CB Brian Kelly hopes to step up to a larger role in his third NFL season
Whoever coined the phrase, 'Lightning never strikes the same place twice,' was not likely a Tampa native.
Certainly, there was enough lightning in the Bay area on Monday to strike most places several times over, as there was last Wednesday evening when the Bucs tried in vain to hold a night practice.
As you can imagine, Tampanians fully expect lightning to strike twice, or three times. That includes the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Four years ago, the Bucs invested a third-round draft pick on cornerback Donnie Abraham from East Tennessee State and by six games into his rookie season, Abraham was a starter. He's now one of the league's best cover men.
Three years ago, the Bucs spent another third-round pick to get Virginia corner Ronde Barber. After an inactive first season, Barber exploded in his NFL sophomore year and is now a strong bookend to Abraham. Two third-round picks, and lightning had struck twice.
Two years ago, Tampa Bay dropped a second-round pick on USC cornerback Brian Kelly, in part because the jury was still out on Barber at that time. Abraham had hit in year one, Barber in his year two. If lightning strikes for a third time with Kelly, it may very well be in his year three.
"I would have hoped that last year would have been a better year for me, as far as playing," said Kelly on Monday before another round of storms began, "but at the end of the year I picked it up a little bit and played better. This is my third year, and this is what I'm marking as the year that I need to make that jump. I need to start making more plays and helping the team out more. I'm more accustomed to the defense…it's just time.
"Some guys fall right into a perfect situation, from college to pros, same scheme, everything fits real nice. Other guys have to fight a little bit, but after four or five years, you've got to make something happen or eventually it will be over."
Kelly, a successful bump-and-run corner in college, has spent two very active years in the Buccaneer defense, learning the team's prevalent 'cover-two' scheme and playing nickel back and spot corner. He doesn't think he's anywhere close to being 'over,' but he does believe he can fill an even more prominent role. That doesn't mean he's unhappy to be part of such a deep secondary, in which Abraham, Barber, Kelly and Floyd Young give the coaching staff four corners they are excited about.
"You've got to look at it both ways," said Kelly of the balance between depth and competition. "You want to stand out and still make plays. Just to be in that four is a good situation for coaches to look at, but as a player you're fighting for playing time, fighting to get out there as much as you can and make plays. It's competition in that sense, but it's also a good thing for the team to know that, should anything happen, we've got good depth and someone else can go in.
"There's a thin line between individual goals and team goals. You want to do the best thing for the team, first, but you're still an individual and this is still a business. Being that third corner is nice, and getting that nickel work in is nice, but eventually you're going to have to stand out and make plays to build a career and help lead this team. It's nice in that sense, but as an individual you want to be out there playing."
On a team that does not expect a lot of turnover from last year's starting lineup, beyond the free agent additions already made, the 'battle' at cornerback is one of the most intriguing in camp. Abraham seems like a lock, of course, coming off a season in which he tied for the league lead in interceptions and was a prominent Pro Bowl snub. Barber did nothing to hurt his status in 1999, but his 1998 season was much more memorable in terms of big plays. Young has alternated between an active nickel role and a special teams capacity in his three seasons but has opened eyes with a strong, and healthy, offseason.
In the meantime, Kelly has played well in two seasons, but not remarkable enough to unseat Abraham or Barber. He has averaged 30 tackles and made exactly one interception each season, starting five games when one or the other starter was hurt and breaking up 21 passes. Last year, Kelly basically played right cornerback when the team was in a nickel package, as Barber slid into the nickelback role to cover the slot receiver. To increase his ability to contribute in 2000, Kelly is also learning Barber's slot role in case of injury.
"I'm blessed because I've got three starters at corner, when you really look at it," said Herman Edwards, the Bucs' defensive backs coach. "You've got Donnie, Ronde and Brian, and if any one of those guys gets hurt, you've got another guy to go in there. And Brian has taken on another role in the fact that now he's the backup nickel guy. He's similar to Ronde, too, in that he's playing two positions.
"He's going to get better. There are no limitations to how much better he can get, because the more he plays the more he gains in confidence. He just has a little bit of a swagger about him this year, which you like in a corner. Hopefully, he'll have a great preseason and develop into a heck of a football player."
Edwards also dubbed Kelly 'the original big corner', referring to the scouting report when the Bucs selected him in 1998. At 5-11, 193, Kelly is indeed a little bigger than the trio of Abraham, Barber and Young, but he doesn't think that actually sets him apart.
"Not really," said Kelly. "Ronde plays great against big guys. They try to knock that on him, but he plays great against big receivers. That's good draft stuff…coming in a guy's big, he's strong, he's fast. After awhile, you're just going to play football. This is my third year, so I don't look at that any more."
In the same way, Kelly has shed his bump-and-run background at USC to become a more complete corner. While the Bucs' offense got a big dose of the bump-and-run approach during a weekend of joint practices with the Dolphins, it's the more versatile Bucs' secondary that has ranked second in the NFL for two straight years.
"Coming in, I was more what Miami plays, bump-and-run, but I adjusted to how we play here, zone," said Kelly. "We're sort of mixing it up now. We have a little bump in there, we have some times when we come in and mix it up with the receivers. That's a good thing, because you've got some players that can't play what we play, but we can play their style. That's a credit to the coaches, teaching us both sides of being a defensive back."
Maybe that new mixture will draw Kelly and his mates the credit that they deserve, which may be eluding them due to the prominence of the zone in Tampa.
Then again, "Maybe not," said Kelly, "because we play zone and we've got one of the best defensive lines in the league. Everybody might look at it as, 'Oh, that's from pressure. They got the sack and he had to throw the ball up.' We don't really get credit for coverage sacks. Maybe people that really know football can look at it and say, those guys help the defensive line the way the defensive line helps them."
The recognition, Kelly says, is not terribly important to this group, which on Friday will share a field with the Washington Redskins' vaunted trio of Deion Sanders, Darrell Green and Champ Bailey. "We're all young, trying to make our way in this league," said Kelly. "We all can play, we know that. We don't need banners and that type of stuff. We know that we don't give up touchdowns, we don't get bombed out. We don't give up long pass touchdowns and crazy stuff that you might see on other teams. We don't need all that stuff to prove that we're good."
And, apparently, they're not in training camp trying to prove who's best among the three or four of them. Kelly, as his coaches expected he would, is having a strong camp, but the defense as a whole has looked strong, picking up where they left off in 1999.
"It's going good," said Kelly. "I'm having a pretty good camp, feeling healthy. I'm just competing. Everybody wants to write the article about who's better, who's winning the spot, but when they go three-wide, all three of us are in. When we go pro-set or base package, we might be rotating a little. It's going to come down to making plays. I think whoever makes the most plays will be what separates one from the other.
"Different things come into play. I'm not considering this a bad camp if I don't come out the starter and I'm not considering it a great camp if I do. Just continue to get better…that's what I'm focusing on."
That approach, and the Bucs' enviable glut of starting-caliber quarterbacks, will certainly make the Bucs' secondary worth watching in training camp. Stay tuned. And watch out for lightning.