It won't really start percolating until the pads go on and the heat goes up at training camp, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have an all-out battle brewing at safety.
The Buccaneers set that battle to boil with their offseason moves, which included quite a bit of action at safety. After letting 16-game starter Bradley McDougald walk in free agency, the team re-signed Chris Conte, landed former Dallas starter J.J. Wilcox in free agency and spent a top-50 draft pick on Justin Evans. Given that the returning Keith Tandy was one of the NFL's most productive safeties during his five-game starting cameo late last season, that certainly looks like a talented foursome fighting for two starting spots.
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"We have three veteran guys that have got a lot of playing experience and we just added a rookie player," said Defensive Backs Coach Brett Maxie. "So it's going to be open competition and obviously the best player is going to play. But I think that's a good thing. I'd rather have too many guys than not enough."
The Buccaneers didn't have too many safeties last season. McDougald and Conte started together over the season's first 11 games, before Conte was sidelined by a chest injury. Fortunately, the team had Tandy waiting in the wings, and he followed several game-turning plays by Conte with a string of critical interceptions down the stretch. The Bucs went 6-2 in the season's second half behind a vastly-improved and turnover-happy defense, and those three safeties accounted for eight of the team's 17 interceptions.
Safety depth was obviously critical last fall and, as Maxie notes, the more of that you have the better. But all four of this year's front-line safeties are going to be eager to earn starting jobs in training camp. It could be that more than two players prove worthy of the assignment and the coaching staff finds a way to get more safeties on the field this year, in some sort of rotation. Last year, in the 11 games before Conte was hurt, he and McDougald accounted for nearly 96% of the available safety snaps.
"We haven't practiced yet, we haven't seen them play yet," said Secondary Coach Jon Hoke of the Bucs' new safeties. "But you hope it gives you some flexibility where you can get more guys on the field and do some different things. That's kind of where we're at right now, just seeing what we've got. J.J., we're excited about what he can do, he's a big guy, he can hit and those types of things. And we're excited about Evans because of his athletic ability. I think it will all play out itself."
Hoke's descriptions of the two safety newcomers would seem to suggest that Wilcox would be better suited for strong safety while Evans would be a more natural free safety. There may be some truth to that, but neither one will be pigeon-holed into a certain spot. They can't afford to be if they want to be a starter; Tampa Bay's predominant split-safety alignment demands that any safety on the field be able to handle either position. In contrast, a team like Seattle that utilizes more of a single-high safety look can have more defined roles for players like Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. The Buccaneers can and will create the single-high look at times by moving one of their safeties down into the box.
"They have to be interchangeable because the tight end is always moving from one side to the next, so you can't have your safeties swapping every time the tight end moves," said Maxie. "The formations, they can try to dictate what you can present, and we don't want to show it, so our safeties have to be interchangeable."
As such, the Bucs' safety battle really is one of four players fighting for two spots, as opposed to two separate two-man competitions.
"The best two safeties [will start]," said Maxie. "And it kind of played out that way last year, because when Keith came in he had to play both positions. Then we ended up rotating those three guys and they all had to play the free and the strong safety positions."
Indeed, when Conte returned to action from his injury for the final three games last year, in a reserve role, he ended up getting 35 snaps. All of them came at the expense of McDougald, not Tandy, who was simply too hot to take off the field at the time. In a way, that's good news for Evans, who is obviously the least proven of the bench, though he may have the highest upside. Judging it by how the coaches handled the safety position last year, if the rookie is making plays they will find a way to get him on the field and keep him there.
So far, Evans has made a good impression, albeit before the arrival of those pads and that training camp heat.
"I've been very pleased with him," said Maxie. "He basically is showing us some of the same things that showed up on tape. He's very talented, picks things up extremely quick, very conscientious. He asks a lot of questions, which is good for a new player, a rookie coming in and being in this environment."