The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' current 90-man roster includes one safety who is also a linebacker and one safety who might also be the starting slot corner. There is also one safety who most recently played in the truncated AAF season, one who hasn't played since midway through last season due to injury and three who have yet to play in the NFL at all.
In other words, the Bucs have a lot to sort through at the position but not a lot of absolute certainties, at least not at this point, with training camp still off in the distance. Other than that S/LB hybrid – Deone Bucannon, who seems more likely to see time at linebacker – the nine safeties on Tampa Bay's roster have combined to make 53 NFL starts, including just 34 last year.
It makes sense for the Buccaneers to be rearranging their safeties, and not just because Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles are bringing in a new defensive scheme – though that is an important factor, too. They haven't really had many entrenched players at that system. The team simply hasn't had much continuity at the safety position, no long-term answers, in nearly two decades. The last Buccaneer safety to make the Pro Bowl was John Lynch in the 2002 Super Bowl season, and he's now an NFL general manager. (Ronde Barber was a Pro Bowl alternate when he played safety in 2012, his final season). The most established safety they've had since was Tanard Jackson, who started 56 games from 2007-11. The last safety to start all 16 games in a season for the Buccaneers was current Seahawk Bradley McDougald in 2016. The last one to start every game two seasons in a row was Sean Jones in 2010-11.
The Buccaneers have drafted a safety in each of the last three seasons, and picked a total of four of them if one includes M.J. Stewart, who played corner last year but is running with the safeties now (except when he plays in the slot). There is obviously a youth movement taking place at the position, and now there is a new coaching staff to determine who fits best. Let's take a look at what they have to work with after a busy offseason.
This installment finishes the defense, after we previously looked at the defensive linemen, outside linebackers, inside linebackers and cornerbacks. Prior to that, we ran through the offensive positions, starting with quarterbacks and then hitting the running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive tackles and interior linemen. The series will conclude later this week with the specialists, but for now we look at the last line of defense: Safeties.
Addition(s): Kentrell Brice (free agent), Lukas Denis (undrafted free agent), D'Cota Dixon (undrafted free agent), Mike Edwards (third-round draft pick), Orion Stewart (free agent)
Subtraction(s): Chris Conte* (unrestricted free agent, remains unsigned), Josh Shaw (unrestricted free agent, signed with Arizona), Andrew Adams (free agent, signed with Detroit)
Returning Players: Justin Evans*, Isaiah Johnson, M.J. Stewart, Jordan Whitehead
(* Conte and Evans were on injured reserve at the end of the 2018 season.)
The Buccaneers do have two returning players who accounted for 21 of the 32 starts at safety last year, and they are both still very young, with potential for significant improvement. That would be Justin Evans, a second-round pick in 2017 and Jordan Whitehead, a fourth-round selection last year. However, Evans ended last season on injured reserve with a foot injury and has still not returned to the practice field. He had a boot on his other foot during mini-camp last week and Arians said he had undergone another procedure. However, Arians also said that he didn't expect any players to miss the start of training camp beyond outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul.
Without Evans on the field, the Bucs' new coaching staff can base its evaluation of his skills only on his tape from the last two seasons, which definitely show an athletic player who is willing to hit. Whitehead, who played much more down the stretch after injuries to Evans and Chris Conte, has also shown that last quality to Bowles and Safeties Coach Nick Rapone.
"It will be a learning process with him," said Rapone. "The good thing he has, he is your true hammer. We know from video he will hit you. Now, can he go out there and play man-to-man? We'll find out. Can he go out there and play half the field? We'll find out. Can he slip to the middle sometimes? We'll find out. But what he brings to the table, without a doubt: He likes to hit people."
In addition to Evans and Whitehead, there are two other holdovers in the safety group, including the aforementioned Stewart, who is having a new role carved out for him. The other is Isaiah Johnson, who worked hard for virtually two full seasons on Tampa Bay's practice squad, steadily improving to the point that he won a spot on the 53-man roster last year. Those same injuries that opened up a starting spot for Whitehead also created opportunities for Johnson, who made four starts and had one of the team's nine interceptions.
It might not have looked like Stewart was making a big change on the practice field this spring because he spent a lot of time running with the first team at the nickel position, which he played for much of the first half of his rookie campaign. Stewart is definitely one of the leading candidates for that role, but he will also be working at free safety in training camp. Though he had some struggles in the slot last year, the new coaching staff things he has the tools to handle that job in its defense, comparing him to former Arizona Cardinal Tyrann Mathieu, a.k.a. the Honey Badger.
"In our system, the number-one person who blitzes is the nickel," said Rapone. "He is a physical player. He was a rookie; there is a learning curve. Our nickels have to blitz, our nickels have to play man-to-man. He has the innate skills to play man-to-man and he's physical enough to blitz. So we're basing it on what he can do from what we saw. The nickel in our scheme has to be physical, not finesse. Like the Honey Badger, everybody talks [about him] – he was physical. He would throw his body around. We're looking at M.J. as the same type of player."
The one young safety the new coaching staff did get to pick according to their own criteria is Mike Edwards, the third-round pick out of Kentucky. Edwards played all over the Kentucky defense and was a very productive player for the Wildcats. He checked all the boxes for the Bucs' coaching staff.
"He’s versatile, obviously he’s a very smart player," said Bowles. "He’s a ball-hawk, he can make tackles, he can blitz. He can do a lot of things, and I think he fits in well here with the things we’ll ask him to do."
And if the Bucs do end up playing very young players at the two safety spots, which is nearly unavoidable with the cast on hand, Edwards could quickly develop into a leader in that group and on the field.
"Without a doubt he was a leader [at Kentucky]," said Rapone. "That's what you're looking for. When you play safety in the NFL, you have to be able to announce and align people up. Especially in a scheme like Todd's, which gets quite diversified."
Edwards is actually one of five new safeties Arians and company brought in, which is more than half of the field of candidates heading into training camp. The Bucs also picked up two undrafted rookies – Lukas Denis and D'Cota Dixon – and a pair of free agents – Kentrell Brice and Orion Stewart. Brice started 10 games for Green Bay last year and had 50 tackles, a sack and two passes defensed. Stewart came into the league in 2017 and has seen time with Denver, Buffalo, Washington and the New York Giants, though it was likely his good work in the doomed Alliance of American Football that caught the Bucs' eye.
Notable 2018 Numbers: We ran down the Bucs' struggles in pass defense when we examined the cornerbacks last week, but obviously, they also apply to the safeties. Among the troublesome statistics were a 72.0% completion rate allowed and an opponent passer rating of 110.9, both worst in the NFL. The Buccaneers also snared only nine interceptions all season, tying for the lowest single-season pick total in franchise history. The safety position did account for six of those nine takeaways, but four of them were the work of the since-departed Andrew Adams.
As also noted in the cornerback evaluation, the Bucs beleaguered secondary definitely fared better when the players up front were able to apply pressure to the quarterback. Tampa Bay's defense picked off passes on 6.3% of the plays in which the QB was pressured, but on only 0.9% of the ones in which he was not. The Buccaneers also gave up the 12th-most passes of 20 or more yards.
Tampa Bay's safeties definitely got involved in run support, particularly the willing duo of Whitehead and Evans. Those two finished second and third on the team in tackles, respectively, Evans ranking that high despite missing six games and parts of two others. Johnson was seventh on the tackle list, as well, despite even more limited playing time.
The safeties will have coverage responsibilities in Bowles' aggressive defense, and of course the safeties are always going to be packed in tight with the rest of the secondary and their opponents in the red zone. Tampa Bay's defense had a particularly tough time around its own end zone last year. The Bucs were last in defensive red zone touchdown efficiency, allowing a score on 77.6% of such drives. Tampa Bay was also last on touchdown efficiency and yards allowed per play once opponents pierced its 30-yard line.
Key Question: Who are the starters?
This is more blunt than our key questions at most of the other positions, but safety might be the most wide-open competition on the field when training camp starts. Again, Evans and Whitehead are semi-incumbent starters but they'll surely face stiff competition from Edwards, Brice and others. In addition, Stewart might not be the only nominal safety who gets a shot to compete for the "starting" nickel back position.
Whoever wins those jobs will have to prove that they can hold up in coverage.
"We're not traditionally a [team that employs a] 6-2, 215-pound safety, because we're a man team," Rapone explained. "We're an aggressive football team, so they have to be able to play man-to-man."
Given the team's assessment of Edwards' skills, that would seem to make the rookie a strong bet to see playing time early, despite his inexperience. Edwards will need to be vocal to make that happen, because Bowles will rely on his safeties to communicate with the rest of the defense.
"Mike is exactly what we look for," said Rapone. "The safeties in Todd's defense basically run the defense. They have to call out the fronts, but they have to play multiple positions, and we thought he had the ability to do everything we wanted. First of all, he's physical. Second of all, he can blitz. Third of all, he can cover. Fourth of all, to the best of our knowledge, he is cerebral, and a safety in this scheme has to be cerebral."
Rapone indicated that Bowles likes to keep at least five safeties on the 53-man roster, and Bowles also has a history of devising schemes that put more than two safeties on the field at a time. While there will be an intense competition to win starting jobs in training camp, it's likely that all of the team's talented safeties will see the field at some point.
"What Todd does better than anybody is, he'll make sure we maximize what that young man can do," said Rapone. "That's why we're so diversified, and that's why Todd likes to keep – in third down, there'll be seven defensive backs on the field. And most of the time, Todd always kept five safeties, because of their importance."