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X-Factor: Carlton Davis will be pivotal against talented Dallas trio

If the Bucs want to handle a stacked Cowboys receiving corps, the original “GraveDigger” has to show up Thursday

The Buccaneers will begin their title defense under the brightest regular-season spotlight the team has seen in more than two decades as they open the 2021 NFL season against America’s Team.

The Dallas Cowboys present a unique challenge for a Tampa Bay defense that corralled some of the most imposing offenses in the NFL down the stretch. The receiver trio of Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup might be the most talented group of weapons that this secondary has come across, and it’ll be all hands on deck as Tampa looks to spoil QB Dak Prescott’s return from a serious leg injury.

The cornerback group has come a long way from humble, often rough, beginnings. After an infamous ranking from NFL.com predicted them to be the worst secondary in the league last year, Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting all showed up in critical moments throughout the season.

Along the way, their self-assurance has grown by leaps and bounds. They even have their own nickname now.

The “GraveDiggers” moniker sprouted after the Buccaneers buried their division rival Saints in the playoffs. The progenitor, Carlton Davis, sent out the viral tweet and never looked back.

The 24-year-old defender has earned a lot of praise for his progress, as he has led the NFL in passes defensed since 2019. He recorded a career-high 4 interceptions last year, and he shut down some of the prominent names in the NFL (Davante Adams and Michael Thomas among them, or “Slant Boy” as Davis likes to call the latter).

Coming into a contract year, Davis will have the opportunity to continue his upward ascent and cement his arrival into the elite echelon with a strong performance against Dallas. He will likely match up on more than one of their prominent names throughout the night, and him playing tough coverage will complement the Tampa pass rush and make life harder for Prescott, who undoubtedly will be shaking off rust to some degree.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New York Giants Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Gallup, Cooper, and Lamb all posted more than 800 yards receiving and grades of 66 or better by Pro Football Focus, and that was playing a majority of the year with the likes of Andy Dalton and Ben DiNucci. They all bring unique skill sets as well. Whether it’s Cooper’s silky smooth route running and short-area quickness, CeeDee Lamb’s excellent physicality and RAC ability, or Gallup’s deep ball prowess, Tampa’s group will need to be alert and focused.

If Davis can take away even one of these targets a majority of the time, it’ll pay massive dividends for a front seven that should get in its licks in the backfield. Davis stands out in particular because he’s the most proven man there, as Murphy-Bunting and Dean still have more lapses than you’d like to see from great players.

For all we know, they could come in significantly improved and render this conversation moot, but we have to go off the existing body of evidence rather than hopeful prognostication.

Regardless, Davis appears to be fully confident headed into the game, and you need that headstrong approach at his position.

“If you check the numbers, check the stats, if you check the film, I’m second to none,” Davis said Sunday. “At the end of the day, I know what I did. Fans know. If they don’t know, they will know.”

We’ll all see Thursday if Davis’s play merits that hearty proclamation.

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