Hamp Cheevers isn’t from Tampa, but if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were to draft him, he’d be much closer to home than he was while playing collegiately at Boston College. Returning to his home state of Florida would be a nice backstory, but more importantly, it could give the team the slot defender they’re in need of.
Speaking with the media following the first day of organized team activities (OTAs), Vernon Hargreaves III made it clear his goal is to play on the outside for the Bucs this coming season. And it appears from what we know now, Todd Bowles and Bruce Arians are more than willing to give it a go.
This may have initially disappointed or surprised some fans of the franchise. After all, in his three seasons in the NFL, Hargreaves looked much better once he moved inside than he did on the outside.
The former Florida Gators standout addressed this as well, simply explaining he’s a press corner, and will get to play in press coverage under Bowles. Problem solved. Carlton Davis III and Hargreaves will man the outside. But what about the inside?
For this team, there is no clear-cut guy we can pencil in to defend the slot. Maybe the team gets creative and drafts or signs another bigger corner who likes to play physical so they can shift Hargreaves inside on occasion.
Or, perhaps, the team will target a ball-hawking defensive back who shows clear potential as an NFL slot defender. This is where guys like Cheevers come in to play for teams like the Buccaneers.
Cheevers defended outside for Boston College in his two years of consistent play. He did pretty well too.
In his first season on the field Cheevers played in five games and picked off two passes while breaking up another three. In year two, as a Junior, he took away seven more and defended seven more. His seven interceptions in 2018 ranked him tied for the most in the ACC and all of NCAA football. So, you could say he’s got ball skills.
Then why is he projected as a slot corner? At 5’9 (according to his NFL.com draft profile; 5’10 according to Boston College) weighing in under 180 pounds, Cheevers simply doesn’t possess the size NFL teams look for when drafting cornerbacks to play outside against receivers like Julio Jones and Michael Thomas.
Flip through the history books of pro football legend though, and you’ll find guys who were ‘too small’ or ‘too short’ for (insert position) and they turned those measurements on their head. Maybe Cheevers can do the same. In 2019 though, his slot projection is what’s going to get him on the field.
As a slot defender, he’s got the size and more importantly he’s got the feet and body control.
See, anything can happen inside. So defenses look for guys who have good hips, change of direction, instincts and ball skills. Oh, an aggressive streak doesn’t hurt either. Cheevers doesn’t have the widest wingspan, but he makes up for it with his ability to close on passes and keen awareness of what a quarterback is about to do.
Across the board, his flaws are all tied to his size. Tackling is identified as an issue, but he’s been credited with six tackles in four different games. He also forced two fumbles and recovered one.
At the end of the day you want defensive backs who can stop the pass and get takeaways. We’ve already talked about Cheevers’ ball skills, now let’s talk coverage skills.
According to Pro Football Focus’ draft guide, Cheevers faced 74 targets in 2018 and allowed 34 receptions, which is a completions against percentage of right around 46%. The average yards per reception allowed was 12.7, and opposing passer ratings came in at just 38.7.
Comparatively, fellow ACC defensive back Trayvon Mullen allowed a 61 opposing passing rating while facing fewer targets and surrendering more than 50% completions. He also came away with just one interception.
Mullen is a day two prospect, while Cheevers is considered a day three prospect. Of course, Mullen is also 6’1 and weighs close to 200 pounds.
In 2018, Buccaneers fans cried out week after week watching a soft defensive scheme force defenders into soft coverages and simplistic pass rush packages. Now, in 2019 the team is expected to take a far different approach to defense.
Aggression is the name of the game, and getting aggressive players is just one factor to making it successful.
Davis and Hargreaves are two guys who like to play physical brands of pass coverage on the perimeter and thrive in press coverage.
If drafted, Cheevers is a prospect Tampa Bay could bring in who knows how to use his athletic strengths to his advantage instead of dwelling on his lack of size. His aggression comes out in his coverage and in his ability to get turnovers.
Preparing for his opportunity in the NFL, Cheevers has trained with Yo Murphy at the Applied Science & Performance Institute in Tampa. With any luck, he’ll be able to stick around for a little while and try to turn that training in Tampa into a professional home, right back in the state where it all started.