The newly-decorated secondary of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be tested early and often in 2019.
Why? Simply because of the unknown. The Bucs know what they can get out of free safety Justin Evans when he’s fully healthy. Jordan Whitehead had a very up-and-down year, though by season’s end he proved capable of being a quick study. Cornerback/ Safety (listed on the official roster as defensive back), M.J. Stewart struggled last season and newcomers rookie Mike Edwards and journeyman Kentrell Brice, have yet to step on the practice field in a Buccaneers uniform. Today we’ll look all of the current safeties on the roster and assess who will and who won’t be on the final 53 come Week 1.
Buccaneer Safety Depth Chart:
Justin Evans (Free Safety)
- The athletic free safety out of Texas A&M University is well on his way to carving out a very solid career if he can stay healthy. Evans is your prototypical free safety, patrolling the secondary and dishing out blows to tight ends and running backs alike, despite weighing only 200 pounds. What Evans brings to the team at this point is invaluable. A young, transcending talent at the free safety position who has four career interceptions under his belt. During his rookie year with the Buccaneers, Justin notched 66 total tackles, three INTs, and six pass deflections in just 14 games. If Tampa Bay can get just 10-15 more combined tackles and two more INTS out of Evans in 2019, the Buccaneers will be witnessing a young talent in the making. But that’s a big “IF”. Still, at just 22-years-old, Evans has time to mature.
Jordan Whitehead (Strong Safety)
- Whitehead is definitely looking to build off the latter part of his rookie season last year. Drafted out of the University of Pittsburgh, Whitehead eventually took over the strong safety position from former starter, Chris Conte (currently an unrestricted free agent). Now, like most rookies in the secondary, they all have their respective “welcome to the NFL” moments. And Whitehead surely had his fair share of swings and misses on the field. But what stood out to me about the second-year pro, was his ability to progress and dissect games better as the season went along. This became very apparent when the then-rookie notched 10 solo tackles against the 49ers in Week 12 and also finished the year with 76 total stops. Whitehead did this mainly as a rotational player until Conte was lost for the season. Hopefully, his skill set will translate well into Todd Bowles‘ aggressive defensive scheme and blossom into a starting caliber strong safety.
Mike Edwards (Free Safety, 2nd string)
- The self-proclaimed “Honey Badger,” as his social media states, Edwards joins a secondary that is currently looking for a solidified leader. Edwards can be that guy. Last year he played in, perhaps, one of the most feared secondaries in college football, teaming up with Darius West and Lonnie Johnson en route to being an AP Top 25 team. Known as a coverage guy, the fact that Edwards notched six career INTs in college will help his transition to potentially playing at free safety. Now, given the solidification of Evans status at FS, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Edwards manning the SS position during the year to keep the two best guys out there.
Kentrell Brice (Strong Safety, 2nd string)
- Recently signed this offseason from the Green Bay Packers, Brice brings youth and more importantly depth to the Buccaneers secondary. Last season for the Packers, Brice notched 50 total tackles and two pass deflections in 14 games (10 starts). Now, the 24-year-old looks to shake up the strong safety room as he seeks an open opportunity to grab a bigger role with the Bucs in 2019. Brice very well could be a surprise addition to the team come Week 1, but realistically speaking the signing was mainly to bolster depth. With only one career interception in three years of play, you can expect him to play mainly in the box on running downs for run support.
M.J. Stewart (Free Safety, 3rd string)
- Now, there’s no easy way to start this projection. Stewart has a lot of ground to cover this year as it pertains to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Originally drafted in the second round out of the University of North Carolina, Stewart was heralded as a “football IQ” guy which Jason Licht and Mike Smith used as their selling point. One year later, we can now assume that pick was a slight reach. Since being drafted, Stewart has played poorly to the point where he is now the only member of the secondary with the DB designation. Considering just a year ago, he was drafted as a second-round CORNERBACK should tell you what you need to know. Opponents of this will look to coaching as the reason for Stewart’s poor play when in reality he was hand-picked by the coaching staff who will do whatever it takes to keep him gaining “bust” status. Tampa Bay surely hopes to see improvement out of him in 2019.
Isaiah Johnson (Strong Safety, 3rd string)
- In his first season of extended playing time with the Buccaneers, Johnson tallied 48 total tackles, one interception, and two pass deflections. For Tampa Bay, it was enough for them to tender Johnson and keep him around for another year as a depth signing. Playing in only 4 games in his first two years in the league, Isaiah scrapped tooth and nail with every snap and down he was able to play. Hard work caught the eye of coaches and in 2018, he put together his most successful campaign playing in 15 games. Johnson really won’t nudge any of the aforementioned players higher up on the roster, but what he does bring is NFL experience, a high-motor style of play and teaching points for the younger guys.
Lukas Denis (Practice Squad)
- Perhaps the most interesting out of the group, Denis brings with him a very solid resume playing out of Boston College. It’s almost a mystery as to why he wasn’t drafted. The ball-hawking safety was a mainstay in the Boston College secondary, playing with elite closing speed and tackling ability. His junior year, however, Denis blew up the ACC recording seven INTs and put NFL scouts on notice. The hardest part about dissecting Lukas’ game is figuring out if his play will translate on the NFL level. He’s undersized, playing at 5-foot-11 185 pounds, but more than makes up for it with his playmaking. It will interesting to see if Denis gives Johnson a run for his money to claim the last safety spot.
Orion Stewart (Likely To Be Cut)
D’cota Dixon (Likely To Be Cut)
Source: CBS Sports