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FAB 1. Barber Loves Bucs’ Young DBs
Many long-time PewterReport.com readers know that I’m a huge fan of legendary Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber. In the media, we’re not supposed to be fans or pick favorite players, but you know that I’m an honest, tell-it-like-it-is reporter.
In over two decades of covering the Bucs, I’ll admit that Barber is my favorite, and I’m a huge fan of both the person and No. 20 – the former player.
Our relationship started off a bit rocky. In the late 1990s when he was just starting to truly become Ronde Barber, he and I had a few words after I wrote that he was slow in Buccaneer Magazine, and didn’t have a great 40-yard dash time coming out of Virginia. Barber was quick to inform me that he won the national high school title in the 55-meter hurdles as a senior in 1993, with a time of 7.18 seconds. Barber was also timed at 14.05 seconds in the 110-meter hurdles.
At his locker, I apologized for calling Barber slow and we moved past that. He began to read what would become Pewter Report magazine and later PewterReport.com and appreciate my work. The feeling was certainly mutual as I marveled at the player that Jon Gruden would later say was pound-for-pound the toughest Buccaneer in Barber.
There were many years later in Barber’s career where he and I would do an annual Conversation with Ronde Barber for Pewter Report Magazine. I would ask the Tampa Bay media relations staff for 20-25 minutes of Barber’s time and he would always stay for a total of 45-60 minutes where we would stray from football at the end and talk pop culture, current events and national news. There wasn’t any subject that Barber wasn’t knowledgeable about.
Barber is simply the most intelligent Buccaneer I’ve ever known. When Barber talks, I listen.
Except for that one time during the 2008 offseason when I asked him about the class of cornerbacks in the upcoming NFL Draft, knowing that Tampa Bay was going to likely select one in the first round and that the Bucs’ brass would undoubtedly pick his brain during the scouting process.
Barber, knowing I was a Kansas State alum, told me his favorite cornerback was Aqib Talib, who played at Kansas, and then winked at me. I thought the wink was a friendly dig at me for offering up the name of cornerback that played at K-State’s archrival. Instead, he was signaling to me that the Bucs were going to draft Talib, which they did with the 20th overall selection.
Talib wasn’t the fleetest of foot, and I remember him getting absolutely smoked by K-State’s Jordy Nelson earlier that year. Despite the subtle hint from Barber – that I ultimately didn’t pick up on – I didn’t have Talib in my mock draft or as a Bucs’ Best Bet that year in the Pewter Report pre-draft issue. Like Barber, Talib wasn’t known as a fast cornerback, but he was incredibly instinctive and had a nose for the ball.
No wonder Barber appreciated Talib, whom he told me was the best cornerback he ever played with. That’s saying something considering that Barber also suited up next to Donnie Abaham, who had 31 career interceptions in Tampa Bay, and Brian Kelly and Dwight Smith, who were both on the Bucs’ Super Bowl team.
I learned my lesson.
When Barber talks, I listen.
So when Barber held court with the Bucs beat writers following his Bucs Ring of Honor induction speech at the AdventHealth Training Center on Tuesday, I was all ears for the half hour he gave us. One of the questions I asked him was about Tampa Bay’s young secondary, specifically the cornerbacks. Barber had given general manager Jason Licht props for drafting four cornerbacks over the last four years, including two this year. Licht actually drafted five if you count special teamer Ryan Smith.
After a storied 16-year Hall-of-Fame-worthy career it’s safe to say that Barber knows defense, and he certainly knows the cornerback position. Barber works for Fox as an NFL color commentator as well as WFLA News Channel 8’s Bucs preseason analyst, so he basically lives at One Buccaneer Place during training camp where he has been watching the young cornerbacks intently to see how they perform in Todd Bowles’ scheme, which features a lot of press-man coverage and blitzing.
“The one position where you don’t have a lot of thinking is corner,” Barber said of Bowles’ scheme. “You’re going to end up in a match almost every single play. They’re aggressive. One thing that you guys have noticed when you watch the film, watch practice, every single ball is contested. It’s conducive to making plays on the ball because there’s always the threat of pressure, so the ball is never going to come out on time. You can’t hold the ball. It’s got to come out. It will be exciting.”
One thing that will greatly aid Tampa Bay’s young cornerbacks is the constant pressure from the blitzing linebackers and safeties. Bowles is a relentless blitzer.
“You haven’t seen any of it yet,” Barber said. “I’ve been privy to look through a playbook and I’ve probably seen about five percent of it. He was the one guy, obviously I did Arizona games, I did a Jets game last year, and trying to diagnose it, it’s hard – hard to figure out what he’s coming with and what it actually looks like. By the time the play’s over you’re like, ‘What coverage were they in?’ For a quarterback, it’s hell. It’s going to be tough. That’s just what it is.”
Barber has always been a big fan of Vernon Hargreaves III, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2016. Barber endorsed the move to draft Hargreaves because he loves his quick feet, smooth hips and aggressiveness at the line of scrimmage and when tackling. It’s no surprise that Hargreaves, who is a press-man cornerback, is now thriving in Bowles’ press-man scheme.
But what about the other Bucs cornerbacks?
“[Jamel] Dean looks unlike any corner I’ve ever seen,” Barber said of the 6-foot-1, 206-pound athletic freak. “He’s big, long and he can run a 4.2. Like what? I don’t know what that is!”
It’s clear that Barber is an awe of Dean’s athletic prowess even if he’s got a ways to go to develop into an NFL player. Barber is also impressed with the Bucs’ other rookie corner.
“Sean Murphy-Bunting has Vernon-like short space quickness and a feel as a football player.”
Murphy-Bunting reminds me a bit of a taller Abraham, and I think Barber sees it, too.
“Carlton [Davis], I think he’s better at the line of scrimmage,” Barber said. “He’s long, physical as hell and he’s competitive. I really like him.”
Even though he’s a hybrid safety-nickel cornerback, M.J. Stewart was another player Barber talked about and he brought his name up in the discussion.
“M.J. Stewart has impressed me as much as anybody,” Barber said. “His first couple days of practice this year, I was like, ‘Oh, God. He’s going to succumb to the pressure of these young guys. Since then, you can easily say he’s been the second-best corner out there. He’s versatile and can do a lot of things.
“He’s tough as hell, which I like. You know this – I tend to judge corners through the prism of Ronde Barber. You know? How would they compare to me? He most closely resembles it.”
That’s high praise coming from Tampa Bay’s best defensive back of all-time, and the franchise’s all-time interception leader with 47 picks. Stewart was blown away by Barber’s comments when asked about them after practice on Wednesday.
“That’s an honor coming from a guy who’s in the Bucs Ring Of Honor and potentially a future Hall of Famer,” Stewart said. “I think he should be [in the Hall of Fame]. Hearing those words from him is an inspiration and motivation to me just to … it’s a tribute to what I’ve been doing on the field with my work. I just got to keep going and keep going, just to prove his words right.”
I still question Stewart’s speed, as too often he is in a trail position covering slot receivers or outside receivers if he doesn’t get a good jam at the line of scrimmage. But Barber is right that Stewart has really come on in camp, and has certainly been a physical presence on the gridiron.
Who am I to question Barber’s educated opinion on Stewart?
I was wrong to call a certain former Bucs cornerback slow before. Maybe I shouldn’t make the same mistake twice.