There was no Bucs unit that experienced more of a contrast from 2015 to 2016 than their defensive backs. A few key additions and a scheme change worked wonders on a unit that was perpetually torched under Lovie Smith.
The highest profile defensive back addition also happened to be the most impactful. Cornerback Brent Grimes led the league with 28 pass breakups and continued his four-season streak with at least four interceptions. According to NFL.com’s Matt Harmon, Grimes allowed just 47.9 percent of his targets to be completed and a 62.6 opposing passer rating.
Grimes was the perfect addition to the Bucs defense. In addition to being the secondary’s best and most consistent player, he was a leader for the young, untested group, especially for rookie CB Vernon Hargreaves III. The Bucs tested the former first-round pick in fire, starting him immediately and not always to the best results.
Hargreaves was statistically unimpressive, recording just nine pass breakups and one interception. ESPN’s Mike Clay paints an unflattering picture of his first NFL season: he was targeted, (127) allowed more receptions (86) and surrendered more yardage (1271) than any other cornerback in 2016.
Contextually, these numbers aren’t that bad or that surprising. Rookie corners typically struggle to adjust to NFL passers early. Teams were bound to target Hargreaves with Grimes making life miserable for receivers on the other side of the field. He only became more confident down the stretch and should be better to start the 2017 season.
Depth at cornerback is questionable. Second-year CB Jude Adjei-Barimah saw significant action before his four-game PED suspension and trip to injured reserve. Given how he ended last season, there’s no guaranteed roster spot for Adjei-Barimah.
The Bucs already released CB Alterraun Verner, a high-priced free agent signing from 2014.While he was a victim of Lovie Smith’s archaic defensive schemes, Verner was not the playmaker he signed to be and certainly not worth the $6.5 million he would be paid this year.
The only other corner left on the roster is Javien Elliott. The rookie from Florida State played the last six games of the season in mostly a reserve role. He will have a leg up come training camp but little more.
The Bucs re-signed special teams standout Josh Robinson to a two-year deal, but he’s not likely to be a cornerback moving forward. He transitioned to safety in the final month of the 2016 season and is unlikely to switch back.
The state of the Bucs’ cornerback depth chart indicates GM Jason Licht isn’t done adding cornerbacks. Fortunately the draft is well stocked with defensive backs.
Hargreaves’ former Florida teammate Teez Tabor is a quick cover corner who could benefit from a reunion with the Bucs’ 2016 first-rounder. His deep speed, or lack thereof, is a concern but he tracks well and isn’t afraid to make a play on the ball.
Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie is another smooth athlete with superior coverage skills. He is raw as a tackler but he doesn’t shy away from contact. While the Bucs would have some work to do to make Awuzie a major contributor on defense, his upside is huge for a potential second-round pick.
There is an opportunity for the Bucs to kill two birds with one stone, drafting a player who could play not just corner, but also safety. Washington defensive back Budda Baker spent the last three years in a hybrid role, playing nickel corner and single high safety. His 4.45 speed and impeccable ball instincts would give the Bucs flexibility with scheming and masking – a hallmark of Mike Smith defenses.
The Bucs already primed their safety group for change with their offseason moves. They re-signed Chris Conte and signed former Dallas S JJ Wilcox to two-year deals, with all guaranteed cash coming in 2017. Breakout star Keith Tandy enters a contract year as the Bucs’ best safety in pass coverage.
Of the three veterans, Tandy is the most likely to thrive as a playmaker. The question remains whether he can handle a season’s worth of full-time work. Conte is among Tampa’s most athletic players but he’s also one of the least consistent. JJ Wilcox will fill the big-hitter vacancy left by Bradley McDougald. He’s a viable starter if not much of a game-changer.
It’s entirely possible none of the Bucs’ current safeties will be on the roster in 2018, but that’s the point. All the veterans are on “prove it” deals with a draft loaded with quality safeties around the corner. Motivation for everyone to perform is there.
Of the top safeties in the draft, Baker is the best one to likely still be available when the Bucs are up at the 19th pick. While, he doesn’t have the physical profile of some of his contemporaries, few match his experience and ball skills. Baker would be the safe pick at 19.
Further up the risk-reward scale at safety is Michigan S Jabrill Peppers and Connecticut S Obi Melifonwu. Both are near-unparalleled athletes. What they aren’t are sure-fire safeties.
Peppers made his bones as an electrifying kick-returner and gadget player on offense. However, his one career interception doesn’t paint the picture of an playmaking safety. Peppers is fast but not powerful so he won’t bring the big hits. At this point, he’s a project with a ridiculous ceiling – a luxury the Bucs can’t really afford.
Similarly, the 6″4′, 224-pound Melifonwu is a physical specimen (4.40 40 time, 44″ vertical, 141″ broad jump) and has good tackling technique. In a way, he’s not unlike Chris Conte – exceptional athlete, limited football player.
Melifonwu doesn’t exhibit much instinct on tape. With his speed, he should be quicker getting to the ball in run and pass support. While Melifonwu’s speed and fluidity will make him great in pursuit, his slow play diagnosis will leave him a step behind on every play.
Though he has the athleticism and technique to start in the NFL, Melifonwu is not a game-changer worth spending a first-round pick. If he happens to be there at the Bucs’ second-round pick however, he brings decent value.