The NFL and the NFL Players Association have come to an agreement on how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, and NFL training camps have opened up across the country, including in Tampa Bay. PewterReport.com offers up its analysis of each position on the Buccaneers as new quarterback Tom Brady and his teammates prepare for the 2020 season.
Table of Contents
Carlton Davis | Age: 23 | NFL Exp.: 3rd season | 6-1, 206 Jamel Dean | Age: 23 | NFL Exp.: 2nd season | 6-1, 206 Sean Murphy-Bunting | Age: 23 | NFL Exp.: 2nd season | 6-0, 195 Ryan Smith | Age: 26 | NFL Exp: 5th season | 5-11, 189 Mazzi Wilkins | Age: 24 | NFL Exp.: 2nd season | 6-0, 191 Parnell Motley | Age: 22 | NFL Exp.: Rookie | 6-0, 180 Herb Miller | Age: 22 | NFL Exp.: 2nd season | 6-2, 190
Andrew Adams | Age: 27 | NFL Exp: 5th season | 5-11 205 Jordan Whitehead | Age: 23 | NFL Exp: 3rd season | 5-10, 198 Mike Edwards | Age: 24 | NFL Exp: 2nd season | 5-10, 205 Antoine Winfield Jr. | Age: 22 | NFL Exp: Rookie | 5-9, 203 D’Cota Dixon | Age: 24 | NFL Exp: 2nd season | 5-10, 204 Javon Hagan | Age: 23 | NFL Exp: Rookie | 6-0, 215
The 2019 season for the Bucs’ cornerback group was not just highlighted by their incredible stretch of play over the second half of Tampa Bay’s season, but the growth and transformation that led to their emergence as potentially one of the youngest and most dangerous units in the league.
Despite Tampa Bay’s front seven being the best unit in the NFL at stopping the run, and pressuring the quarterback per Pro Football Focus, the Bucs’ defensive backfield had a brutal start to the season, allowing 290.9 passing yards per game and 31.3 points per game over the first 10 games of the season.
Bucs CB Jamel Dean – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Then, seemingly coinciding with the release of Vernon Hargreaves III following the Bucs’ Week 10 victory over Arizona and the arrival of Jamel Dean as a regular participant across from Carlton Davis on the outside, the Bucs’ secondary dropped those numbers down to 235.5 passing yards and 22.6 points allowed per game over the final six games of the season.
Heading into the 2020 season the cornerback unit will really be carried by the young trio of Davis, Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting. All three made an appearance on PFF’s defensive Team of the Week between Week 10 and Week 13 last season.
In 2019 Davis established himself as the top dog among the Bucs’ cornerbacks. He was frequently tasked with lining up across from some of the league’s most dominant receivers and produced, holding DeAndre Hopkins to just 23 yards in the Bucs’ matchup against Houston and keeping Julio Jones largely in check twice.
Davis held opposing quarterbacks to a completion percentage of just 52.4 percent and led the league with 18 pass breakups and a forced incompletion percentage of 22 percent last year, per PFF. He also accrued double-digit penalties and finished tied for the league-lead in dropped interceptions, two things he’ll need to continue to improve upon as he will be the Bucs’ top press man corner again in 2020.
After Davis the Bucs have Murphy-Bunting who will again take on the Ronde Barber-esque role of playing on the outside across from Davis when Tampa Bay rolls out their base defense or three-safety sets and slide inside to nickel when Dean is on the field. Murphy-Bunting led the Bucs’ defense with three interceptions, also tied for the league-lead among all rookies, and all three came while covering the slot.
Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Dean, despite being torched for nine receptions and three touchdowns on 14 targets in coverage against Seattle in his first career start, finished the season on a stellar note.
Despite a small sample size of just five starts, Dean had one of the league’s best completion percentages allowed at 48.9 percent, racked up two interceptions and landed in the league’s top-10 with 10 pass breakups while being targeted just 47 times in total.
Dean has unreal size, speed and athleticism and after a rocky first start, what he showed on the field throughout the rest of the season has thoroughly convinced me that his potential for being a legitimate star cornerback is through the roof heading into the 2020 season.
While Tampa Bay’s top three cornerbacks are all oozing with talent and potential, the cornerback position is also one of the Bucs’ worst when it comes to depth. Behind Davis, Dean and Murphy Bunting the Bucs’ have veteran Ryan Smith who is primarily known for his stellar work on special teams but his massive struggles in coverage and, following the release of M.J. Stewart, just three extremely young and inexperienced undrafted free agents in rookie Parnell Motley and second-year players Herb Miller and Mazzi Wilkins.
Should one of the Bucs’ starting cornerbacks go down, the unit could be in for a ton of trouble.
At safety it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
Jordan Whitehead really came into his own at strong safety last season and, in my opinion, outperformed all expectations despite not exactly being Pro Bowl caliber. He was a tough, hard-nosed and dependable player that really solidified his spot at strong safety and could be a bright spot in the Bucs’ secondary if he continues that growth into the 2020 season.
With Justin Evans remaining a question mark for a return to the free safety spot, and Mike Edwards failing to run away with the available position, Andrew Adams was really the Bucs’ top option at free safety in 2019 where he was… serviceable. His play was nothing special, being brought onto the Bucs’ roster mid-season the past two years, but he filled the void.
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles values the safety position extremely highly and versatility is a huge emphasis, visible as he was a key player in drafting Tyrann Mathieu while a defensive coordinator in Arizona and Jamal Adams while head coach of the Jets.
Bucs DB Mike Edwards – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Bowles tried to fill that do-it-all role drafting Mike Edwards out of Kentucky before last season, a former team captain in college and the Wildcats’ all-time leading tackler, and grabbed another potential diamond in the rough by drafting Antoine Winfield Jr. out of Minnesota in the second round this year.
Should Winfield Jr. catch up to NFL play quickly and Mike Edwards take a much-needed step forward, the safety position could quickly turn from liability to asset in 2020.
Tampa Bay has spent four combined draft picks on their secondary over the second and third rounds of their last two drafts, and this season it may finally be a chance for them to put it all together. Something Bucs’ fans haven’t seen from their defensive backfield in quite some time.
Camp Battle To Watch: Starting FS Spot
With Evans not seeing action since 2018, Adams has been the starter at free safety for most of the past two seasons.
Edwards had a chance last season but couldn’t clamp down on the starting spot. Through the first five weeks of the season Edwards spent most of his time in the free safety spot, but by season’s end his struggles had relegated him to what was essentially a rotational role bouncing between free safety and slot coverage.
But with a year’s worth of experience under Edwards’ belt, a severely shortened rookie spring for Winfield and Adams really being “just another guy” with admittedly the most experience at the position by far, it’ll be a wide open competition to see who claws their way to that top spot heading into Week 1.
The Sleeper: D’Cota Dixon
Dixon, added as an undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin in 2019, was having a very promising spring camp last season and had begun to catch the attention of the media and his coaching staff alike, being listed as a second-team safety in the team’s initial depth chart, when an unfortunate injury ended his rookie campaign before it could ever start.
Dixon was placed on the injured reserve in early August and never returned to action, but he remained on the roster the acknowledgement from head coach Bruce Arians never stopped.
Bucs CBs coach Kevin Ross – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Arians has mentioned Dixon by name multiple times over the past year when talking about the future of their young safety position, even stating that Dixon was in the running for the starting strong safety spot prior to his injury. With that kind of praise being thrown his way, a strong showing in training camp this year could put him in line for a potential significant role in tandem with Whitehead at the thin strong safety position for Tampa Bay.