The need for defensive help has led to a lot of speculation about what the Buccaneers might do when free agency opens up on March 13.
There isn’t a ton of cap space to work with, especially if the Bucs are bringing back some of their own guys. Questions have been surrounding all three levels of the defense for the last couple of months, but one of the position groups that might not be set up for a big free agent signing is the safeties.
Ever since Bruce Arians was hired, Tyrann Mathieu has been a specific name mentioned in connection with Tampa Bay. It’s not hard to see why. There’s a mutual love between Arians and Mathieu, plus the “Honey Badger” has plenty left in the tank. The Bucs also seem like a good landing spot because of the need for a veteran presence in the secondary. But would a guy like Mathieu — or another big name veteran safety — stunt the growth of the team’s existing safety group?
Justin Evans, who is only entering his third NFL season, is the most established safety on the roster. He should continue to be a full-time starter in 2019. In addition to him, the Bucs have Jordan Whitehead starting his second season as a pro. The 2018 fourth-rounder had a very promising rookie year, and he could certainly prove to be a big steal if he’s given the opportunity.
Then there’s M.J. Stewart, who is also entering his second year. The second-rounder from a year ago played cornerback in his rookie season, but general manager Jason Licht said at the NFL Scouting Combine that the North Carolina product will be moving to safety.
With all of that being said, would the addition of Mathieu or another big-time veteran make sense for such a young group of safeties? If the Bucs do bring in Mathieu, they’d have him, Evans, Whitehead and Stewart all battling for snaps. With the kind of money that it would take to bring Mathieu in, he’d surely start. That presumably leaves two young players on the sideline for the majority of the time. To really develop and get better, these young guys need to be on the field.
One argument could be that a veteran safety is a clear upgrade over the second-year guys, so it shouldn’t matter that they’re on the sideline. Such a veteran very well may be an upgrade, but stunting growth of the guys that are supposed to be your future might be problematic in the long run. With the promise that Whitehead showed and the potential that Stewart has at his new position, it would seem unlike Jason Licht to give up them being key pieces so soon.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a big fan of Tyrann Mathieu since his LSU days, and I’d love to see him become a Buccaneer. But is the current setup of the roster conducive to such a signing? It’s definitely something to think about.