No team allowed more catches last season than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Kendall Wright caught the first one. Michael Thomas caught the last, the 371st.
At some point between, the Bucs realized there would be no quick fix for their leaky defense. They weren’t just a player away; they needed a substantial overhaul.
During free agency, the defensive line was the priority. Enter Beau Allen, Mitch Unrein, Vinny Curry and Jason Pierre-Paul. During the draft, the focus shifted to defensive backs. Enter M.J. Stewart, Carlton Davis and Jordan Whitehead.
At first glance, Davis, a 6-foot-1, 206-pound cornerback, might not have been an obvious fit. As coach Dirk Koetter said after the team announced the pick, “We’ve been known for having smaller corners.” Davis gives Tampa Bay a defender who can match up, at least size-wise, with some of the NFC South’s tallest targets — Carolina’s Devin Funchess (6 feet 4), Atlanta’s Julio Jones (6 feet 3) and New Orleans’ Thomas (6 feet 3).
The Bucs’ cornerbacks also are known for playing several yards off the line of scrimmage. Part of that is by design — Brent Grimes prefers to play off so that he can keep his eyes on the quarterback — and part of that is by necessity. Last season, Tampa Bay’s anemic pass rush and inconsistent safety play made press coverage too risky of a proposition. Fail to disrupt the receiver’s route, get burned for a long gain.
Davis is no Grimes. He’s a physical cornerback with long arms who excels at pressing receivers at the line of scrimmage. But why would the Bucs have interest in a cornerback whose skill set doesn’t match their scheme?
It turns out Davis’ strengths align with one of Tampa Bay’s major weaknesses. As the Ringer’s Danny Kelly recently pointed out, the team struggled to limit short, quick passes last season. Opponents were especially successful when they targeted receivers on the left side of the field. On passes aimed 0 to 9 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, they completed 85.5 percent and threw four touchdowns to one interception, according to Pro Football Focus.
The outside cornerback wasn’t responsible for every one of those completions, but opponents did pick on Ryan Smith.
Here’s an example from Week 11 where Smith lined up across from the outside shoulder of Jarvis Landry but still surrendered the out route. Landry was wide open, even after a collision with linebacker Kendell Beckwith.
And here’s an example from Week 15 where Matt Ryan took advantage of the soft cushion that Smith gave Justin Hardy. It didn’t help, either, that the Bucs had only 10 men on the field.
At Auburn last season, Davis allowed less than half of the passes thrown into his coverage to be caught. He was especially successful against shorter routes such as slants, holding quarterbacks to a 63.4 rating when targeting receivers on those patterns (the NCAA average was 92.7), according to Pro Football Focus. He also turned in a respectable performance against out routes, holding quarterbacks to a 72.9 rating (slightly below the NCAA average).
The scouting reports on Davis are similar to the reports on Richard Sherman when he entered the draft in 2011. Uses size to disrupt receivers’ releases. Awareness in zone and off-man are only adequate. Has average ball skills. Tough against the run.
One of the knocks on Davis is that he doesn’t recover well when receivers gain separation at the line, but that’s a common criticism of cornerback prospects who specialize in press coverage. NFL receivers are faster and twitchier.
As outstanding as Sherman has been, he hasn’t done it alone. Thanks to a fearsome pass rush and ultrareliable safety play, the Seahawks were able to take advantage of Sherman’s aggressiveness. For Davis to reach his ceiling in the NFL, the Bucs will need to give him the same kind of help.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.