One of the biggest question marks for the Bucs this season will be how they can weather the loss of CB Sean Murphy-Bunting. As the team’s starting outside cornerback and primary nickel option, Murphy-Bunting played a lot of roles for the Bucs. With some of that versatility missing from the Tampa Bay secondary, top cornerback Carlton Davis will have to step up even more.
Last year, I argued Davis was Tampa Bay’s most valuable defensive player. Imagine turning over the Bucs cornerback spots to Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean, given the way the two played last year. The loss of Murphy-Bunting only accentuates the importance of Davis, who will be counted on to make life easier for Dean and Ross Cockrell.
Bucs CB Carlton Davis III and Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill – Photo by: USA Today
“Oh, there’s no doubt about it,” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said. “Carlton is, I think, one of the top corners in the league. He does give you a lot of flexibility defensively, as far as being able to follow a guy from inside to outside and both sides. Some guys only do it from one side or on the outside. [Davis] will follow his guy around. He gives Todd [Bowles] a tremendous amount of flexibility.”
In most matchups last year, Davis would follow an opposing team’s No. 1 wide receiver, if the Bucs deployed man coverage. Because Tampa Bay plays a healthy percentage of their snaps from a single high alignment, Davis doesn’t often have a lot of safety help. He excelled in two matchups against Michael Thomas and other battles with Allen Robinson, Keenan Allen and Davante Adams. Smaller, quicker receivers like Tyreek Hill and the Rams duo of Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods gave him issues, but Davis was still crucial to the Bucs defensive success in 2020.
The fourth-year cornerback kicked off the 2021 season with a bang against the Cowboys. Davis broke up two passes and intercepted another against the Cowboys, while Dean and Cockrell struggled. The stability Davis provides is critical for a Bucs cornerback room that is full of question marks outside of the Auburn product.
“Me and Carlton came in together,” safety Jordan Whitehead said. “We put the work in together. I know and everybody knows what he is capable of doing. You put him against the best receiver – that’s what he wants to do. When a guy asks for it, you know that it means something. I know that he’s going to lock them down. He just makes the rest of us be able to just do our jobs. He handles one side, and you know it’s going to be locked down. It helps everybody else out.”
Falcons WR Calvin Ridley – Photo by: USA Today
The Bucs have never needed Davis more than they’ll need him right now. Dean was constantly picked on against the Cowboys, while dealing with “other things” per Arians. Cockrell is a reliable veteran, but will be significantly mismatched at times due to a lack of size and speed. The Bucs other depth at cornerback is largely untested until Murphy-Bunting returns.
In a contract year, a huge opportunity lies before Davis. Budding Bucs killer Calvin Ridley comes to town on Sunday, and Davis will be charged with shutting him down. Ridley has 24 catches for 300 yards and two touchdowns in his last three games against the Bucs. The caveat is that Davis hasn’t played much in the last two meetings between the Bucs and the Falcons, with just 40 snaps in Week 15 and none in Week 17 last year. To make the challenge more difficult, Davis is questionable for Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury. He is expected to play despite the designation.
If Davis can lock up Ridley, it’s hard to see the Falcons finding a path to victory. The week after that, Kupp and Woods are back on the schedule. The time for Davis to be special is now.
“If you take the numbers, if you take the stats, take the film? I’m second to none,” Davis said before Week 1. “Second to none.”
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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