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NFL: DEC 29 Falcons at Buccaneers Photo by Mary Holt/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Just how good was Jamel Dean down the stretch in 2019? PFF graded him as one of the NFL’s best.

The rookie has received a lot of praise for his play in the second half of the 2019 season, but perhaps it hasn’t been enough?

Heading into 2020, there’s been a lot of talk about the Buccaneers’ secondary and how it needs to continue down the path of improvement that it started on in the second half of the 2019 season. As strong as the pass rush from Tampa Bay’s front seven should be, the defense’s success largely hinges on the continued development of young guys in the secondary.

That position group as a whole took a massive leap forward in the second half of 2019, playing a key role in what was a 5-3 finish to the season. And, all things considered, the group’s play was good enough to warrant victories in two of those three losses. If the Bucs had taken better care of the ball and Matt Gay had converted on some manageable field goals, they finish the season’s second half with a 7-1 record, putting them at 9-7 on the year. The second-half turnaround was real, which is why there are plenty of reasons to feel good about the back half of the defense—and the unit as a whole—going forward.

Carlton Davis and Sean-Murphy Bunting, among others, certainly deserve praise for the way they stepped up down the stretch last year, but Jamel Dean emerged as the breakout star of Tampa Bay’s secondary in the final eight games. The 2019 third-round pick saw very little playing time early on in the season, but later on, he featured regularly as an integral part of the Bucs’ much-improved defense.

Dean’s first legitimate dose of playing time came on the first Sunday of November, and that game turned out to be a disaster for him. Russell Wilson picked on him all day, taking advantage of the fact that he had to be thrown head-first into the fire due to an injury to Davis. But from that point on, the Auburn product turned things around and became one of the Bucs’ most reliable defenders. He developed so well down the stretch, in fact, that Pro Football Focus gave him the second-highest coverage grade of any cornerback in the league over the final eight weeks of the season:

That’s right, Dean trailed only New England’s Stephon Gilmore—and by the slimmest of margins—when it came to coverage grades over the final eight weeks. That’s the same Stephon Gilmore who was named AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 and awarded a 99 rating in the soon-to-be-released Madden 21 video game. So, that’s not bad company for Dean to be in. His 17 passes defended last year ranked him second on the team, only falling behind Davis by two for the team lead. He was also only three behind Gilmore and Logan Ryan for the league lead. That’s pretty dang impressive stuff from the rookie.

Last year’s turnaround from the secondary as a whole was pretty remarkable, and Dean was one of the big reasons for it. His game-changing interception in the win against Arizona just one week after his struggles in Seattle sparked a run that Tampa Bay will hope to see continue in 2020 and beyond.

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