Building cornerback depth is a never-ending process for NFL teams. That's how, a year ago, Javien Elliott went from a late tryout to an early summer signing to a spot on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice squad and, eventually, to a key role on defense.
Elliott was the Buccaneers' starting nickel back for the last quarter of the 2016 season, a remarkable achievement for a player who walked on at Florida State, didn't even play until his senior year and was still unsigned weeks after going undrafted. He got his chance through a combination of injuries, a teammate's suspension and his own fine work on the practice field. While Elliott's walk-on roots are relatively rare, his team's shuffling through cornerback options is anything but. If you can stand up to NFL quarterbacks and receivers, it's just a matter of time until some team puts you on the field.
Pictures from the Bucs' OTA practice.
The 2016 Buccaneers used their first-round draft pick on a cornerback (Vernon Hargreaves) and went after another one (Brent Grimes) in the early hours of free agency. Those moves worked out well, producing a pair of 16-game starters, but the team still found itself turning to an unproven rookie to flesh out the secondary right in the midst of a playoff chase. Cornerback depth – always a work in progress.
Fast-forward to the 2017 offseason, a time when the Buccaneers are trying to build and assess their depth at every position, including cornerback. Elliott is still around and, just as he did in catching the coaches' eyes last fall, is still routinely turning in big plays in practice. Meanwhile, Ryan Smith, a fourth-round pick in 2016 who was originally converted to safety, is doing the same thing back at his more natural cornerback position. There is a long way to go and – as history suggests – many possible tweaks to the depth chart ahead, but it's starting to look like this pair of 23-year-olds will end up providing the Bucs with critical cornerback depth in 2017.
As it currently stands, Smith is fighting for the primary backup spot on the outside behind Grimes and Hargreaves. With one or both of those players occasionally unavailable for OTA practices, Smith has actually taken a high number of first-team snaps. As the season-ending incumbent in the slot, Elliott is also running with the first team as he prepares for a competition with Jude Adjei-Barimah and recently-signed veteran Robert McClain. While every roster spot is precious, Smith and Elliott aren't necessarily competing against each other.
"Well, right now the way it's looking those might be two different positions," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Third outside corner and slot corner might end up being two different positions, with a couple guys playing both. Jude and Bobby Mac – Robert McClain – can play both spots. Ryan's primarily playing outside, not inside. And then Javien Elliott, you can throw him into the mix there, too; he can play both spots. Who's going to be the third corner, who's going to be the nickel corner? It should be a good competition."
Both Smith and Elliott stood out in very obvious ways during the final OTA practice of the offseason on Thursday. At one point during an 11-on-11 drill, Smith jumped an out route and picked the ball off clean, heading unimpeded in the other direction. Elliott had several impressive pass-breakups, including one near the goal line in a red zone drill.
"Javien always makes plays," said Koetter. "Javien's a guy that came here as a tryout player last year and ended up starting a couple games for us. What the coaches notice is, every single day 35 [Elliott] makes a play. He's just one of those guys. He knows what to do and how to do it and he shows up and makes plays."
While Elliott is trying to build on what he did during the regular season last year, Smith is taking on a new (yet familiar) role. He played exclusively on special teams last year, gradually emerging as a very good kick-coverage gunner, while presumably providing depth at safety. However, as the season wore one, the coaching staff began using Smith at cornerback on the scout team and the results were impressive. That led to the decision, announced immediately after the season ended, that Smith would be returning to the position he most often played in college.
The coaches clearly still have plenty of confidence in Smith, despite his lack of NFL experience, as they have him on the inside track to be that third outside corner. While Grimes and Hargreaves each played 94% or more of the defensive snaps last year, a team can't count on making it through every season with just two starters.
"Ryan's got a major role we need him to fill for us," said Koetter. "Ryan's had his ups and downs. We were excited about him, he went through a two or three-day period where he thought he was in a little bit of a funk, but that's two [good] days in a row. He had a beautiful interception in the red zone yesterday and that [one today] would have been a pick-six. No one's going to catch him. I was giving him a hard time right there, asking him if he could outrun the quarterback and the center and he just laughed. We knew he could. That was a good play by him."
As Koetter notes, the Buccaneers don't have to worry about raw speed when it comes to Smith, who ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine. Whether he can master every part of playing cornerback in the NFL remains to be proven, but the early indicators are promising. The same holds true for Elliott, and as the Bucs continue in the never-ending process of finding and maintaining cornerback depth, that is obviously good news.