With the start of training camp now just days away, we’re nearing the end of our 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Position Preview series. Today, we finish up the defensive side of the ball with a look at the defensive backs.
It’s not a stretch to say that much of the Buccaneers’ success in 2020 hinges on the continued development of their secondary. Especially in the NFC South, a division that features some of the best quarterbacks and wide receivers in the entire league, pass defense is going to be extremely important. Luckily for the Bucs, their defensive backs saw a ton of growth toward the end of the 2019 season, evolving into a formidable group after spending years near—or at—the bottom of the league against the pass.
In fact, throughout the second half of last year, Tampa Bay’s secondary played like one of the NFL’s very best units. Young guys stepped up into larger roles—which was necessary given the release of Vernon Hargreaves III—and showed a whole lot of potential. That’s why there’s a lot of optimism surrounding the group as a whole heading into the new season, as its collective growth could have the future of the Buccaneer defense looking very bright. But before we dive too much into 2020 and beyond, let’s take a longer look at how things unfolded for the defensive backs in 2019.
After finishing near the bottom of the NFL in pass defense in 2018, the Bucs spent some significant draft capital on their secondary in the 2019 draft. Tampa Bay spent a second-round pick on Central Michigan cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, then spent their two third round picks on Auburn cornerback Jamel Dean and Kentucky safety Mike Edwards, respectively. That’s a lot of youth to inject into an already-young secondary, so perhaps understandably, the unit as a whole struggled early in its first season under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who joined the staff when Bruce Arians took the head coaching job.
But as the season went on, the defensive backs began to click. It seemed that the team was beginning to phase out 2016 first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves III, and then he was just flat-out cut in mid-November. It was around that time that we saw the rapid rise of Dean, who had a disastrous debut as a last-minute starter in Seattle on Nov. 3 before becoming one of the league’s best cover corners down the stretch. Despite only playing meaningful snaps in the second half of the season, the rookie finished the year with 17 passes defended, ranking him in the top five among NFL defensive backs.
It wasn’t just Dean who broke out in the second half of 2019. Carlton Davis, in his second season, began to look like the corner that the team drafted him to be. His 19 passes defended ranked him second in the league, leaving him behind only Stephon Gilmore and Logan Ryan. Plus, as effective as Dean and Davis proved to be on the outside, Murphy-Bunting showed why Tampa Bay made him a second-rounder last year as well. He finished with eight passes defended and a team-high three interceptions, including a game-sealing pick six against the Lions late in the season.
Adding to the strong play of the cornerbacks was another promising season for safety Jordan Whitehead, who looked good in the 14 games he played. Andrew Adams was also effective when relied upon, which was perhaps more often than the team would’ve liked, as Edwards didn’t have the rookie season that everyone was likely hoping for. However, as a group, the defensive backs were certainly much improved over the final eight weeks of the season. We were seeing tighter coverage, more pass deflections and more turnovers created, leading to a defensive renaissance that they’ll be looking to carry into 2020.
Meet The Group
Tampa Bay’s secondary looks largely the same heading into 2020 as it did at the end of 2019. Dean, Davis and Murphy-Bunting are your projected starters at cornerback, with Murphy-Bunting having the ability to play both on the outside and at nickel. That trio is certainly looking to carry its momentum from the latter half of 2019 into the new season, and its ability to do so will have a significant impact on the success of the Buccaneer defense.
The starting safeties, however, aren’t as set. Whitehead is likely locked into one of the spots, but the other would presumably be up for grabs. Adams is back, and could serve as an early-season option as 2020 second-round pick Antoine Winfield Jr. eases into the NFL. Edwards is another potential option, especially considering the experience and familiarity he gained with the defense as a rookie last year. Plus, there’s also Justin Evans, a guy who struggled with injuries in 2018 before missing all of 2019. If healthy, he could figure into the team’s plans, but he’s a question mark as of now.
As for the depth in the secondary, the Bucs have some questions to answer. At corner, there’s M.J. Stewart (who could be in danger of being the odd man out once camp is over), Mazzi Wilkins, Herb Miller, undrafted rookie Parnell Motley. None of those guys are what you would call proven in the NFL, so if one of the starters goes down (go ahead and knock on some wood), the Bucs could be playing with fire. Now, there seems to be more depth at safety, if only because there are so many guys vying for one of the starting roles. Whoever doesn’t end up starting should serve as solid depth, and there are other options such as the promising D’Cota Dixon and newcomers Deiondre’ Hall and Javon Hagan.
While Hall, Hagan and Motley are all new to the group, the newcomer that will be relied on the most in 2020 is certainly rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr., the team’s second-round selection in this year’s draft. Winfield, whose father played 14 seasons in the NFL, had an impressive career at the University of Minnesota. He capped it off in 2019 by picking off seven passes, leaving him just two behind college football’s leader. Obviously, he adds significant ball-hawking ability to the safety group, which it has lacked for years.
But Winfield is more than just a safety with great range, as he brings physicality to his game despite lacking significant size. He can be an all-around playmaker for Tampa Bay’s secondary, which was certainly a contributing factor that made the team’s decision-makers want to select him. It seemed like the Bucs would possibly choose a running back with their second-round pick, but instead chose a safety who can truly add a new level of excitement to a safety group that doesn’t seem to be all that clear in terms of who will start. Look for Winfield to force himself into a prominent role sooner rather than later, as long as everything is going according to plan.
Biggest Question: Can These Young Defensive Backs Build Off of 2019 and Continue to Trend Upward?
While depth is certainly a question for Tampa Bay’s defensive backs, the biggest question heading into 2020 has to do with the corners who had so much success at the tail end of 2019. Because seriously, what we saw from Jamel Dean, Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting over the final eight games of the season was unlike anything we had seen from Buccaneer cornerbacks in quite some time. They were getting their hands on passes, helping create coverage sacks and simply making plays. The defense obviously benefited greatly from it, as the unit played well enough to win in just about every game down the stretch. If not for the offense’s turnover problems, the defense’s resurgence could have led to a Wild Card berth for Tampa Bay.
So, here’s the thing. As good as the team’s young corners were in the second half of the 2019 season, they still have to prove that their success is sustainable. The trio needs to continue its development—both as individuals and as a collective group—to keep the Buccaneers on the right track in 2020. Not to mention, the young group of safeties needs to gel and provide the team with some consistency in the back half of the secondary. There’s certainly talent there, but it needs to come together in order for Tampa Bay to feel good about the future of its defense.
Bowles’ defense as a whole is getting a lot of love this offseason and it’s expected to be a strong complement to Tom Brady and the Buccaneer offense, but that is heavily dependent on the secondary’s continued growth. A lot is riding on the team’s young defensive backs in 2020, that’s for sure.