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The Buccaneers’ secondary could be dominant this year

If everything goes right, look out.

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NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Minicamp Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a bit of an up-and-down coverage unit. Brent Grimes was awesome and had one of the best seasons of his career, but Vernon Hargreaves was inconsistent at best, and the Bucs’ safeties struggled until Keith Tandy consistently got on the field at the end of the season.

So Pro Football Focus ranked the current unit, which added J.J. Wilcox and second-round pick Justin Evans at safety, 15th in the NFL and that sounds about right.

At age 33, Brent Grimes finished 2016 with the highest overall grade of his career at 90.2, which was fourth highest among all cornerbacks. As a rookie starting opposite Grimes, Vernon Hargreaves III saw more passes thrown into his coverage than any defender in the league while giving up over 200 more yards than the next player. The safety position could be a strength as new addition J.J. Wilcox finished last season with the 14th highest coverage grade (84.2), while Keith Tandy was the highest-graded safety over the final five weeks of the season, allowing a passer rating of just 34.3 into his coverage over that span.

What stands out here, though, is that the Bucs could be much better this year. If Grimes can hold on for just one more season, Hargreaves should improve his play in his second season.

Most notably, PFF is actually optimistic about the Bucs’ safeties. One caveat, here: J.J. Wilcox was a part-time player who mostly played in the box. That’s his strength, and expecting him to actually be good in coverage as a full-time player may be a bit much.

Keith Tandy is the most intriguing player on the roster in some regards. He’s always had a nose for the ball and has done well in sub-packages, but he really shone when he got the chance at a full-time role late last season. If he can keep that up, and Wilcox can manage the box safety role, the Bucs might actually have a very good secondary.

Of course, that could all fall apart, too. Grimes might decline rapidly (it happens to older players), Tandy’s good play could be a mirage, Wilcox’s limitations could shine through, Justin Evans probably isn’t ready to start as a rookie, we all know Chris Conte’s problems, and Vernon Hargreaves might not take the sophomore step we all want him to take.

That’s a doom scenario the Bucs defense really won’t be able to recover from this year. I’m going with the opposite one, though. Optimism, yay!