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Fresh off an 11-5 campaign and a dramatic run to the franchise’s second Super Bowl championship, the Bucs are already eyeing a return to the big game. Every starter is back, no key contributors were lost and critical depth has been added at several positions. Both sides of the ball are loaded with talent, and expectations should be sky-high for the league rank of the Bucs’ offense and defense this season.

But the Bucs offense has far less question marks than the Tampa Bay defense. Tom Brady, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen and others have been doing this at a high level for years now. Even Donovan Smith has posted two straight highly-improved seasons, while Tristan Wirfs looked like the best right tackle in the league last year. If everyone stays healthy, predicting the ceiling for Tampa Bay’s offense will be the biggest unknown.

Defensively, the Bucs are in a different spot. Yes, there is plenty of talent, but much of it is still unproven. Some of the players this team will rely on for high-level play in 2021 have yet to prove capable of sustaining that caliber of play in the NFL. Hope abounds for all of these young players, but four in particular stand out. If the Bucs defense is to take their game to the levels exhibited in the 2021 playoffs, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will need a trio of third-year starters to show considerable growth from a year ago.

CB Sean Murphy-Bunting

Perhaps no player on the Bucs team represents a greater dichotomy than Murphy-Bunting. At times it seemed Murphy-Bunting would be the undisputed reason the Bucs would lose, most notably against the Chargers in Week 4 and the Falcons in Week 15. In those two games, Murphy-Bunting surrendered a combined 15 catches on 16 targets for 262 yards and four touchdowns. Nightmarish performances that revealed how far the second-year corner had to go.

Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting

But the Bucs coaching staff never wavered in their commitment to Murphy-Bunting, who started every game and played the sixth-most snaps on defense. Their belief in the young corner paid dividends, as Murphy-Bunting erupted in the playoffs for three interceptions in the team’s first three playoff games. It was a huge turnaround for a player who had hardly made a play on the ball all season.

While Murphy-Bunting was definitely improved in the playoffs, he was still far from perfect. The Central Michigan corner surrendered a touchdown in the Wild Card round, then gave up a few big plays against Green Bay. I’m cautiously optimistic about the direction Murphy-Bunting’s career is heading in, but I’m not ready to trust him yet. A few splash plays can’t negate the consistently below average play we saw from Murphy-Bunting all season, whether in the slot or out wide.

Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting

The biggest thing for Murphy-Bunting to fix this season will be his technique, ranging from his hands and feet in press man to his eyes in zone coverage. Murphy-Bunting is a terrific athlete with speed, length and physicality, but his traits are often hidden behind a startling lack of attention to detail in coverage. If he can get his hands on receivers, win at the line of scrimmage and not give up as much early separation as he did last year, the results should be improved.

Despite Murphy-Bunting’s struggles a year ago, I’m inclined to believe in his development. There is so much to like in the third-year corner’s skill set, from his intelligence and athleticism to his size and physicality. Murphy-Bunting possesses the cornerback version of Joe Tryon’s game. The building blocks are clearly there, but his talent is stuck behind a lack of polish. One of the hardest-workers on the team, if Murphy-Bunting’s game can stabilize near his level of play late in the season, the Bucs defense will be much more formidable in 2021.

CB Jamel Dean

You’ll probably hear me say this a lot over the next few months, but Jamel Dean is one of the biggest X-factors on the Bucs this season. Unlike Murphy-Bunting, Dean has had stretches of dominant, high-end play with some elite plays on the ball. Through the first six weeks of the 2020 season, Dean broke up five passes and recorded a pick-6 of Aaron Rodgers. It was a terrific continuation of his lockdown play from Week 10 on in 2019, when Dean knocked away seven passes and intercepted two others.

Bucs CB Jamel Dean

There have been moments where you could talk yourself into Dean being the best cornerback on the Bucs. There have also been moments when a solid benching would have served as a much-needed wake-up call for the young corner. Reckless technique permeated Dean’s tape from Weeks 7-9, a miserable three-game stretch that saw him surrender a ton of big plays due to a lack of discipline. Double moves became Dean’s nemesis, a problem he would battle all season long on the outside.

Bucs CB Jamel Dean

But in the playoffs Dean rose to the occasion once again, rebounding from a subpar Wild Card game to plays lights out over the final three postseason games. Few cornerbacks can boast Dean’s lethal combination of size, speed, length and short-area quickness. When Dean plays focused football, he has the potential to be a star in the NFL. Unfortunately he hasn’t been able to sustain his high-end play in the NFL…yet.

I believe that Murphy-Bunting can continue to improve, but I’m not sure he’ll ever have the instincts to be a dominant starter, especially if Bowles continues to play him in the slot. Dean, on the other hand, has the instincts and feel for route runners in man or zone coverage that could make him a legit playmaker at the corner position. But nothing gets a corner benched faster than surrendering negative plays in the NFL, and Dean was lucky quarterbacks missed a few opportunities to tune him up even worse last year. If he can cut down on the ugly reps in 2021, there is a strong chance Dean will be the breakout star the Bucs defense needs in the secondary.

LB Devin White

Very few players in the NFL had a greater discrepancy between their perception and their level of play last season than Devin White. Heralded as one of the best linebackers in the NFL, White was an elite blitzer, a growing, yet inconsistent run defender and a coverage liability for most of the 2020 campaign. White was routinely beaten on passing downs, allowing an eye-popping 88 percent of targets to be completed in the regular season. The LSU product broke up just one pass over the first 14 weeks of the season.

Bucs LB Devin White

Then, in Week 15, everything changed. White started to jump passing lanes and feel routes in zone coverage. His run defense stabilized and his tackling was more reliable. In the playoffs, White was one of the best players on the field, posting a performance for the ages against the Saints in the divisional round. 11 tackles, one tackle-for-loss, one pass breakup, one interception and one fumble recovery for White in the 30-20 victory. By the end of the Bucs’ epic postseason run, White left little doubt that he was the game’s next great player at the linebacker position.

While it might be unrealistic to expect White to play at that same level all of next season, the standard for the former fifth overall pick shouldn’t be too far off. White has the ability to do everything at an All-Pro level, and the game is already slowing down for him. The splash play ability has always been there, but the snap-to-snap dominance of his play in the postseason indicates White is ready for a starring role in 2021. Anything less than an All-Pro campaign would be disappointing for the third-year linebacker.

Honorable Mention: Bucs OLB Joe Tryon

Tryon may be a rookie, but any contribution he can make as a pass rusher will be critical to the Bucs in 2021. The team could desperately use more of an impact from their No. 3 edge rusher, as Anthony Nelson is more of a run-stuffing outside linebacker. Tryon’s ability to rush from the outside could allow Bowles to push Jason Pierre-Paul inside as a 3-technique rusher, where JPP has excelled in his two seasons as a Buc.

First, we need to see how Tryon’s game has developed since we last saw him on a football field over a year-and-a-half ago. Has he eliminated some of the false steps and wasted movement that negated his explosiveness in 2019? Has the 22 year-old added pass rush moves and improved his hand placement as a rusher? Tryon won’t be a full-time starter this season, but of every backup on the Bucs defense, his role will be most vital to the team’s success.

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About the Author: Jon Ledyard

Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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drdneast
1 month ago

Count me as one person who thinks White will continue to show progress in his pass coverage. The Saints game was one thing, but his coverage in the Chiefs game was outstanding. Besides for intercepting one pass, he let another one slip though his hands. The guys speed is outstanding. The play where he knocked David Carr off the field into the sidelines was a perfect example of his unique speed.

toofamiliar17
Reply to  drdneast
1 month ago

I hope you’re right. He definitely has the ability to be as great as many already think he is. With the way he closed the season, there’s a lot of reason to be really hopeful with him. If he could really put it together this year, the middle of the field will be really tough for opposing offenses to consistently attack much of the time. That will be less true if SMB is still getting roasted on in-breaking routes in man coverage, but even then, if it plays out that he’s the ONLY major weakness, we could be really good… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by toofamiliar17
thegeebo
1 month ago

Great analysis, Jon. You hit the nail on the head with the 3 players you focused on here. Their play will determine if the Bucs defense will be great, or just okay. I hope Bowles will let our corners play more press-man, as it seemed to me that we got carved up on most soft zone coverage. I also hope Devin has more opportunities to blitz, not only because he is effective at it, but because the threat of blitz will also give him more opportunities to sneak back into coverage and make plays on the ball, where he struggled… Read more »

Naplesfan
1 month ago

We had three defensive teams last season – the one that played up to the bye week … then the defense that played out the rest of the season, which was substantially better than the earlier defense … and finally we had the defense that showed up in the playoffs, and even more so in the Super Bowl, which played lights out. So which if any of these three defenses from last year is going to show up this year? Well, it all depends upon continuity from the several players from last year analyzed in this post, all from the… Read more »

Horse
Reply to  Naplesfan
1 month ago

Via made the difference in our last two games when he came back. All of a sudden we were pushing and pressuring the QB.

Horse
1 month ago

I think it’s important for Britt, Tyron and Davis to step it up to assure there is competition nipping at the starters. It has always been about the Defense and hopefully we have created enough backup competition. By now, every team should know what they have to do to beat us and I hope Brady pounds that rock to all the players.

toofamiliar17
1 month ago

The slightly worrisome reality is that we kinda need all 3 of these guys to be better than they were last season, to varying degrees. I think Dean’s level of play was the closest to what we need it to be, and I don’t especially worry about him, although his worst reps are definitely problematic. But even if he’s just what he was last season, he won’t be a significant liability overall. Devin obviously has every tool a player can fit in the box, and with the way he played to close the year, one has to hope optimistically that… Read more »

lambeau
1 month ago

Bowles is also inconsistent with his game plans. I worry about him. Single coverage on Tyreek? And why play SMB outside over Dean in base?

Bradenton BucFan
1 month ago

These guys performed during the playoffs,when the stakes got bigger they played better. That is a major confidence boost. If the defense develops a killer instict,slam the door shut,give our O more scoring chances.

fredster
1 month ago

Yeah SMB and Dean have sucked something terrible at times if I’m honest. I think at this point in time with all the experience and great coaching received, if they don’t shine this season they never will. Not worried about white at all.

Captain Sly
1 month ago

This article seems to be too critical of the young talent on this roster that just won us a SB. If I remember correctly it was Brady throwing those 3 picks nearly costing us the GB game only to have our young defense bail him out. So let’s give these guys some credit for a change. The hope is that everybody improves so I really didn’t see a need for the write-up.

lambeau
Reply to  Captain Sly
1 month ago

Hope is not a strategy–recognizing we are in trouble without a dominant pass rush is crucial to identify and fix the vulnerabilities in the secondary; GB and KC lost more than the Bucs won.

scubog
Reply to  lambeau
1 month ago

What a ridiculous comment from a supposed Bucs fan. People are always out there ready to place an asterisk on what they deem an undeserved victory when the end result didn’t suit their agenda.