Heading into the 2020 offseason the Bucs’ focus revolved around the quarterback position, which they filled with the monumental signing of Tom Brady. Priority No. 2 was keeping the front seven together on defense, which Tampa Bay has largely done by bringing 2019 sack leader Shaq Barrett back via the franchise tag and the re-signing of outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Tampa Bay will still need to add depth at receiver and along the defensive front to replace outside linebacker Carl Nassib and reserve nose tackle Beau Allen, but the front office’s main goals following a 7-9 campaign in 2019 have largely come to fruition.
But the position that has seemingly fallen by the wayside – the one unit that will be under the microscope if Tampa Bay’s defense is to continue its progress in 2020 – is their extremely young and inexperienced secondary. After the release of Vernon Hargreaves III before Week 11 last season, safety Andrew Adams was the Bucs’ lone active defensive back with more than two years of NFL experience outside of reserve cornerback Ryan Smith, who plays primarily on special teams.
After all, Pro Football Focus has argued, while the two are often dependent on each other and pass rush is important to success, coverage grade is generally a greater indicator of a team’s defensive success than a team’s ability to take a quarterback down.
Despite the team’s young cornerbacks exceeding all expectations late in 2019, the youth and lack of depth could become a serious problem if anything were to go wrong in 2020. One would think it would be imperative for Tampa Bay to add a veteran cornerback during free agency, but that’s unlikely to happen as the team believes in the young trio of Carlton Davis, who is entering his third year in the league and Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean, who are coming off their rookie season.
Picking up another cornerback through the draft could add depth, but with the Bucs in win-now mode, the team needs a veteran in the locker room to lead and potentially step in as a starter, even if that means initially leading from the second-string position like Kevin Minter does for the linebackers and Allen did for the defensive line last year.
Tampa Bay’s secondary has been one of multiple significant thorns in the team’s side in recent memory. Between 2016 and 2018 the Bucs’ defense allowed 250.8, 260.6 and 259.4 passing yards per game, respectively, and never ranked better than 22nd in the league over the three-year span.
General manager Jason Licht was dedicated to repairing the unit and “flooded” the position in last year’s draft, adding cornerbacks Murphy-Bunting, Dean and safety Mike Edwards in the second and third rounds of the 2019 draft. The secondary’s performance prior to the season led Bruce Arians to claim that the unit was “fixed” in training camp.
Arians wasn’t necessarily wrong as it turned out, but he was a bit premature.
Murphy-Bunting finished the season tied for the rookie lead with three interceptions. Dean posted a coverage grade of 89.9 between Week 10 and Week 17, the league’s second-highest grade over that span, per PFF, trailing only the league’s Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, and had the seventh-most passes defended in the NFL despite just five starts and 13 games played.
Davis finished just ahead of Dean by allowing completions on just 49.6 percent of his targets in coverage and forced an incompletion on 20.9 percent of his targets in coverage, landing in the NFL’s Top 5 behind the league-leader, Dean.
But through 10 games in 2019, despite a top-ranked run defense, Tampa Bay was sitting at 3-7 while their secondary was surrendering 290.9 passing yards per game and playing a large part in allowing 31.3 points per game. Both of those numbers would have landed the Bucs dead last in the NFL over a full season.
Following a hip injury to Davis before kickoff against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 9, Dean was thrust into the starting lineup opposite Hargreaves. While playing just four defensive snaps all season to that point, Dean was forced to play 57 snaps where he was targeted 14 times, allowing 155 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the eventual overtime loss.
“After last week, I realized I had to prepare differently,” Dean said following the Seahawks game. “The whole week, I’m watching extra film, I’m going up to Coach [Todd] Bowles’ office, just going over film and letting him teach me the game, because honestly, I didn’t want to have that feeling I did last week.”
Davis would return to the Bucs’ starting lineup against Arizona the following week in place of Dean but when Hargreaves was benched for a lack of hustle in the third quarter, Dean would emerge to play 33 defensive snaps, allowing just one reception on five targets for a loss of two yards while breaking up two passes and allowing Tampa Bay’s offense to drive the length of the field for a comeback victory after a red zone interception off Kyler Murray late in the fourth quarter.
The following week Dean didn’t play a single defensive snap as Tampa Bay dropped a divisional match-up to the New Orleans Saints, but Arians made it clear that the rookie defensive back would have to be on the field moving forward. Dean would earn the starting spot across from Davis the following week, with Murphy-Bunting playing in the slot, and hold it for the remainder of the season.
With Dean as a solidified starter and Hargreaves no longer a part of the unit, the young and inexperienced trio would flourish over the remainder of the season, dropping opponents to just 235.5 passing yards and 22.6 points allowed per game en route to a four-game win streak and 4-2 finish to the year.
As previously mentioned, the growth from Davis, Dean and Murphy-Bunting was quick and significant, but with Smith and M.J. Stewart as two of the of the only remaining backups from 2019’s active roster currently under contract, the unit is in severe danger of once again hindering Tampa Bay’s attempt at righting the ship going forward.
The off-season gives teams a chance to really dig in and prepare for their upcoming opponents, specifically within the division, while in-season they have only a week to draw up a game plan. And now that Murphy-Bunting and Dean have a full year of NFL tape to analyze, it makes creating ways to attack their weaknesses that much easier.
Should Davis, Dean and Murphy-Bunting regress from their second-half form or succumb to injury, the Bucs’ cornerback room immediately goes from a probable asset to a liability if left as is. Much like how 2019 saw veteran cornerbacks like Bashaud Breeland sign late in the free agent cycle, free agency in 2020 still leaves players like Brandon Carr available.
Carr hits free agency on the wrong side of 30-years-old, turning 34 prior to the 2020 season, but also fits the bill for the Bucs’ defense. Carr stands right at 6-foot, over 200 pounds, and has the versatility to play all over the secondary. In 2019, Carr tallied 754 total defensive snaps where he played 265 snaps as a slot cornerback, 206 as an outside cornerback, 156 as a box safety and 103 at free safety, per PFF.
A bonus? Carr hasn’t missed a single game in his 12-year career.
Adding an experienced veteran at such a young position does pose a tough internal dilemma however, by possibly taking in-game reps from the team’s rising stars. So to bring in a veteran player, the Bucs would risk slowing the development of a young player, or paying to a veteran who must agree to being a rotational option outside of the starting lineup. But either way, adding depth strictly through youth in the draft provides little in the way of possible leadership or experience at the position.
Licht has successfully flooded the position with talented starters at the dawn of their career, but it’s now the time to fill in the depth at cornerback with an experienced veteran and not simply young role players. Re-signing Smith, who has struggled during his opportunities to play defense over the years in Tampa Bay, will help the Bucs cover punts and kicks on special teams, but won’t offer much help in the secondary if one of the team’s top three cornerbacks goes down with an injury or if Dean or Murphy-Bunting succumbs to a sophomore slump in 2020.