Bucs Training Camp Battle: Cornerback
The Buccaneers' cornerback group may be the most promising unit on the entire team. With a starting rotation seeking a reputation among the league's best, Tampa's cornerback competition at camp could shape the fate of the defense this season.
Leading the Bucs' corners is a trio of young defensive backs who turned a lot of heads last year. Cornerbacks Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting took their lumps early last season but down the stretch evolved into a fearsome triumvirate.
Though he is entering just his third year in the NFL, Davis is the Bucs' most seasoned and most reliable cornerback on the roster. No corner in the NFL saw as many targets as Davis last season at 117, but no corner recorded more pass break-ups with 18 (via Pro Football Focus):
Davis is the clear CB1 in Tampa Bay, but the starter across from him is a bigger question. Fellow Auburn alum Jamel Dean didn't see many snaps until the second half of the season, and given how he played, it's any wonder why it took so long.
Dean allowed just 50 percent of passes targeting him to be completed, ninth-best among NFL cornerbacks. Should he continue down this path, Dean could become a shutdown corner as early as this season.
On the other hand, former second-round pick Sean Murphy-Bunting appears to have the faith of the coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles affirmed that Murphy-Bunting would resume his role from last season, starting outside across from Davis and moving inside in nickel situations (via Buccaneers.com's Scott Smith):
While Dean appears more statistically successful, Murphy-Bunting was simply used more last year, playing 60.7 percent of Tampa's defensive snaps to Dean's 32.7 percent. Bowles and his staff may feel Dean is better utilized on a more limited basis compared to Murphy-Bunting.
In any case, Davis, Dean and Murphy-Bunting should see the lions share of the work at cornerback this season. Behind them, there are a few things the Bucs need to figure out.
One cornerback sure to make the roster is special teams ace Ryan Smith. Though he plays few snaps on defense, the Bucs' longest-tenured corner is their best gunner and will likely play as many special teams snaps as any other player on the roster.
Because Smith does not play much on defense, the Bucs will have to keep at least one additional cornerback. That is good news for former second-round pick M.J. Stewart, who is shaping up to be a bust. In two years, he recorded just five pass break-ups, no interceptions and a 78.3 pass completion rate.
Stewart is also fortunate that he doesn't have much competition. CB Mazzi Wilkins played just 12 defensive snaps for the Bucs as a rookie last season, and practice squad member Herb Miller has never taken a snap in the regular season.
The dark horse is undrafted free agent Parnell Motley. The former Sooner was arguably Oklahoma's best cornerback last season, allowing just 43.4 percent of his targets to be completed (via Pro Football Focus):
Motley faces an uphill climb to make the final roster with the NFL skipping preseason games this year, further dwindling the already limited opportunities for undrafted rookies across the league. Still, M.J. Stewart's lackluster career makes him vulnerable to a promising upstart like Motley during camp.