TAMPA — As succession plans go, this one has taken a while to solidify.
For instance, when he took off his Buccaneers uniform for the final time, Ronde Barber’s future replacement was too young to even have a driver’s license. And Aqib Talib’s eventual successor was still a few years away from his senior prom when the Bucs dealt Talib to New England.
You might say the search for cornerbacks in Tampa Bay has been years, and about 35,000 passing yards, in the making.
That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. Since 2011, the Bucs have given up more passing yards (35,336) and a higher opponent’s passer rating (96.9) than any team in the NFL. The only thing keeping them from the Triple Crown of gosh-awful pass defense is Oakland surrendering a half-dozen more touchdowns (257 to 251) through the air.
Not that Tampa Bay hasn’t been looking for solutions.
During the past four years, the Bucs have used one first-round pick, four second-round, two third-round and two fourth-round picks on defensive backs. And if you want to go as far back as Barber’s retirement, there was the first- and fourth-round picks they gave up for one year of Darrelle Revis, and the free-agent money spent on the final seasons of Brent Grimes and Alterraun Verner’s careers.
So yes, good morning, Sean Murphy-Bunting.
And hello, Jamel Dean.
We’ve been waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for you.
The new-look Tampa Bay secondary will be on display this weekend against future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints. The likely starting lineup will include three rookies (Murphy-Bunting, Dean and Mike Edwards) and one second-year player (Jordan Whitehead). All four are 23 or younger.
Obviously, that’s not ideal. On the other hand, at least it’s a new direction.
For far too long, the Bucs have been running in circles in the secondary. Veterans have come and gone. Rookies have fizzled out. The latest departure came Tuesday when former first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves was sent packing before his $9 million salary in 2020 could become a reality.
“It was shocking,’’ said rookie corner Mazzi Wilkins, who was promoted from the practice squad to replace Hargreaves. “But it’s part of the business.’’
Every other meeting room at the AdventHealth Training Center has at least had the pretense of stability. Jameis Winston has been the quarterback for five years. Mike Evans has been a dependable target since 2014. Demar Dotson and Donovan Smith have been bookend tackles for years, and Lavonte David has been knocking down ballcarriers seemingly forever.
The defensive backs room?
It’s Tampa Bay’s least exclusive Airbnb.
Cornerbacks come and go. Safeties are just passing through. The Bucs have played 105 games since Barber retired, and no defensive back has had a starting job more than 40 percent of the time since then. Only a small handful have even started 30 of those games.
Other than quarterback, there may not be a more noticeable position on the field. It’s often one-on-one, it’s often in the open field, and it’s occasionally the turning point in the game.
“You play cornerback, you have to accept that’s part of your life,’’ said Ryan Smith, who was a fourth-round pick in 2016. “Every day, every game you’re putting yourself on the line.’’
So are these young players the solution the Bucs have been seeking?
It’s way too early to say. The early returns are promising in terms of aggressive coverage, but we’ve been fooled by a handful of games in the past.
What is certain is they are impossibly young and impressively confident.
“You’ve got to be a dog. You have to have that mentality that you can’t be beat at corner,’’ said Murphy-Bunting. “You’re one-on-one, you’re man-to-man, you have to say, ‘This is my guy and I’m going to beat this guy every single time.’ That’s the mindset you need. You have to have that short-term memory. You can’t fret about plays because they’re going to keep coming at you.’’
As he explains this, Murphy-Bunting was sitting in front of his locker, putting his cleats on for practice Wednesday afternoon. A few feet away, Hargreaves’ wooden nameplate had already been removed from above his locker. Hardly anyone seemed to notice.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes