S Dwight Smith started at four different positions in 2003 but will be allowed to settle in at free safety this year
Eight different players started in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' secondary last year, where only four starting spots exist. One man, Dwight Smith, opened games at four different positions in the defensive backfield. Two of the four players who started the last game of the season have since been released.
That's the kind of turmoil the Bucs are hoping to avoid in 2004.
There are several reasons why Tampa Bay believes its secondary is in good shape heading into training camp this season. One, cornerback Brian Kelly is healthy after missing most of 2003 with a chest injury, in the process making it clear just how critical he is to the Bucs' success. Two, Mario Edwards was signed away from the Dallas Cowboys to give the Bucs a third corner with a significant amount of experience. Three, Jermaine Phillips is, the coaching staff believes, a playmaker waiting to happen at strong safety. And, four, there has been an infusion of depth at both corner and safety, with the likes of fourth-round draft pick Will Allen and free-agent signee Tom Knight joining the mix.
Head Coach Jon Gruden says its reasonable to expect the secondary to be one of the team's strengths this year...and it's relevant and worth noting that, even with all of the turnover last year, the Bucs still finished third in the NFL in pass defense.
"I think it can be strong," said Gruden of the defensive backfield. "I think Jermaine Phillips is going to be a really good player, and we like Dwight Smith. I think he proved last year that he can be outstanding as a safety. Will Allen's going to be a player, from Ohio State. The additions of Tommy Knight, Edwards and Torrie Cox (on injured reserve in 2003) have heightened the competition and improved our team."
Until ultra-swift linebacker Ian Gold came along after the draft, Edwards appeared to be the Bucs' late coup of the free agency period, picked up on April 9. With most of the free agent rush over around the league, it was a bit surprising that Tampa Bay could pick up a corner who had started for three seasons with the Cowboys, on one of the league's better defenses. Throw in that Edwards is a relatively larger corner (6-0, 199), and it becomes clear why the Bucs were thrilled with the pickup. The likely plan is for Edwards to be the nickel back but to play on the outside, opposite Kelly, when he's on the field.
"It's big, man, big," said Gruden of the Edwards acquisition. "You put (Ronde) Barber inside in the nickel. A couple of years ago we had (Donnie) Abraham. We had some versatility there with Dwight Smith two years ago. Moving Dwight into safety, we've got to call upon somebody else to be the nickel corner. We didn't play as well at that position, the third corner, as we need to play here. So we're hoping Mario and Tom Knight and Torrie Cox, who was out for the year last year and is really looking good out here also… That will be good."
Last year's nickel back was Tim Wansley, a 5-8, second-year player and a former seventh-round draft pick with virtually no NFL experience. Actually, Wansley went from the nickel into the starting lineup after Kelly's injury, then later to injured reserve himself. This year, the Bucs have high hopes for another young player, Cox, the sixth-round pick out of Pittsburgh who hurt his knee in the second preseason game, but they won't have to count on Cox developing immediately with Edwards around.
"Hopefully, we've really improved there," said Gruden. "(Edwards) is a long, linear kind of guy. He's got interesting physical dimensions to play the position. He and Brian Kelly are big guys on the outside and you have the crafty Ronde Barber in the slot, where he's really spectacular. So those three guys create problems for us, offensively (in practice), I know that."
The Bucs feel like they've added two corners with the return of Kelly, who has been unlimited in practice, showing no ill signs of a torn pectoral muscle that required surgery (he bravely tried to play through the injury early in the year, but couldn't, eventually landing on injured reserve in October). In 2002, Kelly led the Super Bowl-bound Bucs with eight interceptions, tying for the NFL lead.
"He looks good," said Gruden. "We missed him. He's a good player. The two (complete) games he played, or three games he played, we didn't give up a touchdown. I don't know if that's a coincidence, or maybe he's pretty good."
Barber, the 2001 NFL co-leader in interceptions (10), and whiz Defensive Backs Coach Mike Tomlin are still in place. Smith has a full year of starting under his belt and is the type of player who brims with confidence. Phillips is replacing a multiple Pro Bowler in the recently-released John Lynch, but he isn't going in untested, having started eight games last season.
Since 1996, the Buccaneers have posted an average NFL ranking of fifth in pass defense. Thanks to aggressive player moves and a bit of good health, the team believes it can live up to that impressive history in 2004.