While the Bucs are focused on keeping their Super Bowl LV champion team together by re-signing their own free agents, Tampa Bay will be looking to upgrade a number of positions. PewterReport.com takes a look at each unit over the next week, showcasing which players Tampa Bay could lose, and which players might replace them – including our Bucs’ Best Bets.
2021 Bucs Free Agent Defensive Backs
S Andrew Adams
CB Ross Cockrell
S Ryan Smith
The Bucs’ defensive backs had some growing pains toward the tail end of the season after a phenomenal eight-game stretch to start the season. The inexperience of the group definitely played a role in that, as Carlton Davis was the eldest statesman of the cornerback room in his third season, next to the second-year duo of Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean in the starting lineup. Behind the young cornerback unit was an equally inexperienced starting safety duo of third-year player Jordan Whitehead and rookie Antoine Winfield Jr.
Despite a rocky second half of the season that really lasted through the Bucs’ Wild Card round victory over Washington, the unit finished the season on the highest of high notes with great performances against the Saints, Packers and Chiefs en route to a Super Bowl victory. Additionally, the Bucs’ secondary finished tied for seventh in the NFL with 15 interceptions, 14th with 70 passes defended, 21st with 249.1 passing yards allowed per game and 29th in completion percentage allowed at 69 percent. An interesting note to add is that the Bucs’ secondary finished sixth in expected points contributed by passing defense, despite finishing the season with an average ranking in most traditional categories.
Heading into the 2021 offseason the Bucs are in a good position to keep their defensive back unit largely intact due to the overwhelmingly youth within the group, and the few pieces that are set to hit free agency all come in the form of veteran depth pieces in Adams, Cockrell and Smith.
Top Free Agent Defensive Backs Available
1. S Justin Simmons – Broncos
2. S Anthony Harris – Vikings
3. S Marcus Williams – Saints
4. CB William Jackson III – Bengals
5. CB Richard Sherman – 49ers
Others: CB Desmond King II (Titans), S Marcus Maye (Jets), S John Johnson III (Rams), CB Mike Hilton (Steelers), CB Troy Hill (Rams), CB Chidobe Awuzie (Cowboys), CB Brian Poole (Jets), CB Xavier Woods (Cowboys), CB Quinton Dunbar (Seahawks), CB Xavier Rhodes (Colts), CB Ronald Darby (Washington), CB Jason Verrett (49ers), S Malik Hooker (Colts), S Keanu Neal (Falcons), CB Patrick Peterson (Cardinals), CB Nickell Robey-Coleman (Eagles)
Bucs’ DB Outlook
As previously mentioned, the Bucs will largely not have to make many tough decisions among their starting defensive backs, but will see veterans Adams, Smith and Cockrell all hit free agency this offseason.
Smith – a special teams captain – is the lone member of Tampa Bay’s 2016 draft class that remains with the Bucs. Primarily used as a gunner on specials teams, the five-year veteran has spent the entirety of his career with the Bucs and I don’t see that changing in 2021. Adams is in a similar situation, spending two partial seasons with Tampa Bay in 2018 and 2019 before spending the entirety of the 2020 season on the Bucs’ roster. Much like Smith, Adams provides value on special teams and has shown that he can step in and be a suitable depth piece if a couple of the Bucs’ starters go down. I would expect both Adams and Smith to return in red and pewter next season.
And that leaves Cockrell, a veteran cornerback who found himself in the starting lineup for two games in 2020 due to injury after originally signing to the Bucs’ practice squad in September. Cockrell is on the list of players that the Bucs want back for next season, but in a cornerback-hungry league, Cockrell may find a more lucrative deal than one the Bucs can offer him in free agency after a solid 2020 season in a limited role. Cockrell totaled 11 tackles and three pass breakups on the season.
Bucs’ Best Bet: CB Ryan Smith
As previously stated, Smith is a vital special teams player and you would figure that no one in the league will value what he provides more than the Bucs. He’s found a niche with Tampa Bay that has kept him in red and pewter for five seasons and that will likely remain the case. He brings a veteran presence to the unit, he’s familiar with Todd Bowles’ defense and he can step in to play defensive back in a worst-case-scenario situation.
Should Cockrell find a pay day somewhere new, the Bucs may once again be forced to scour free agency for an affordable veteran cornerback to throw in the mix, but as of now, Smith appears to be the most likely candidate to be re-signed this offseason.