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A look at an improving secondary: Jamel Dean

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The next stop on our journey through this Buccaneers improving secondary brings us to Jamel Dean.

Houston Texans v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cornerback Jamel Dean #35 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Based on the poll in my initial look at Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean was selected to be the next secondary player to be looked at, and may I say was an overwhelming favorite. As a side note, if you haven’t checked that out, please do so here as it goes through the secondary as a whole before diving in to Davis specifically.

Jamel Dean was selected in the 3rd round in the 2019 draft out of Auburn University. Coming out, he was seen as quite exciting as he was tall, lengthy, and incredibly fast (2nd fastest at the combine at 4.3 sec), however there were injury concerns based on the multiple knee injuries he suffered before and during his collegiate career.

Well, Arians and Co. took a chance on Dean and boy did it pay off. Let me start out by saying that without looking at the tape, I never would’ve seen Jamel Dean shine as much as I saw him shine on film. This guy is special, but didn’t always look this way.

Based on the players that were prioritized over Dean, combined with the injuries he sustained during training camp and early in the season, he never got much of a chance and only contributed on special teams. Many fans were hoping to see him come into the lineup, especially with the absolutely abhorrent play from Vernon Hargreaves III.

His opportunity finally came-a-calling in week 9 after Carlton Davis III was sidelined with a hip injury early in the contest against the Seattle Seahawks. Finally, the Bucs community got to see Jamel Dean shine after the excitement he garnered in the preseason. We sat and watched as our expectations crumbled and the shine we expected dulled more quickly than his 40 time.

Dean gave up 3 touchdowns and multiple long receptions that really helped the Seahawks pull out the win in such a tight contest. He looked lost in space, slow, lethargic, timid, and had A LOT of trouble with downfield contact with receivers.

The following week against the Arizona Cardinals, the Bucs rolled with VHIII, Sean Murphy-Bunting, and M.J. Stewart as the top 3 corners in the rotation, with Ryan Smith coming in momentarily. Smith played a handful of snaps, got burned for a long touchdown (per usual), and was immediately thrown in the doghouse alongside VHIII who was also ousted from the match (and team later that week).

With the Buccaneers out of options, they called upon Dean, a player who looked like he didn’t even belong playing in NCAA Div II the week prior. Then we all saw the shine we were waiting for. He came alive, and even saved the game late in the fourth quarter with his first career interception.

How did this happen? Where did it come from? To be honest with you, I don’t even know. There were talks of Dean watching film and improving from that, but the difference in play from week 9 to week 10 was so vast that the Grand Canyon would pale in comparison to the gap.

For those of you who checked out the look at Carlton Davis, this look will differ greatly. With Carlton, there were little aspects of his game that changed slowly over the season. However, with Dean, the change in play happened overnight. So what I’m going to do is show you some deficiencies from week 9, and then show you how these all disappeared over the rest of the season.

DEAN’S FIRST CHANCE

As you’ve seen through the entirety of this piece leading up to this point, Jamel Dean had a horrendous game. This is something that happens to all NFL athletes at one point or another, they may have slept funny, eaten something that didn’t agree with them, or they just weren’t very prepared. Well, for Dean it really looked like all three of these things happened if not more.

Now, I know that so far, everything has been spun quite negatively. But truth be told it wasn’t the worst performance I have ever seen in my life. Even in this game there were a few plays that he played really well, he even had 4 passes defensed; but the bad significantly outweighed the highlights on this given Sunday.

Here’s the first play we’re going to look at:

So looking at this play, he starts out just fine through the stem of the route, but starts to struggle with the hand fighting a few yards downfield. It almost looks like he gets stuck to his receiver and it ends up compromising his hip integrity. Notice his hips, they kind of just go wild like he’s trying to dance with Malik Turner.

Once the route breaks, his hips are flipped completely in the wrong direction and he ends up with what looks like 8 or more yards of separation from the receiver he was playing man to man. On top of this, he looks pretty slow on the recovery which shouldn’t happen when you run as fast as this man does.

Now let’s look at a touchdown he gave up to rookie standout D.K. Metcalf:

In this play, he struggles with some similar things to the play above, mainly the hand fighting downfield aspect. He seems to get distracted by it about 8 yards into the route, bites hard on the fake cut towards the end zone, and gets left in the dust.

When someone has the speed that Metcalf has, if he gets any separation, it’s going to be bad. Even with Dean’s speed matching his, any awkward step, cut, or movement is going to lead to a large separation, which is exactly what happens above.

As for the hand fighting specifically, he looked incredibly timid in most of the plays displayed in this section. In the first play, he gets locked up and then overpowered which led to the bad hips. In this one, Metcalf extends his arm to ward him off, and instead of fighting back and trying to slow him down, he just gets brushed off.

This play is one of the most important plays I want to highlight, not just because of how bad it was, but also because of how well he played similar situations in later games. Let’s take a look:

Let me first talk about situation, and what made this so bad. This play happened on the first possession for the Seahawks in overtime. You know the rules, you know that when a team takes the ball to the 5 yard line in overtime they’ll likely win the game. While Russell Wilson may be Superman wearing a Seahawks Jersey, this pitch and catch shouldn’t be THIS easy.

Metcalf runs a simple fade route here and Dean gives up a huge catch. He defends the route just fine until the end, I even really liked how he didn’t get hung up on the stutter and didn’t allow a lot of separation. However, he plays Metcalf so timidly here it hurts.

Metcalf is a big, strong receiver who muscled his way to success quite often this season. Yet, he doesn’t even use it here to make this catch. The throw was great, don’t get me wrong, but he could’ve broken this up (and you’ll see this happen later).

When Dean sees Metcalf turn to catch this back-shoulder, he doesn’t put himself between the ball and the receiver. He just sort of stands there, puts his arms out, and lets it happen. He didn’t even turn his head around to look at the ball, something he is very adept with.

Here’s him getting caught staring down a receiver and giving up another touchdown, this time to Tyler Lockett:

This is a pretty simple route concept, you have the two receivers wide running quick digs, with the closest receiver running a corner. This can lead to corners getting jumbled up, picked, or confused, which can lead to easy touchdowns. The unfortunate part of this play is that none of this happens, and it is only the play of Dean that allows the score.

He doesn’t use his hands as a tool here, he sort of just lightly brushes him, I assume to make sure he doesn’t run an in-cutting route, and immediately gives up separation. Right before the catch, he sees Lockett settle his route a bit almost like he’s running an out, and cuts to it, leaving him out of position when the ball gets thrown to the back pylon.

Again, there’s no look back to the ball, the use of his hands has no real intent, and he gets caught out of position once again.

For Dean’s sake, here’s the last bad play I wanted to look at:

This is one of the more egregious ones to me, mainly because this route shouldn’t normally lead to 10+ yard gains. The receiver runs a flat off of motion, with the tight end running a route out of the slot. I mention the tight end because I want you to look at how he picks off Dean here.

He had no business getting picked off here, he needed to fight underneath to get there and just didn’t. He sort of drifts back, allows the tight end to get in his way, and gives up an easy first down. With his speed, a 5 yard separation on this type of route is unacceptable.

Okay, I’m done with the bad. The biggest takeaway from this set of plays is that he just looked like he was nervous. His movements didn’t look fluid, his hand usage was poor, and he just plain looked like a fish out of water.

DEAN’S SECOND CHANCE

Luckily for Dean, his second chance came just one week later. As I mentioned before, he was the last-resort corner against the Cardinals, with Ryan Smith getting snaps before he did. Talk about not having faith in someone.

Dean didn’t make his entrance until the third quarter, but once he got in there, his impact was immediate and he looked like a new man.

Let’s take a look at one of the first things that stood out to me:

Look at how aggressively he plays this route. He looks back to see Kyler Murray looking in his direction, sees the route go out, and fires out of a cannon to break it up. This cannot be the same player we saw above, can it?

In one play, we see the confidence that every NFL corner needs, and it shows in his aggressiveness, speed, and ball skills. Instead of allowing the receiver to catch it and then trying to break it up, he runs through the receiver and knocks this ball down. Beautiful.

Now here’s a play that shows how much he grew from week to week. Notice this is the same route, and similar placement, to the D.K. Metcalf fade route we saw in the previous section:

He plays the stutter with the same grace, shadows the receiver to the sideline, but then looks back to the ball. This ball was slightly under-thrown so without looking back, there was a higher potential for him to just run into the receiver and pick up a PI penalty. Instead, he looks back, sees the ball coming his way, and knocks it away, all while fighting the contact from the receiver at the top of the route.

Let’s take a look at the game changing interception from this game:

In the play from the Seahawks game where D.K. Metcalf brushes Dean off and ends up with a touchdown, you saw how unwilling he was to use his hands to help him. In this play, the receiver tries to stick his arm out to gain separation and Dean fights back and makes his way to the ball relentlessly.

This game was his first step in changing the minds of the coaching staff and Bucs fans everywhere. As you can see, it was quite the step.

WHY DEAN WILL BE SUCCESSFUL

As the season progressed, Dean played to this standard, and never let up. While there are still a few things that he needs to work on, such as his hip movements, the innate instincts that are needed to be successful as a corner are there.

At this point in his career, going into his second season, his floor is much higher than a lot of other young corners that I’ve seen play. It also seems as if PFF holds the same sentiment towards Dean, as they had him as the highest graded corner for the Bucs in 2019, with an overall grade of 76.4.

There are a few reasons that I think he will be successful, a few of which you saw displayed previously. These being his aggressiveness, confidence, instinct, ability to learn, and a few more that I’m going to go through in a little more depth.

Route Recovery

In the game against the Seahawks, any separation that was gained was passively allowed and the route was run unabated (you can see this in the last clip from the previous section). As the season went on, he often recovered on routes at a lightning pace, truly putting on display the speed that he is known for.

Here’s a look at this being put on display against the Falcons in week 17.

In this play, he gets bumped at the top of this route and the receiver gains about 2 yards of separation. Instead of letting this go and running behind the receiver, Dean races to him in order to break up any potential passes coming his way. The pass ends up being incomplete anyway, but if it was thrown Dean’s way, he wasn’t going to give up anything.

Ball Skills

The Bucs have really been hard-pressed to find a corner with any sort of ball skills in recent years. With guys like VHIII, Carlton Davis III, Ryan Smith, and an ancient Brent Grimes, it’s easy to see why interceptions were such a coveted rarity. The only player in that group that is worthy of starting in the NFL is Davis, who just doesn’t have the greatest instinct for catching the ball. He just doesn’t play that way, he is more apt at breaking up the pass than he is at intercepting it.

Jamel Dean only played meaningful defensive snaps in 6.5 games this season and ended with 2 interceptions and 17 passes defensed. That is absolutely insane. One of his interceptions was highlighted above, but let’s take a look at his second one:

Dean sees the ball go up and immediately turns into the receiver on this play. He doesn’t take his eyes off of it. Instead of jumping to bat this, or waiting for it to hit the receivers hands to dislodge it, he puts his hands up and comes down with it.

I fully expect him to lead the Bucs in interceptions in 2020.

Here’s another play from the same game that puts all of this on display as well:

Not only does he use his hands really well to get into the right positioning, he cuts off any path that this ball had to Will Fuller. On top of this, he looks back for the ball, high-points it, and comes millimeters away from intercepting it.

CONCLUSION

While Jamel Dean was used exclusively as a nickel package corner (played outside but only came in when Bucs ran nickel), I expect that he may steal snaps from Sean Murphy-Bunting as the second corner in 2020.

After combing through his film and looking through his overall performance, I am incredibly excited to see how Dean’s career progresses. My level of excitement is only dwarfed by my expectation that he will one day be the number one corner for Tampa Bay.

In the overall picture, this is an incredibly important and fresh sight for Tampa Bay fans everywhere. With Davis, Murphy-Bunting, and Dean all improving, this cornerback room is going to be something to contend with for years to come.

What do you think about Dean? Is he also your favorite Bucs corner? Let me know in the comments below.