TAMPA — Alterraun Verner came to town last year among the Bucs' biggest free agent additions, a Pro Bowl cornerback proudly signed to a four-year, $26 million contract.
On Sunday, for the first time in four years, he found himself on the bench, relegated to a backup role and busy on special teams kick coverage. That role is unlikely to change this week — at Friday's walkthrough, he wore a scout-team jersey, simulating an opposing receiver for the Bucs' starting secondary.
"The coaches decided to go a different route," Verner said Thursday. "As a competitor, everyone wants to be out there, wants to help the team out as much as we can. We have to trust the coaches, and we do, to put the best people out there to help the team win."
Veteran Tim Jennings — who played for Bucs coach Lovie Smith in Chicago and has two Pro Bowls himself but was cut by the Bears — was moved into Tampa Bay's starting lineup last week, after he had played significantly more snaps than Verner in a win against the Saints the previous week.
The Bucs haven't elaborated on their decision — to the media or to Verner, he says — other than to say the move is more about Jennings playing well than anything Verner failed to do.
"It's more about what we think Tim can bring to the table," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "Tim has had a lot of success in this system, going to the Pro Bowl. … Alterraun is still working as hard as he has to work to give us good snaps when he is in the ball game."
Verner, 26, was in on the opening kickoff Sunday, and on the Bucs' first punt, he made the tackle in coverage.
"Whatever my role is — which right now, seems like it's special teams and what not — I'm going to do it to the best of my abilities," Verner said. "As a competitor, you hate it. But at the end of the day, we want to get wins. I'm going to do whatever I can to do that."
Asked if he had been told why he has been demoted, he said there has "not really been too much of a discussion. It's more just kind of happened."
And Sunday, when the Bucs' other starting corner, Johnthan Banks, went out with a knee injury after only 10 snaps, the Bucs instead plugged in veteran Mike Jenkins, who had missed the first two games with a hamstring injury. Jenkins played 56 snaps at corner, nearly double Verner's 29, showing just how far his stock had fallen in coaches' eyes.
"I was waiting in the wings, just wanted to go in," Verner said of Sunday. "I'm always expecting to go in, always on guard. It just shook out the way it did. … It's definitely new."
The Bucs' shift away from a major investment at a key position is puzzling even to outsiders who know the team well. Former Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, part of Fox's broadcast team for Sunday's game, called the Bucs-Saints game as well and said he hadn't seen anything to foresee such a shift.
"I don't know what it is," Barber said. "Lovie (Smith) called a lot more single-high (safety) defenses, man defenses, so maybe they think the other two guys have more in that skill set. Alterraun's more of a zone, off kind of corner, hasn't played the line of scrimmage a lot in his career. It's a big deal, and they may have a plan, but I don't know."
Asked about his reasoning for the shift on Monday, Smith said he "wanted to take a look" at Jennings and Jenkins, saying it's always just an evaluation.
"I like what I've seen from them," he said. "As you see time increase or decrease, (it's) based on film study, video study and what we've seen in practice and who we think gives us the best opportunity to have success."
Should Verner continue in a backup role, it's likely the Bucs would cut him in the offseason rather than pay him a $6.75 million salary he's due. It would mark another expensive and early exit from a 2014 free-agent class that already has seen quarterback Josh McCown, offensive tackle Anthony Collins and defensive end Michael Johnson cut after one year and a combined $30 million.
Verner, who has a degree in mathematics from UCLA, has taken the adversity in stride, hoping he can show enough to start again.
"Life can just throw you, misdirection all the time," he said. "I'm happy the Lord placed in my heart for me to hang loose and adjust … You never know what cards you might get dealt. You have to make the best of the situation. I'm expecting those guys to ball out, and I'm going to do my best to help them and be ready when called."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.