Stewart, Spence Among Bucs Who Could Change Positions in 2019

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' roster will experience turnover in 2019, just as it does every year, just as every team experiences every year. According to new Head Coach Bruce Arians, it might not be drastic change, and even less so if the Buccaneers are able to keep some of their impending free agents in the fold.

The sister document to the roster is the depth chart, and it too will experience some turnover in 2019. That's the inevitable result of additions and subtractions to the roster and of competition for starting jobs. What will be particularly interesting in the development of that first depth chart under Arians is not the typical horizontal changes but the handful of players who could be making vertical moves on that document.

The Buccaneers do not publish an official depth chart until just before the start of the regular season, but for those who need a refresher, they look like this. The positions are listed in the left-most column, with the starters' names directly to the right. The top reserve is listed to the right of the starter, and so on. A player moving horizontally on the chart is changing the hierarchy at his position, perhaps a reserve overtaking a starter.

A vertical move? Well, that indicates a change in position. That's a less common occurrence but it is exactly what a handful of Buccaneers are facing in 2019. Arians and General Manager Jason Licht spoke extensively at the NFL Scouting Combine on Wednesday, discussing much of the roster in the process, and it's clear that some young Bucs are looking at new assignments this year.

That includes second-year defensive back M.J. Stewart, who may find a new home in the secondary after primarily working as a slot corner in his rookie campaign.

The first of two cornerbacks the Buccaneers drafted 10 picks apart in the second round of last year's draft, Stewart was considered a versatile player who might be able to fit into several different jobs in the secondary. The Bucs wanted to try him at nickel back first but surely knew, as scouting reports at the time noted, that he might also be a good candidate to play safety in time. Apparently, that time has come.

"They'll give him opportunity at multiple spots but I think right now we'd love to see what he can do at safety," said Licht of the coaching staff's plans for the young DB. Licht also mentioned that Stewart would get a look at both free and strong safety.

The Buccaneers started last season with Vernon Hargreaves as their front-line slot corner, though Hargreaves was also playing outside cornerback in base packages. That lasted one game, as Hargreaves suffered a season-ending shoulder injury near the end of the Bucs' Week One win in New Orleans. That quickly thrust Stewart into the nickel package, and he held that spot until about midseason before he was sidelined for five weeks by an injury of his own.

Stewart's run as the slot corner was rough at times, though it's fair to say that the Bucs' secondary as a whole struggled throughout the first half of the season. While Stewart was out, Javien Elliott took over in the slot and performed well as the defense found a bit better footing in the second half. Elliott held onto the job even after Stewart returned, and as the season wound to a conclusion the coaches began using Stewart at safety on the practice field.

Now that experiment will apparently continue. Hargreaves should be back and would be the clear first option in the slot. The Bucs may also add to the secondary in free agency or the draft, giving them more options for that position. The safety position, meanwhile, is lacking depth and Stewart's switch could help with that issue significantly. Hargreaves, meanwhile, may get a chance to focus on just one position rather than two.

"It kind of depends," said Licht. "It depends on what the makeup of our team is. He can play both. I know he's a really good nickel. I know he's a really good press guy outside. I'd like to keep him at one spot, but it depends."

Another young player who struggled in 2019 but may provide more value at a different position is fourth-year offensive lineman Caleb Benenoch. Benenoch started every game at right guard for the Buccaneers but he didn't play every offensive snap, as was essentially the case for the rest of the starting O-Line. Benenoch split time first with veteran Evan Smith until Smith landed on injured reserve, and then with rookie Alex Cappa. The Buccaneers never did find an answer that satisfied them at right guard.

Benenoch may not be that answer in 2019 but he'll get a shot at a position he has handled admirably in the past.

"I don't think Caleb had the year that any of us wanted at guard," said Licht. "I think his best position is tackle."

Benenoch started the last five games of the 2017 season at right tackle after a knee injury ended Demar Dotson's season early. The Buccaneers had three of their five best rushing games in that span and averaged 403 yards of net offense over those five weeks. Dotson has been a stalwart on the right edge of the Bucs' line for years and is the most tenured player on the team but the Buccaneers will eventually have to look for new answers at that spot.

Benenoch's expected move could increase the size of Cappa's opportunity in his second year. The Buccaneers took the small-school prospect out of Humboldt State in the third round last spring understanding that it might take him some time to make the transition to the NFL. After a full offseason in Tampa this upcoming spring and summer, he could be ready to take on a larger role. Or – and this is something the Bucs spoke about at length when they drafted Cappa – he could serve as a very valuable and versatile reserve who can play inside or outside.

"They've seen all the tape now," said Licht of the new coaching staff and its evaluation of the roster. "They know that he's a player they're excited about having, that he could perhaps have some versatility to play right tackle. I think we're going to give him a shot at guard first. I don't want to rule out moving him out there, either."

The most interesting vertical move the Bucs may have in mind for one of their young defenders involves Noah Spence, their second-round draft pick from 2016. Spence had a promising rookie year with 5.5 sacks but has just one more in the two years since. His sophomore campaign was largely wiped out by injury and he was simply not utilized much last fall. Spence seemed largely like a forgotten player in 2018 but the Buccaneers certainly remember the promise he showed as a rookie and think there's an opportunity for him to reboot his career in the new defense being schemed by Arians and coordinator Todd Bowles.

"Sometimes the coaching schemes, what they want in a particular player – whether it's size and length in this particular case – might have something to do with that," Licht explained. "Noah is built more as a sub-rusher in a 4-3, a rush end. But in a 3-4, it opens up a lot of doors for him. That's where his athleticism and his size and everything fits in better. When I said he may have a rebirth here, that's what I meant, as a linebacker."

Much has been made of whether the Bucs would remain a 4-3 team on defense or switch to a 3-4 under Bowles. The reality is that they will surely use concepts from both and that Bowles will cater his approach to the strengths of his players. That said, the traditional 3-4 approach uses outside linebackers as edge rushers, often in a two-point stance. Spence, who is roughly the same size as Denver Broncos superstar Von Miller, would seem to have the right physical characteristics to fill that role in a 3-4 front.

Spence, assuredly, would like to play whatever position gives him the best chance to return to regular playing time and utilize his skills to the maximum. He'll apparently get that opportunity in 2019 as will such other young players as Stewart and Benenoch. In their cases, a vertical move on the depth chart could be just what they need to get their career trajectories pointed upward.

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