Alterraun Verner went to the Pro Bowl after his fourth and final season as a Tennessee Titan. Given that his first year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers included a 2-14 record for the team and a 28th-place finish for the pass defense, it's little surprise that there was no return all-star trip for the star cornerback. Heading into 2015 and his second season with the team that made him a key free agency acquisition the year before, Verner is far more concerned with making his first appearance in the playoffs than his second in the Pro Bowl.
"I'm going to do my best," he said. "Whatever they call for me to do in this defense, whether that's a Pro Bowl year or not, that's not really my concern. I'm just trying to get more wins, and all of that stuff will come."
To mention the Buccaneers' pass defense ranking in 2014 is not to lay the blame solely at the feet of the team's cornerbacks. Rush and coverage go hand in hand, and the front line needs to reduce the amount of time the defensive backs have to stay in coverage. There were also several key injuries among the Bucs' group of corners last year, and a significant amount of in-season upheaval at the safety position.
Still, depth at the cornerback position is both critical and difficult to find in the NFL. The Bucs chased two other rare and valuable commodities – franchise quarterback and stud left tackle – in the most recent draft. Now Verner thinks the team could achieve corner depth, too, through a combination of shrewd additions and continued development of players already on the roster. Like Verner, such cornerbacks as Johnthan Banks, Brandon Dixon and Leonard Johnson have now had a season to figure out the defense imported by Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier, and the Bucs' defensive results got progressively better as the 2014 campaign went on.
"[The depth] is good," said Verner. "Mike Jenkins is definitely an X-factor. He brings a lot of intensity. He brings a lot of passion for the game. He's somebody that's been playing for eight years – he's going to bring that [experience] to you. It's been good to have him back, competing. Johnthan [Banks] is growing as a player, as you saw last year. I like the depth and we're just all pushing each other because at the end of the day [the coach] is going to put the best people out there. Nobody's job is secure or safe, so I love it. I love competition and I love us all being out there competing."
Jenkins was re-signed in March after spending most of 2014 on injured reserve. That was also his first season with the Buccaneers after six seasons in Dallas and Oakland, and he too has been to a Pro Bowl. Jenkins was listed first on the depth chart opposite Verner when the season began, but he suffered a pectoral injury in the season opener and was taken out of the picture. It seems clear that the Buccaneers' coaching staff – not to mention Verner – sees value in Jenkins' experience.
The team also made an addition at the position during free agency this year, bringing in Sterling Moore, a young player who had a great deal of success in a similar defense in Dallas in 2014. Moore could be earmarked for the nickel job (with possible competition from Johnson, Dixon and others), but he's versatile enough to help anywhere and is thus another important depth consideration.
Banks was lauded for his steady development during the 2014 season but he'll still get serious competition for his starting spot from Jenkins, and possibly Moore. If Verner, arguably the team's top cornerback, thinks that no job is secure, it's likely that everybody in his position group is approaching this offseason the same way.
The best photos from the first week of Organized Team Activities.
"We know that we have to get better," said Verner. "Every single person on this team has to get better. Two-and-14 is not going to cut it. That's why it's a motivation tool, just to know we can do a lot better. People are still doubting us and I love it. I love playing the underdog role, I love when people are sleeping on you. So I use it as a motivation. It definitely is in the back of my mind but I'm not letting that override or overrule the way I play. I still have the same mindset of getting better every day and trying to help this team as much as I can."
The Buccaneers have already seen what Verner can do when he's on top of his game; his Titans tape convinced them to go after the fifth-year corner hard in the early hours of free agency last year, not long after cutting ties with Darrelle Revis. And Verner didn't disappoint; a year after a Pro Bowl run that was fueled by five interceptions and a league-high 23 passes defensed, he actually improved in the NFL cornerback rankings on Pro Football Focus, finishing seventh.
It was not a particularly satisfying year for Verner, though, and that had everything to do with that 2-14 record. Now he wants to use that first Buccaneer campaign to get better for the second, and to help his defense find that elusive cornerback depth.
"It was a learning experience," said Verner. That's what I took from it. You never try to dwell on a negative, but you just look at the mistakes, the growing pains, learn from them and try to build chemistry and camaraderie with everybody. I just look at it as a big learning experience and that's what I'm taking into this year, just learning from those mistakes."