Finding the Fits: Bucs seek matchup answers with CB Carlton Davis

Carlton Davis should be able to pair up against big receivers in the NFL.Auburn Athletics

Sports Xchange

By Rob Rang,

This is part of a series -- Finding the Fits -- in which will review the more intriguing picks made during the 2018 NFL Draft. The goal is to identify one relatively unheralded player per team who appears to be a good schematic fit and, therefore, more likely to be a surprise contributor early in his pro career.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers' best fit: Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn, selected No. 63 overall (second round)

It was clear from the beginning of the 2018 NFL Draft that Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht made the running game -- boosting his own and limiting opponents' -- the Buccaneers' top priority.

The selection of massive run-stuffer Vita Vea (all 6-foot-4, 346 pounds of him) at No. 12 overall is expected to immediately tighten a defense that allowed 17 rushing touchdowns during the regular season, 30th in the NFL.

Meanwhile, Licht's second pick -- former Southern California speedster Ronald Jones III -- should add instant big-play ability to an offense that averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and scored eight rushing touchdowns last year, less than any NFL team that qualified for the playoffs last year. With starting quarterback Jameis Winston facing a three-game suspension to start the 2018 campaign, one could argue that Jones is even more critical to the Bucs' success this season than Vea.

After checking off the two biggest boxes on his to-do list, Licht then focused on Tampa Bay's much-maligned secondary, using three of his next four picks on a position group faced with the unenviable task of facing annual league MVP candidates Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Drew Brees twice a year.

And that is where Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter found Davis, the imposing, physical presence on the outside to match up with the big receivers like Julio Jones, Devin Funchess and Michael Thomas who are stars for NFC South rivals.

Davis, at 6-1, 206 pounds, is significantly bigger than any of the other cornerbacks on Tampa Bay's roster, including incumbent starters Vernon Hargreaves (5-10, 204) and Brent Grimes (5-10, 185). Just 21 years old, Davis is quite experienced, starting 32 games over the past three seasons at Auburn, including as a true freshman in 2015, when he led the team with three interceptions, quickly living up to expectations after signing as a touted prep out of Miami.

Davis is not as agile as Hargreaves, Grimes or fellow second-round cornerback M.J. Stewart (5-11, 200), all of whom possess the quick feet and fluid change of direction to play inside and out in defensive coordinator (and former Atlanta head coach) Mike Smith's scheme. This was not only demonstrated on tape, but in workouts.

Davis ran well enough at the Combine (4.53 seconds in the 40-yard dash) but produced just average numbers in the vertical jump (34 inches), short shuttle (4.31 seconds) and 3-cone drill (7.30).

Like many of the massive receivers he'll be asked to cover in the NFL, however, Davis' game is more about his length, physicality and instincts than simple athleticism. Davis, with long arms (32 3/4 inches) and forceful tackling, was among the more combative corners I graded last year. Aligning him next to a trio of ultra-quick corners like Hargreaves, Grimes and Stewart is similar to the strategy Licht and Koetter took on offense, pairing the 6-5, 231-pound Mike Evans with speedster DeSean Jackson.

According to Koetter, Davis is already holding his own against the Bucs' top pass-catchers. He's seen extra playing time with Grimes, 35, skipping last month's OTAs.

"Carlton, he's off to one of the fastest starts of the rookies," Koetter told reporters.

"He gets thrown out there a lot just because of who's here and who's not here at corner. He's getting a lot of reps against some good receivers. What he's shown is that he plays the ball probably better than I thought he did coming off his tape. We knew he was a good bump-and-run player. You can't really play true bump-and-run during Phase 3, so he's having to play a little bit more off, and I think he's getting better."

Don't expect Davis to stay off (coverage or the field) when the pads start popping during camp and when the Bucs' preseason kicks off August 9 in Miami, his hometown.

Other thoughts on the Buccaneers' 2018 draft class:

It will likely be remembered more from the perspective of the Buffalo Bills (as they moved up for quarterback Josh Allen), but Licht deserves kudos for adding a pair of second-round picks by dropping five spots and still landing the player he likely was targeting at No. 7 overall (Vita Vea), one of the true freakish talents in the 2018 draft.

The move was an especially good one because Licht didn't drop too far, picking one spot ahead of the Redskins, who were also thought to be very high on Vea and wound up selecting Da'Ron Payne, the defensive tackle most (including ranked second in the class at No. 13 overall. Licht ultimately used the two second-round picks acquired from Buffalo on M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis.

Traditional defensive tackles like Vea rarely make splashy impacts in the NFL, but the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year is a special talent drafted into an ideal position to do so.

The Bucs already boast one of the league's better interior defenders in Gerald McCoy and the line has been overhauled with veterans over the past year with established pass rushers Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry among those added to the mix. Vea is not likely to produce the kind of individual statistics that generate Defensive Rookie of the Year buzz, but he is expected to play a key role in what should be one of the more improved defensive units in the NFL next season.

Ronald Jones III lost a bit of his luster in the weeks leading up to the draft due to disappointing workouts. He pulled up on his first 40-yard dash attempt at the Combine due to a strained hamstring and was not able to fully participate in USC's initial Pro Day workout, where eventual No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold (New York Jets) threw passes in front of representatives of all 32 NFL teams. Darnold returned to throw passes to Jones at his "personal" April 5 workout on campus, where scouts from 15 teams saw the 5-11, 205-pound back prove his speed in 4.48 electronically-timed seconds.

When healthy, Jones is a Jamaal Charles-like weapon, capable of instantly improving Tampa's methodical running game with his vision, elusiveness and trademark breakaway speed. His relatively slight frame and upright running style, however, raise all kinds of questions as to what kind of work load Jones can handle at the next level.

Ideally, Jones would play the "Lightning" role in a committee with bigger veterans like Peyton Barber and Charles Sims also earning plenty of carries, especially in short yardage and goal line situations.

Tampa Bay's 2018 draft class:

1st Round, No. 12 overall: Vita Vea, DT, Washington

2nd Round, No. 38 overall: Ronald Jones, RB, Southern California

2nd Round, No. 53 overall: M.J. Stewart, CB, North Carolina

2nd Round, No. 63 overall: Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn

3rd Round, No. 94 overall: Alex Cappa, OL, Humboldt State

4th Round, No. 117 overall: Jordan Whitehead, S, Pittsburgh

5th Round, No. 144 overall: Justin Watson, WR, Penn

6th Round, No. 202 overall: Jack Cichy, LB, Wisconsin

Key Undrafted Free Agents Signed:

Godwin Igwebuike, S, Northwestern

Trevor Moore, K, North Texas

Jason Reese, TE, Missouri