthy and keep them on the field. I think you can't have enough DBs in this league right now, the way things are being played."
That's a fair caveat on those two, particularly with Hargreaves, who started every game and nearly played every defensive span as a rookie but has since missed 22 games over the past two seasons. Davis worked through a couple different injuries as a rookie to get on the field for 13 games, with 12 starts.
The Bucs' previous defensive scheme didn't use the corners to press too often; the new scheme just might be better suited to the talents of those two potential starters. They'll still need to be well-rounded as Todd Bowles likes to keep opposing offenses guessing.
"Well, they are going to do both," said Bowles. "They’re going to play off and they’re going to play up. There’s no set way that we’re going to play this defense. Obviously, we’re going to look and see how we can take people away, but at the same time we’re going to be smart about what we do and how we do it. So, they can do both and they’re going to do both. So, it really doesn’t matter. As long as they stay healthy I think they should be fine."
Arians noted his approval for Smith's progress this offseason, and with 16 starts over the past two seasons he can't be counted out of the competition for reps. However, all of those incumbents should be pushed, and soon, by this year's pair of drafted rookies, Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean. Arians and the Bucs' new staff wanted to add speed to the defense as a whole, and they certainly found it for the cornerback room. Murphy-Bunting ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine and Dean topped that with a 4.30, best among all the cornerback prospects.
"Both have good size, good length, good speed," said Ross of the two rookies. "They both can cover very well. They should help us out tremendously."
The Bucs got a new playmaker for the middle of their defense – LSU linebacker Devin White – with the their top pick but then quickly turned to the secondary at the 39th-overall spot. Not only is Murphy-Bunting fast but he's a turnover-producer, which the Bucs critically need more of in the secondary (more on that below). Murphy-Bunting secured nine interceptions and forced four fumbles over three seasons for the Chippewas.
“Press ability, man coverage and he’s a ball-hawk," said Bowles of the former Central Michigan standout. "Obviously, he can only get better. We’ll get him in and get him in the program and mix him in with the other guys and try to get him better."
The Buccaneers also have one other returning cornerback in De'Vante Harris and one more rookie in Jalen Allison, who went undrafted out of North Dakota State. Harris joined the Bucs midway through last season to help patch up a secondary beset by injuries and made a quick impression. He played his first two seasons for the Saints. Allison had eight interceptions and 38 passes in four collegiate seasons.
"I think that these guys are going to grow into their own," said Ross of his young group of corners. "I know they're looking forward to it, they're hungry, the guys that are here right now. They're getting better and better each day, so we'll see what happens."
Notable 2018 Numbers: As mentioned earlier, the Buccaneers were 26th in the NFL in passing yards allowed last year. They allowed a league-high 72.0% completion percentage and also finished last in the aforementioned passer rating allowed category.
Contributing heavily to that 110.9 rating was a severe lack of takeaways. Safety Justin Evans picked off a pass in the third week of the season, the team's first, and then no other Buccaneer got one until a sudden flurry of six interceptions in wins over San Francisco and Carolina in Weeks 12 and 13. In all, Tampa Bay's cornerbacks, specifically, accounted for two interceptions in 2018, one by Smith and one by the since-departed Javien Elliott. Only four teams produced fewer overall interceptions than Tampa Bay.
A more aggressive approach to defense could help remedy that, and Bowles' defenses under Arians in Arizona were very good at taking the ball away. The addition of speed in the draft could help, too.
"We wanted overall to get more speed on the defensive side of the ball [to] help create more turnovers for our team," noted Ross.
If the Buccaneers can apply more pressure on the quarterback, on a more consistent basis, that should bring down those inflated totals above. It's worth noting that on passes on which the opposing quarterback was pressured (obviously not including sacks, since that would mean no pass was thrown), the Buccaneers' defense gave up a passer rating of 43.8, which was actually fifth-best in the NFL. On plays without pressure, of which there were quite a bit more, that rating shot up to a league-high 122.5. Five of the Bucs' nine picks were the result of pressured throws; the Bucs had an interception rate of 6.3% with pressure and 0.9% without it.
Tampa Bay's pass defense gave up 56 completions of 20 or more yards last year, which tied for the 12th-most in the league but wasn't too far off the per-team NFL average of 51. The damage was more a matter of volume than a rash of really long passes; as the average length of the 20+-yard completions the Bucs gave up was 29.4 yards, which was actually the sixth-shortest in the NFL. Only 43.2% of the yards the Bucs gave up in the passing game came afterthe catch (YAC), which was also sixth-lowest in the NFL and perhaps an indication that the members of the secondary did a good job of tackling.
Key Question: Who will be the nickel back?
Davis and Hargreaves will have to compete to keep their starting spots, but there is no real incumbent in the slot. Elliott occupied that position in the second half of last year and is no longer with the team. Stewart played it earlier in the year but had some struggles, then missed time due to injury and did not regain that spot on his return. Hargreaves actually began the season in a Ronde Barber-esque sort of role, starting on the outside and then moving into the slot in sub packages, but his season-ending injury occurred before the end of the first game.
Prior to the start of OTAs, Bowles didn't have a front-runner for that spot, or declined to say so if he did. Last week, Arians hinted that it was at the moment a four-man competition but did not elaborate on those names. Stewart is clearly one of the competitors.
"None right now," he said. "We have MJ Stewart in here and we’ll get the rookies in and see what they can do. Obviously Vernonhas played it in the past and we are still feeling out the other guys without being able to do too much in Phase One and Phase Two. We have to wait until we get into OTAs and summer camp to really see who those guys are."
It's a rather important question to resolve. NFL offenses now spend a majority of their snaps in "11" personnel and other groupings that require the defense to counter with more defensive backs. Many of the better passing attacks – such as the Bucs' own top-ranked crew last year – have one of their best weapons in the slot. Not only does the nickel back often have a tough coverage responsibility in a more crowded space but he's also the closest one to the quarterback in case the play-caller decides to send an extra man.
"The nickel spot is really a starting spot right now," said Ross. "You've got to have three good corners in order to win in this league right now, or they'll expose you. He's a valuable asset. He has to be able to blitz, he has to be able to cover, he has to be able to tackle. So he has to be a very versatile guy."
Actually, it often takes more than three good corners for a secondary to remain tight over the course of a 16-game season, thanks to injuries. That was evident with the Buccaneers last year. Fortunately, as he said above, Arians believes the Buccaneers dohave more than three of those precious commodities. It's not yet clear, however, which one will be that third pseudo-starter. If it's one of the rookies, he will have to adjust quickly to a difficult job, and that probably won't be evident until training camp arrives.
"We'll see who has short-area quickness, who can adjust and plays with good eyes," said Ross. "We can't tell who's the best blitzer right now with no pads, so we'll see."