After acquiring three new players to shore up the secondary in the 2018 NFL Draft, it's safe to say the last line of defense will look quite a bit different than last season this coming fall. Cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis were added to the outside with safety Jordan Whitehead added to complement current safety Justin Evans. When looking at the collect, one common theme emerges among both rookie and veteran players alike: flexibility.
"I'm excited that we were able to address all three positions," Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith said. "We got a really nice sized corner in Carlton [Davis]. He's a big, long guy that's going to help us when we play the big receivers that we're going to have to face in our division. You know, our division has three really big guys that are the feature receivers. They have multiple other receivers, but he's a guy that can get up in press and get his hands-on guys and be physical at the line of scrimmage. [M.J.] Stewart is a guy that we feel can play multiple positions. He's played inside and outside and as you guys know, we're in sub-defense about 65-70 percent of the time, so that nickel position is a starting position. He can also play outside, so he gives us some flexibility. [Jordan] Whitehead is a safety that is a very good athlete. In fact, I was super impressed at the way he played offense there at Pittsburgh. He ran the ball and played on the offensive side as well. He's a great athlete. He understands football. He's going to be a guy that can be what I call a hybrid. He can be a strong and a free safety so there aren't going to be situations where we're going to feel about having him in the middle of the field or down in the box."
It's because of that 65-70 percent of the time that the Bucs are in sub packages on defense that the aforementioned flexibility is crucially important. Especially when factoring in injuries, secondaries can sometimes be on a constant rotation. But, if you have the players to accommodate that, you're protected in a sense. That rotation becomes by design and in turn, players develop and fit in to the system. It might be why the Bucs placed such an emphasis on more do-it-all players and what made second-round pick M.J. Stewart an especially attractive prospect.
"M.J. [Stewart] was a guy at North Carolina that played multiple positions," secondary coach Jon Hoke said of the newly drafted cornerback the Bucs took in the second round. "He played outside, he played inside, he was kind of moved all over the place and adapted very well. He's a very smart football player, he understands concepts and so his versatility [was a big reason] why he was able to handle both."
That description might be reminiscent of what 2016 first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves has maturated into during his two seasons with the Bucs. Hargreaves was drafted as a cornerback out of the University of Florida, but this past season found success inside at nickel when the Bucs were in their sub formations. It's a natural curiosity to wonder if Hargreaves will own a permanent position in the five-slot but Coach Hoke was quick to reiterate that the Tampa native will compete for the starting cornerback job in the Bucs' base defense and nickel in sub packages.
"I think he's just got to help us as a football player overall," Coach Hoke said. "Vernon is smart, he always figures it out, in my opinion. He knows what he needs to work on. He needs to be better outside. We feel very comfortable with him inside. When we moved him inside, the first thing I thought was, 'Wow, you have good recall,' and he said, 'It's the first position I learned when I got here,' because that's where he started. So, he's going to be apt at both. We're giving him an opportunity to play at both and then let them all compete from there."
The new cornerbacks coming in are an especially curious group, with both of them used to playing more press coverage throughout their college careers, as is common at the collegiate level. That doesn't exactly fit in with what the Bucs have historically done, opting for more off coverage, especially when dealing with bigger receivers within the division. Enter: second-round pick Carlton Davis III. The 6'1" corner out of Auburn University brings length and size to the cornerback group. He also brings, you guessed it, flexibility, having had multiple coaching changes in his three seasons at the school and having to fit in with three different schemes as a result.
Pictures from Buccaneers practice on May 16th.
"Carlton's got a lot of ability off and up," Coach Hoke said. "Would he prefer to play up? They all want to play up. You go ask 100 DBs coming out of college, you're going to say what's the best thing you do? 'Play press,' well why? Because it's easier. There's no discipline in it. Your eyes are right here, he's right here, I could touch him. It's like playing tag. Is it easier to touch them when they're closer or when you're eight yards off? It's a lot easier when you're close. They all want to do it. Playing off is tough, it's hard. You got to have a very good skill set, you gotta be disciplined with your eyes, you have to be disciplined with your feet. You have to be disciplined on how you read routes. There's a lot that goes into it. It's a harder skill than playing up."
While adjustments will need to be made on the part of the rookies and even the veteran players that will need to mesh with their new counterparts, Coach Smith opened up about how players won't be the only ones that need to evolve and develop.
"We're going to have to make adjustments as coaches, too, in terms of playing to their strengths," Coach Smith said. "We've got a smaller corner in Brent Grimes and he is more comfortable playing off. Carlton is going to be more comfortable playing up and we are going to make sure we give them the opportunity to play to their strengths. M.J. was a squat corner, played quarters, man [coverage] everywhere he goes, he gets up on the line of scrimmage."
And as Coach Smith preaches day in and day out: football games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage.
It'll be a complete team effort in 2018, but don't be surprised when the defensive line isn't the only unit that looks radically different from its 2017 counterpart.