Cornerback is an interesting position in today’s NFL. Specifically, the slot cornerback position is interesting. Some teams treat it as an entirely separate position from their outside cornerbacks, while others shuffle players back and forth. There’s a split there between the defenses with tall, stiff outside cornerbacks, and those with more agile defensive backs.
Ostensibly, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should do well on the versatility front: their cornerbacks tend be shorter, agile and very good in small spaces. But what Dirk Koetter said today suggests that they’re not approaching these positions as interchangeable for their personnel.
"Well, right now the way it's looking those might be two different positions. Third outside corner and slot corner might end up being two different positions, with a couple guys playing both. Jude [Adjei-Barimah] and Bobby Mac – Robert McClain – can play both spots. Ryan [Smith]'s primarily playing outside, not inside. And then Javien Elliott, you can throw him into the mix there, too; he can play both spots. Who's going to be the third corner, who's going to be the nickel corner? It should be a good competition."
It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. It’d be surprising to see Ryan Smith win the backup outside cornerback job, given that he really didn’t play last year and was just a fourth-round pick then, but it makes more sense to use him in that role than as a slot cornerback.
One upside to this approach is the resurgence of so-called Big Nickel defenses, where a big safety replaces the slot cornerback against certain offenses—mostly the tight end-dominated ones. The Bucs have the players to do that, with J.J. Wilcox and Keith Tandy particularly likely candidates for a slot role if they don’t earn starting jobs at safety.
I’d still expect Jude Adjei-Barimah to win that slot cornerback role, though, and I would be very surprised if he isn’t also the first cornerback off the bench in case Brent Grimes or Vernon Hargreaves goers down. He has been pretty strong as a third cornerback the past two years, and there’s no real reason for that to change now—unless Ryan Smith is making some kind of massive push. Which might be happening.
One name missing from that list of players the Bucs attacked, incidentally: Josh Robinson, who the Bucs retained this season after using him mostly as a special teamer last year. Seems he’s staying on special teams and not really in the running for a cornerback job.
Regardless, it’ll be interesting to see how Mike Smith handles this come the regular season. Especially given his stated desire to get a little more complicated with this defense—toying around with personnel packages is a perfect way to do exactly that.