Secondary the Weakest Link for Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers DB Carlton Davis
Tampa Bay Buccaneers DB Carlton Davis
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Offseason - For this May round of Four Downs, we will be looking at each team's biggest remaining need as well as notable undrafted free agents who will be going to camp with each franchise.

Atlanta Falcons

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Interior Defensive Line

The Falcons did a solid job adding players who filled needs, a process made significantly easier by the fact that Atlanta basically needed one of everything. Not all of those picks will work out, of course, but adding a veteran quarterback, a pair of edge rushers, an inside linebacker, a sleeper running back, and a developmental quarterback covers a lot of bases.

When you need 10 new starters, mind you, you can't get to everything. The Falcons ranked 30th in run defense DVOA last season, 29th in defensive adjusted line yards and 32nd in power success rate. Their front was often outmuscled and beaten back. Run defense has never been Grady Jarrett's forte, but he's still head and shoulders ahead of the Ta'Quon Grahams and Marlon Davidsons of the world. Atlanta will need someone already on the roster to step up, or teams are going to run all over the Falcons yet again.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

The Falcons' biggest UDFA signings went to shore up their defense. Michigan safety Brad Hawkins was an odd combine snub; he was a three-year starter, appearing in a program-record 56 games in college. Then again, maybe it was for the best—Hawkins is not particularly athletic and would have tested poorly. That might limit him to box safety work, or even a switch to linebacker, but that could work out for him—he's a solid run-defender and tackler, and he has the skill set to contribute on special teams immediately. Iowa corner Matt Hankins flashed ball skills with six interceptions, 21 passes defensed, and some highlight-reel grabs. He's undersized, has durability issues, and is inconsistent from drive to drive, but he's an intriguing developmental prospect. Colorado linebacker Nate Landman is coming off of Achilles and shoulder injuries which sapped his already poor quickness and agility. He displays very good positional awareness, diagnosing run plays and pass routes well, but his lack of athleticism pushed him to the realm of the UDFA. Then there's defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo, who transferred from Duke to Penn State last season and had success. "Undersized space-eater" is something of a contradiction in terms, but Tangelo had success with the Nittany Lions, and goodness knows the Atlanta defense needs all the help it can get.

The Falcons also brought in a pair of receivers. Arizona's Stanley Berryhill is a smaller slot guy who impressed at the Shrine Bowl and offers some kick return potential, while Ferris State's Jared Bernhardt is a converted rushing quarterback and lacrosse star, so he has sufficient athleticism. Portland State punter Seth Vernon might have the best chance of any UDFA to make this team, as Dom Maggio is the only other punter on the roster. And then there's Boston College tackle Tyler Vrabel, because nepotism is still a thing.

Carolina Panthers

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Interior Offensive Line

Drafting Ikem Ekwonu with the sixth pick was a good start, but the offensive line entering the offseason consisted of Taylor Moton and four large question marks. Ekwonu joins Bradley Bozeman and Austin Corbett as new faces on the Panthers' offensive line, but that still leads left guard to be manned by one of Pat Elflein, Michael Jordan, or Brady Christensen, each of whom would be problematic in their own ways. The three players combined for 49 blown blocks and 14 sacks allowed last season, with each taking his turn to be cover-your-eyes bad at one point or another. Christensen, at least, was a rookie, and had to handle being shunted from left tackle to right tackle to right guard at various points. He also showed signs of improvement as the year went along, so the Panthers' best option might be to slide him to guard on a more regular basis now that Ekwonu is in the fold. But that's far from a sure option to protect … well, whomever is going to be starting at quarterback by the midpoint of the season.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

The Panthers are still in need of some wide receiver depth, so their undrafted receiver class has a decent shot of holding down a roster spot. Charleston Rambo had 79 receptions, 1,172 yards, and seven touchdowns last season, making a big step forward after transferring from Oklahoma to Miami. He has had trouble with drops in the past and he doesn't have fantastic strength or speed, but he's a good route-runner with solid technique. He has a real shot to be a bottom-of-the-roster player, though the Panthers actually guaranteed Virginia receiver RaShaun Henry more money. Henry's closest Relative Athletic Score comparison is Justin Jefferson—that's not going to be a thing, but it gives you an idea of his athleticism.

Most of the other notable Panthers UDFAs come on the defensive side of the ball. Kentucky tackle Marquan McCall is a massive, space-eating 1-technique who could become a reliable run-stopper if he can improve his footwork and lower body strength. Penn State safety Drew Hartlaub ran a 4.22s 40 at his pro day; he's a special teams candidate. Boston College linebacker Isaiah Graham-Mobley has the pedigree; he's the nephew of former Broncos All-Pro John Mobley. He's athletic and has core special teams potential, but also suffered season-ending injuries in two of the last three years and missed time in the third. Illinois linebacker Khalan Tolson is undersized, but he has enough speed and athleticism to make him an intriguing developmental prospect. There's more special teams potential here than defensive potential, but that's how UDFAs have to earn their early bread and butter anyway, so that works out.

New Orleans Saints

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Quarterback

The Saints' biggest need comes down to how much trust you put in Jameis Winston. Winston had a 13.6% DVOA in limited action in 2021, the second-best mark of his career, and was being more judicious with the ball then he had been in Tampa Bay. If you're comfortable with him being able to do that over the course of a full season, then you could make arguments for edge rusher, or defensive line, or tight end as New Orleans' biggest need, though what the Saints really need most of all is a bunch of cheap rookie contracts to help offset their salary cap bloat. The issue is that even when Winston is at his best, he's typically somewhere between the 11th- and 20th-best starter in the league. You could do worse, but he's not someone who's going to put a team over the hump by himself. The Saints' offense is built like a wild-card contender, and Winston isn't talented enough to elevate that by himself. He is unlikely to lead the Saints out of 9-10 win purgatory; he's a useful piece in an offense rather than someone you can build an offense around.

To be clear, we're not saying the Saints should have drafted a quarterback in this underwhelming class, nor are we suggesting they should make a move for someone like Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo. Winston is likely the best the Saints could have reasonably done in 2022. But the next time they do find themselves in position to look for a potential franchise quarterback, they should take advantage of it.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

The Saints win the UDFA period as they grabbed the player with the best name in the entire draft class: Auburn safety Smoke Monday. Monday's more than just a name, though—he's a heat-seeking missile in the secondary, always looking to make the big hit. This means he sometimes whiffs entirely and sometimes gets ejected for targeting, and he can be easily fooled by play-action or fancy route combos, but it also means he's likely to be a special teams stud. He joins a couple of corners with potential in the Saints UDFA class. Michigan corner Vincent Gray lacks speed but has prototypical size and surprisingly good technique, while Texas Tech's DaMarcus Fields is a former track star who may be converted to safety to take advantage of his physicality. Add in Utah linebacker Nephi Sewell—Penei's brother, who converted from safety to linebacker but may need to switch back in the pros—and the Saints made finding depth in their defensive backfield a priority after the draft.

Any Saints UDFA who plays receiver has a chance to make the roster—receiver depth could easily have been the Saints' biggest need as well. So Dai'Jean Dixon of Nicholls State is a name to watch; he broke all of Mark Carrier's school records, catching 182 passes for 2,758 yards and 26 touchdowns, averaging over 100 yards a game twice. There's also Weber State receiver Rashid Shaheed, though he may have a better chance of making the roster if he can knock Deonte Harty out of kick returning duties. Baylor running back Abram Smith struggled to find a spot in college, going from running back to linebaker and back again, but finally got a chance last season, rushing for over 1,600 yards on 257 carries. And then there's Montana State lineman Lewis Kidd, who played both guard and tackle while paving way for one of the better rushing attacks in FCS.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Secondary

The Buccaneers are set at most positions, including the top players in their defensive backfield. Bringing cornerback Carlton Davis back in free agency was huge, and Antoine Winfield has become a star safety. But Tampa Bay was "only" 10th in DVOA against the pass last season, including 19th against tight ends and 13th against "other" receivers. For a team as talented as the Buccaneers, those count as holes.

Sean Murphy-Bunting had some struggles as the slot corner, ranking 60th out of 80 qualified corners with 8.3 yards allowed per pass. Last year's starting free safety, Jordan Whitehead, is gone; his replacement looks to be a mix of Logan Ryan, Keanu Neal, and Mike Edwards. This should result in adequate play, but Super Bowl contenders are hoping for something a little above adequate. At the very least, the Bucs could have used their fourth-round pick on adding some extra depth to their secondary instead of taking a punter. They did pick up Sam Houston State corner Zyon McCollum in the fifth round, but there were earlier opportunities to address the secondary that Tampa Bay passed on.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

We've seen quarterbacks convert to running back or wide receiver, but Dylan Cook converted from a Montana State-Northern quarterback to a Montana right tackle. The Buccaneers are also interested in converting Alcon State's Bralon Robinson to receiver/returner from his college status of … uh, 60-meter dash specialist; he hasn't played football since high school. Gotta get creative as you plumb the depths of UDFA territory, after all.

A more traditional signing is North Carolina corner Kyler McMichael, a heavy-hitting, big, strong player who probably doesn't have the athleticism or cover skills to hang as a corner in the NFL; he may be a safety conversion prospect. Tampa Bay also attempted to corner the market on small undrafted wide receivers, trying to find Tom Brady his next Wes Welker. Will Western Kentucky's Jerreth Sterns, Utah State's Devin Thompkins, or Texas Tech's Kaylon Geiger pull it off? All three were overlooked in the draft, but that's easy to do when none of them top 5-foot-9.

Portions of this article previously appeared on ESPN+.

Comments

1 comment, Last at 19 May 2022, 6:02pm

1 For arguments sake

Ooh Jameis Winston is going to be a polarizing choice I'm sure.  I actually don't mind having QBs from the 11-20 range (when they aren't on $30m plus per season, that is), so count me in the pro-Winston camp.  Mediocrity is underrated in my opinion.  But it's more boring to put TE, so I get it!  

I might have chosen somewhere on the front 7 for Carolina - I feel like they have Burns, D.Brown, Shaq T and a whole bunch of ??? after that.  At least the O-line might find that one (or more!) of their underwhelming trio of Elflein, Jordan or Christenen might develop into a reasonable starter - especially Christenen in his second year.

And I think Tampa will have enough depth in their secondary to be adequate eg. Logan Ryan, Mike Edwards - perfectly reasonable on paper.  Their CB depth might be weaker, but Zyon McCollum at least helps there.  I think they've got a big Gronk sized hole that is set to be filled by either a 4th round rookie or the constantly underwhelming Cam Brate.  Or maybe LB could be a more pertinent choice - I noted with interested than Devin White had a terrible grade at PFF last season, and Lavonte David may be slowing down soon.