Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick - Photo by: Getty Images
No Fly Zone.
There has to be pride in that statement. It’s like when the University of Florida tells people they’re DBU (Defensive Back University), or any school that tries to (like LSU), really – we all know it’s UF. It’s not that other schools don’t have good cornerbacks, and it’s not like good corners don’t get burned in coverage sometimes. But, there has to be an element of pride that comes with using that slogan. There has to be a mentality that no matter what player is on the opposite side of that line of scrimmage, you don’t care. You’re better. And that’s on every play.
I didn’t see a lot of pride in Tampa Bay’s secondary in 2017. I saw some learning. I saw some flashes. I saw some working together. I saw a handful of good things. But, I also saw scared play. I saw soft play. I saw “Just don’t give up the big one” play.
That’s not pride. That’s not a no fly zone. That’s bend but don’t break in the worst way.
Let’s look at some of the numbers.
Statistically speaking, 2017 was awful for the Bucs, especially on defense. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the ninth-worst defense in the NFL in terms of points given up per game (23.9), but had the worst defense in the entire NFL in terms of yards allowed per game (378.1). A big reason for that was because the 260.6 passing yards allowed per game was also a league worst. The team was sixth worst in terms of total first downs allowed and was a bottom-10 team when it came to giving up plays of 20 yards or more and plays of 40 yards or more through the air. With surrendering key plays and big plays already, the icing on the cake was that Tampa Bay was also close to last in the league in quarterback completion percentage, too.
Short, medium, long, in key situations and in points given up, this Bucs secondary sucked.
So let’s check out who the culprits were.
(via Pro Football Focus)
We have to start with cornerback Brent Grimes. Grimes has been a treat of a free agency signing, which doesn’t happen very often for players who sign their deals in their 30’s. According to Pro Football Focus, Grimes graded out the 2017 season with a score of 82, which, to their numerical standards, is labeled as “above average.” Grimes grabbed three interceptions last season, which made it five seasons in a row where he has recorded at least three.
I thought Grimes was fine this season when he was on the field. He’s still athletic as hell, and I don’t even mean that for his age. He has elite recovery speed, jumping ability and ball skills, and was clearly the most polished cornerback on the roster. However, I wonder if Grimes being in Tampa Bay is actually limiting what the secondary does, or at least the way defensive coordinator Mike Smith perceives it. Grimes is an off coverage guy by nature, and for good reason. He has the athletic ability and the wisdom from his years in the game to be less physical at the beginning of the play and more athletic in the end. That works for him.
That doesn’t work for Vernon Hargreaves; that doesn’t work for Ryan Smith; that doesn’t work for Robert McClain; that doesn’t work for Javien Elliott. Those guys not named Brent Grimes got torched this season because the team tried to play a 2-deep safety look where the cornerbacks played off coverage a lot. Grimes made up for it; the others can’t. I get building your scheme around your best players, but not here.
Hey Mike Smith, allow Grimes to play off coverage and tell Hargreaves and Smith to play press coverage. It’s what they do best.
Next let’s look at the next two players on the outside from a grade standpoint and a performance standpoint starting with Hargreaves. Hargreaves was again having a rough start to his 2017 season just like he did during his 2016 season. There didn’t seem to be a lot of growth of confidence going on, and, in fact, Hargreaves looked even more hesitant to start this season, most notably in the Vikings and Cardinals games. Hargreaves’ 72.9 grade from PFF ranked him as the 76th best cornerback in the NFL, but that grade being that high was likely due to the fact that when he was demoted to the nickel position, he played better, especially against the Bills.
The reason I believe he played better as a nickel is because Hargreaves was allowed to press where the Bucs’ outside cornerbacks were not. Hargreaves’ best tape from his time at UF was when he was able to play close to the line of scrimmage and get physical with wide receivers – bumping them, re-routing them, whatever it was. He had a tendency to get bullied by some bigger, stronger wide outs – because he’s small, shocker – but playing him close in press actually gave him a chance.
It is looking like Hargreaves might just be a nickel corner in the NFL. That doesn’t look very good on his draft grade, as he was the 11th overall pick in 2016, but that’s in the past. He’s on the team now and now it’s just about Tampa Bay getting the most out of him. That’s in close coverage from the slot. The need to figure out a way to let him do that and flourish. Besides, the nickel cornerback role is a starting position in the modern day NFL, and the Bucs were in nickel defense over 60 percent of the time last year.
Ryan Smith’s grade wasn’t so kind. His 44.8 grade for the 2017 season was the 105th worst grade PFF gave out for cornerbacks. Now, I actually like Smith. First of all, he was drafted in the fourth round, so people expecting a lot of good out of him in just his second season aren’t thinking with context. Second, the team ran him with the safety group during his rookie year, so this season was his first year even working with the cornerbacks full-time. Third, he was thrust into a starting NFL role way before a logical time clock would have preferred due to injuries to Grimes, Hargreaves and McClain throughout the season.
Smith has long limbs for a guy who is just 5-foot-11, which makes him play bigger. His recovery speed and straight line speed are elite, if you ask me, but when you play cornerback a lot of what you do has to be with anticipation, even with great speed. Smith was trying to learn the playbook, the tendencies of the other defenders in a zone scheme, technique for a cornerback and when to know when the ball is coming all in one season. It’s ridiculous to expect more from someone knowing all that, especially someone from a small school like North Carolina Central.
Like Hargreaves, when the team allowed Smith to play more physical and use his length to get into receivers early, he fared much better. It was the off coverage and relying on anticipation and savviness for the position that only comes with time under your belt that screwed him over. They tried to play Smith like they played Grimes and it didn’t work for obvious reasons. When Grimes can play four of five yards off his guys, Smith has to play six or seven because he just doesn’t know wide receiver tendencies yet and need the extra space to be cautious and react.
Bucs CB Ryan Smith – Photo by: Getty Images
I thought McClain was fine as a reserve cornerback, but he’s not a guy you want coming into a starting role, as much as he did in 2017. Elliott has potential as a slot guy, and I think he should stick around. He’s a free agent this year.
But, all of this comes down to a philosophy that is broken. First of all, the Bucs like to play their safeties as multiple as they can. If you’ve read any of my work talking about Tampa Bay’s secondary from this season you’ll know that I hate that. Being multiple is good, in theory, but instead of it confusing opposing teams’ quarterbacks, a lack of pass rush just left both safeties in a 2-deep no man’s land – not helping either outside cornerback enough deep and hardly helping the linebackers over the middle. If you have that in the back of your mind, that you can’t really trust your safeties to help you, we then go into the Bucs corners playing off coverage in a Cover 3 or quarters coverage role where they’re asked to cover an entire third or fourth of the field that stretches all the way to the goal line. You can start to see this recipe for disaster.
Playing off coverage means you have to be savvy. No cornerback on the Bucs is savvy (yet) other than Grimes. The Bucs are basing their entire secondary strategy around one guy who is the only guy they have on the roster who can pull it off – and therefore pulls the rest of the defense down. Grimes is a good corner, and I’m sure the Bucs would love to have him back, but if he’s not willing or they’re not willing to change what they do and what he does to aid the rest of the secondary, even a somewhat better pass rush won’t yield what you want when defending the pass. Just ask the 2016 team. The Bucs had 38 sacks in 2016, which was ninth-best in the league, and yet they still had the 10th-worst pass defense in the league.
It’s not even just a talent thing, although the Bucs could certainly stand to get more talent in their secondary in a few spots. It’s a philosophy thing and it’s a mentality thing. When Hargreaves lines up eight yards off his receiver on third-and-5, it’s not because he sucks, it’s because he doesn’t trust the philosophy, so he’s just making sure he doesn’t get beat deep. When Ryan Smith loses the ball in the air because he was looking around at where the rest of the zone coverage is, it’s not because he’s dumb, it’s because the philosophy is asking him to manage a lot of open space and use experience he doesn’t have.
This secondary needs a new identity. It needs new confidence. And the player on the next page could help bring both in as soon as 2018, if he so happens to end up in red and pewter.
Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for PewterReport.com. Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at: [email protected]
I don’t even have to read this to know that I’m going to love it. Thank you!!!
Who knew you’d be the first one to comment lol
Haha! I had to be the first one for my boy Minkah!
Did you watch the super bowl Trev? The losing team threw for over 500 yards, and three T.D.’s. The biggest play of the game was a sack fumble, and there was only one sack out of how many passing plays? This should tell you the best way to win is by protecting your own Q.B., and getting pressure on the opposing Q.B.. We wasted a second rounder on a safety last year now you want to use the 7th pick on another one? Fix the trenches!! Fitzpatrick played for Alabama, they put pressure on Q.B.’s, we don’t, he’d be as useless as T#t’s on a bull playing for us! It’s impossible covering receivers in todays NFL, Fitzpatrick won’t be able to get away with what he did in college. Protect your Q.B., knock the other one down, you win. Fix the trenches!! Licht has spend a first rounder on a corner, a second rounder on a safety, but has only picked two D linemen in four years! One was a gamble reach in the second round, one a friggin seventh rounder!! That’s why we’re losers, not because we can’t cover, but because we can’t get pressure on the Q.B., or stop the run. I’m disappointed in you son, I thought you were smarter then this.
Fix the trenches with who? If Chubb, Vea, and Nelson are gone, who are you drafting at 7 worth that pick? I want the trenches to get fixed too, but reaching for a player is how bad teams draft. BPA is 99% the best way to draft in the 1st round regardless of depth. Minkah would instantly add talent and attitude to our defense.
Vea will not be gone before 7 and we should absolutley take Minkah over him.
I’m not disagreeing. I was giving a scenario of who would be left to fix the trenches to pick at #7 if all those guys were gone. Minkah would be a great addition to our team.
I wasn’t saying they have to pick him at No. 7! I’m letting you guys decide. I just think he has the ability to be a shutdown corner, that’s all. Trench play is still their No. 1 fix, priority wise. But, will the prospects left on the board match what they need in the trenches? If not, perhaps Minkah comes into play.
So what you got from a ton of passing in the super bowl is….not fix our secondary. What??! Also calling Evans a wasted second round pick is absolutely absurd. If Chubb is gone, picking any other D lineman is a reach at 7. Id be fine with Nelson or Minkah but how many times to we have to complain about shit safeties and corners before we actually draft a stud. Minkah is a stud.
Absolutely agree – last time we picked a S from Bama – Mark Baron – hype was all around. Playing behind that Bama D’line makes DB’s look great! Needs to be trenches first an then build back from there, both sides of the ball.
Suferdudes, all that Trevor is doing is writing articles about potential options for the Bucs to draft in April. As you can see if you look back over the past few Cover 3’s that he didn’t even start with Minkah. Also, the trenches weren’t the problem in 2016 when we were the #10 team in terms of sacks. The truth is that we lost our second most important player on defense for most of the season (Noah Spence) and that crippled the entire team. Once we get Noah back and even just add one other pass rusher then we will see a dramatic improvement in the defense. Therefore, it’s important to take the best player available whether that’s Bradley Chubb, Quenton Nelson, Vita Vea, Saquon Barkley, or my personal favorite Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Great breakdown on Minkah. I got watch a lot of him and tend to think he’ll be an excellent prospect at the next level. Two things concern me: 1) I’m not sure he’s a outside corner in the NFL. He plays with the fearlessness of a Ronnie Lott which means he needs the freedom to read, improvise and react. Playing on a loaded Alabama defense allowed him, in part, to have that freedom. Drafting him at 7 as a Nickel or Safety when we have so many needs may be high. If the Bucs are able to drop back a couple of picks and accumulate additional draft assets and get him (or Derwin James – who I tend to lean more towards as a really high upside guy) I’d be ok with drafting him. 2) The Bucs secondary lacks an Enforcer. I’m not suggesting that the Enforcer needs to be a crazy hitter but more of a guy who puts some fear in opposing QBs, WRs and TEs. In the absence of a dynamic edge rusher, what gives QBs pause is knowing that someone on the back end can entirely screw up passing attack. The question is who fits that mold more: James or Fitzpatrick?
If you are drafting him as a nickel/safety, I agree, No. 7 is a stretch. But, if you do think he can be a shutdown corner, then No. 7 becomes more in line with potential value. All depends how you see him. Top cornerbacks get picked high for a reason and nickel/safety players don’t get picked as high for a reason. I think everyone knows he’s really talented, but use matters.
Great Article! I love learning the “hows” and the “whys” when it comes to our schemes, players and potential players. I think Minkah is a luxury pick for a team without many holes. The Bucs do not have the luxury of taking him though. If Chubb or Nelson is not there, then we should trade down. This draft seems stronger than most and with so many QBs probably going early, a lot of talent is going to be available at pick 10-15. I am excited to see who the Bucs come away with.
Thanks! Glad to hear you’re getting more in tune with the “hows” and the “whys.” That’s why I write it the way I do. One day you guys won’t need me, you’ll already know!
How is the top defensive back a luxury pick? Our entire secondary besides maybe free safety is a hole.
I dont know if this coaching staff can put Fitzpatrick in the best position to be successful. You talked about in your cover 1 that they arent even using our corners correctly. The average person can watch the bucs and be blown away as to why they let Hargraves and ryan smith play so far off coverage. They should know that is wasnt working and they would be better at playing press closer to the receiver. I would be worried that they wont use Fitzpatrick correctly and let him play to his strengths.
Chances are, if Smith & Co. continue to misuse their DB’s in 2018, there will be a new staff with new ideas working with them in 2019.
A better pass rush would make our DB’S play better!!
Noah Spence about to come back with a vengeance in 2018. Believe it.
Believing in Noah Spence at this point is like believing in a lambskin condom. I mean it might work out but I wouldn’t bet on it…..
Because he got hurt, didnt fix it, and then was hurt again? Logical. Its been two seasons.
No debate here. Pass rush is king. But, the philosophy of the secondary HAS TO change regardless of how improved the pass rush becomes for 2018.
Let’s fix the secondary through FA since there are some decent guys out there. Dump Grimes, Ward, McClain, and pick up Breeland and Fuller to strong deals, move VGIII to slot corner, then draft Justin Reid in the 3rd to pair with Evans at safety. Keep Conte, Tandy, Robinson, Smith as your #2s. There is no Minkah in there, but it’s an upgrade across the board, and we use the 1st pick to fortify the D-Line and dovetail to a 3-4 on DEF as PR has been espousing.
(Trade down with Arizona for a 3rd would be ideal if they wanted to get Allen or Nelson)
1st Rnd: V. Vea/D. Payne [DT]
2nd Rnd: I. Wynn/W. Hernandez/B. Smith [OG]
3rd Rnd: O. Okoronkwo/ U. Nwosu [3-4 OLB / DE]
3rd Rnd (From Trade Down): J. Reid/D. Elliot/K. White [S]
4th Rnd: R. Penny/M. Carter/N. Hines [COP RB]
As PR and many have commented on this site, let’s go with a youth movement –
Dump: Sweezy, Martin, Rodgers, Sims, Ayers, Baker, Grimes, Ward, McClain, McDonald, Evan-Smith (Almost all over 29 years old)
Re-Sign: Brate, Humphries, Pamphile, Tandy, Siliga (24-28 year olds)
FA: Crowell, Norwell, Breeland, Fuller (25-26 year olds)
Great cover three as always Trevor. First thing is first, as Mark would agree, right now FSU is DB-U. haha
I agree that the secondary philosophy needs to change, but do you think he will do it? I don’t. For some reason, this guy is scared to death of playing press coverage. Hell even as a NOles fan I knew Hargreaves was a much better press corner than an off guy. Yet smith still plays him off 15 yards.
Anywho, I like Fitzpatrick a lot. Watching him a few times , he seems to be really smart player with a ton of athleticism. It come down to how the Bucs would use him. I think he would start as a free safety, but as you stated we already have Justin Evans, who I thought played much better as the season went on. If you’re going strong safety, I’d go with Derwin all day at that spot. You could probably even get him if you trade back a few spots.
This all of course is tough without knowing who’s going ahead of us. But another strong cover three.
Noah Spence has never been a difference maker for the Bucs, expecting him to come back strong this year is delusional. Judging how well Fitzpatrick will be as a pro is difficult, Alabama’s defensive line had more talent then ours last year. Nick Saban is also a better defensive coach then anyone on our staff including Mike Smith. I’d rather draft one of their D linemen then Fitzpatrick. Yes Evans was a wasted pick when you consider we could’ve had the offensive rookie of the year in Kamara, think he would’ve helped us more then Evans. Remember the last time we drafted a sure fire safety from Alabama, how did that work out? Better to reach for any help along either line then draft a safety that high.
Barron was no sure fire safety, when he came out of Alabama. Fitz is WAY WAY better.
Why is there never any mention for Derwin James?? He’s equally as good a player, DB as Fitz. Both are head and shoulders the top 2 DBs in this draft. If Chubb and Barkley are off the board at 7, and Fitz and or James are available, I have no problem taking either. Fitz can play CB and S, James can play S and LB in some packages like he did at FSU.
James is getting slept on by too many people. He can rush the passer when down in the box, and is an excellent blitzer. We didn’t see Fitz blitz or rush the passer barley. Look up highlights from James freshman season(2015), watch his tape vs Florida that year. He absolutely destroys their RT with ease on the way to the QB. At 6’3 218, James destroys UF’s 6’6 312 right tackle.
I’ll get to James!
This cover 3 was just about Fitzpatrick. James’ Cover 3 is coming. Don’t worry. We’ll certainly be able to weigh both by draft weekend.
He’s a bigger, more athletic Budda Baker. I think he’ll end up in a similar role. Base strong safety and coming down into the slot in nickel. Is that type of player worth #7? Possibly. Jamal Adams went pretty high, though he was a much more polished player.
If you want an outside corner… Why not just pick a player who’s played that position his entire college career and been dominant at it. Just pick Josh Jackson.
I’m of the same sentiment as most, the pick has to be a trench player unless Licht goes crazy in the FA/trade market.
Jackson plays very similarly to how the Bucs like to use their corners, or at least the way they have over the last two years. So, to your theory, trading down a bit and getting Jackson would be a fit if they chose to go that direction and if a trench player is not suitable at No. 7
If you’re talking about a shutdown corner, I would take James over Fitz if only for where he came from FSU already producing Ramsey and James being bigger with most everything else equaling out. But I’m still sold on Vea. He is the type of berzerker this defense SORELY lacks.
No, James is a Safety all the way, who can play some OLB in 3-4 packages. Fitz is a CB/S, he would be the better shut down Corner.
Whoa, Great debate guys, I am so confused because you all have logical cases for the player you support. Initially I was a fix the lines guy, but I am concerned that Grubb goes to Indy and Nelson while a 10 year investment just doesn’t have the appeal at 7. Shut down corner would be nice and Fitzpatrick certainly would be a great catch except for the fact (mentioned above) that Alabama’s D-line was better than half the teams in the NFL. What’s he do when Matty Ice has a 5 count to find Julio 50 yards down field in full stride? You could trade back and get Vea, Key, Davenport, Derwin James, or Conner Williams. And to make thinks more confusing, what are you going to do if Saquon Barkley falls to 7. Don’t say it can’t happen, 2 highly respected draft sources show him going to the Buc’s.
Guess at this point in the process I go with a “Wild-Ass Guess, and take the sure thing, Quentin Nelson at 7. Boring but solid.
Not sure we are the team to take a risk at this point at spot 7. Good article Trevor.
We will learn a ton at the combine. I like Minkah if Chubb is off of the board and he projects well as an outside corner. If Minkah, Chubb and Barkley are all gone, then its either trade back (which could be likely as good QBs would still be there) or draft Nelson and hope he is the next Logan Mankins. I just hate spending premium picks on interior lineman.
If Minkah looks as smooth as we anticipate on the drills and runs anything at 4.41 or faster, I would encourage the pick. If he looks great in his footwork but runs anything north of 4.41, I just have to pass at 7. I’m not in the D line or bust category like so many here are. I know the argument that the D-Line helps the secondary but there was so little fear for a QB to drop 3 steps and release the ball. No fear that the DB’s would show the instincts or ability to jump a route. This defense needs young talent.
As far as an earlier poster saying Spence didn’t make an impact, he really did when you watch the film. I was fearful he was rushed back too quickly from last season’s surgery and I am hopeful that this surgery will correct the issue. Being said, until his shoulder shows that it can last a season , he can’t be counted on. Still would love to see him used as a 3-4 rush edge guy but I don’t see that changing.
If Fitz, Chubb and Barkley are all off the board at 7, you have to strongly consider Derwin James before trading down. Just like Fitz, James is worthy of a top 10 pick.
Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James are exactly the same player. I think who goes first of the two will depend on how they perform at the combine (sort of a tie breaker). The reason I say this is because both of them resemble Jalen Ramsey and we see what he’s doing for the Jags. I remember many folks saying the same stuff about him ,”Ramsey is a safety , he’s not fast enough to play CB, blah blah blah”. I think both of these guys are worth the Bucs possibly taking. Yes I would take Chubb first and and foremost but if he’s off the board you have to go with the best player available and I think we need to draft defense early and often.
Watching the play where Minkah takes on the lead blocker reminds me of Lavonte’s first snap on defence of the regular season back in 2012. Lavonte obliterated Mike Tolbert on an outside run that allowed the rest of the defence to mob DeAngelo Williams (go back and watch it – it’s one of my favourite Lavonte plays).
Selfless players like that allow others to shine. For Mike Smith’s defence to work requires players to do their job so selfless players like this are so important.
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