On Monday, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians indicated that there were still six to eight spots on the soon-to-be-formed 53-man roster that had not yet been decided. On Wednesday, Arians pinpointed a few corners of the depth chart where those last battles are still raging.
"There's no doubt – the inside and outside linebacker rooms, and the safety room," he said. "Those are guys who are still battling for jobs as we speak."
'As we speak' was late Wednesday morning, after the Buccaneers had completed three of their five practices for the week. That leaves two on-field opportunities to go for those still involved in those…not just before the week is over but before the entire competition is over. All 32 NFL teams will trim their rosters from 80 men to 53 by 4:00 p.m. this Saturday.
The decisions to come at the safety position highlight how complicated it is to get a roster down to just 53 players, and how options at one position can affect another. The Buccaneers currently have six safeties on the roster and their position coach, Nick Rapone, thinks he's probably going to lose 33% of his room (though perhaps not permanently given the expanded practice squad). And, as always, special teams considerations play a big role, meaning judgments made by Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong can impact who stays in each position group.
"When you look at the fourth spot, you say to yourself, 'Which guy can contribute better on special teams?'" said Rapone. "It's different if I sit in my room, I'm looking at which guy – that fourth guy has to be able to play both strong and free. But if you look at it from a G.M. and a head coach [perspective], that fourth guy has to be a core guy on your special teams. So that position really comes down to Coach Armstrong and B.A., because I believe we'll carry four. In Arizona sometimes we carried five but that's because Ty [Mathieu] was the nickel also. Right now with [Sean Murphy]-Bunting being the one nickel, I think we'll get four safeties."
The Buccaneers ended last season with a Murphy-Bunting, then a rapidly-developing rookie, starting alongside Carlton Davis at outside corner and then moving into the slot in nickel packages. Jamel Dean would then come in to play the other outside spot. That setup helped the Bucs' defense improve dramatically down the stretch and it appears that's the preferred way to start 2020 as well. However, safeties Mike Edwards and Antoine Winfield are being trained in the slot, too, as are a couple of other corners. This could help fuzz the line between the two positions and make this more of a conversation about how many defensive backs the team keeps overall.
"It could be a number of guys," said Arians about possible nickel replacements if and when Murphy-Bunting is unavailable, or potentially as a second slot player in a dime formation. "It could be Mike Edwards, it could be [Antoine] Winfield, Mazzi [Wilkins], Ryan Smith – we trained a lot of guys at nickel just in case, so we have five or six guys that – if there were problems during a game – we could substitute guys in."
If Rapone does only get to keep four of his guys on the 53-man roster, it seems clear that group will start with Winfield, Edwards and Jordan Whitehead, who were drafted by the Buccaneers in 2020, 2019 and 2018, respectively. Winfield and Edwards were drafted by the current coaching staff, which clearly has a type. Whitehead came before Arians and Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles but started the most games among Bucs safeties last year and offers some variety in the safety room.
"Mike and Winfield are both your single-high guys," said Rapone. "Jordan's skillset is playing down low. He's a thumper, he loves contact, he'll take blockers on. So Jordan's skillset is definitely down. Mike can play both, Winfield can play both. The difference in our scheme is we play so much man [coverage]. You mention Tyrann Mathieu and Budda Baker. The reason we drafted them and Tony Jefferson out in Arizona – all those kids are under 5-10 but they can all play man. And in our scheme, you have to be able to have some type of man [coverage] skills. The 6-2, 215-pound safety doesn't fit into our scheme unless he is able to play some man coverage. We just go for a quicker safety because of what Todd asks them to do."
Arians said on Wednesday that he knew the Buccaneers would be releasing some good players from their secondary on Saturday. At the safety spot, that could be two of the other three on the depth chart, veteran Andrew Adams and young players D'Cota Dixon and Javon Hagan. Adams started 11 games for the Buccaneers last year and has an advantage, especially this year, with his depth of regular-season experience. Dixon had a strong rookie camp last summer and is a smart player, while Hagan has drawn some attention for his work on special teams. Arians said that both Dixon and Hagan have been "impressive at times" this summer.
View photos of Bucs players in the new 2020 uniforms.
In Arians' first year at the Bucs' helm, the team started the regular season with four safeties and five cornerbacks. If that pattern sticks in 2020, the Bucs would need to choose two more corners from a group consisting of Ryan Smith, Mazzi Wilkins, Herb Miller and Parnell Motley. Smith is one of the team's best special teams players and Wilkins saw some action on defense last year. Motley, an undrafted rookie out of Oklahoma, was one of this camp's breakout players until an injury took him out of action late last week. It's possible those safety-corner numbers could flip if special teams is the deciding factor.
Rapone knows that's often the case even though he will fight for the guys in his room leading up to cuts.
"Yes, there's always that conversation because my obligation is to the safeties," he said. "And when we do talk personnel, what I have to give the head coach and the general manager is my assessment of the safeties. And then Coach Armstrong will come right in and he'll give his assessment of the safeties according to his needs. You blend them both together and at the end of the day the general manager and the head coach make that call. But yes, I definitely get on the table and say, 'I need this young man and I need this young man, and these are the reasons why we need them.'"
The overall versatility of the Bucs' pool of defensive backs is definitely informing the competition, leading to that proverbial 'good problem to have:' more good options than spots available. But that competition is almost over.
Every day, everybody's competing, everybody's learning and it's been a great competition so far throughout camp," said Whitehead. "Usually you have a lot of position battles at the strong safety and free safety [positions]. Everybody's getting interchanged [at] either safety position, some people [are] playing nickel, so you have a lot of work being done. It's good to have that competition because right now, we're limited on time and we need that extra push and somebody behind you trying to take your spot that's lighting the fire. It's been good, though. Everybody's getting along."