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Even with 2020 season laid to rest, ‘Grave Diggers’ live on in Bucs secondary

The unit, still one of the team’s youngest, remains hungry for more rings and respect.
Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23), flanked by safety Mike Edwards (32) and linebacker Devin White (45), celebrates his interception during the second quarter of last season's NFC title game in Green Bay. The Bucs' entire secondary rotation returns intact in 2021.
Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23), flanked by safety Mike Edwards (32) and linebacker Devin White (45), celebrates his interception during the second quarter of last season's NFC title game in Green Bay. The Bucs' entire secondary rotation returns intact in 2021. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sep. 3, 2021

TAMPA — An element of irony, thick as August humidity, lingers around the Bucs’ most popular position group nickname.

Who gave birth to “Grave Diggers?” What led to a moniker that connotes demise?

“I would say I kind of came up with it,” fourth-year cornerback Carlton Davis said. “But it was kind of like a caption, and then after that, it just kind of took over and it stuck with us.”

While many of Davis’ peers concur with that, Devin White dissents. The third-year inside linebacker suggests that a label initially attached to the secondary — which flourished in the 2020 postseason — was his brainchild, intended for the whole defense.

“They know where it originally came from, and they know the original meaning behind it,” White said. “But at the end of the day, man, we didn’t have an identity for a long time. And when that came up, that was something we all stuck with, and it all kind of just fell right into place with what we were doing, how we were playing.”

Origins aside, know this: The nickname wasn’t laid to rest with the Super Bowl season. Davis and the rest of the defensive back rotation — returning intact from 2020 — particularly have embraced the term.

“We’re digging people’s graves,” third-year safety Mike Edwards said. “So we live with that motto.”

Their coach believes they can bore a bit deeper in 2021.

“They’re still just growing,” Bruce Arians said.

Bucs cornerback Jamel Dean (35) celebrates after he intercepts Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and returns it 32 yards for a touchdown during the second quarter of last season's 38-10 Bucs triumph at Raymond James Stadium. Joining Dean is linebacker Devin White (45) and safety Mike Edwards (32).
Bucs cornerback Jamel Dean (35) celebrates after he intercepts Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and returns it 32 yards for a touchdown during the second quarter of last season's 38-10 Bucs triumph at Raymond James Stadium. Joining Dean is linebacker Devin White (45) and safety Mike Edwards (32). [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Davis and strong safety Jordan Whitehead, entering their fourth seasons, are the elder statesmen of the starting group. Corners Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting are entering Year Three, while safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is coming off a sparkling rookie season.

Of the players projected for the normal secondary rotation, 30-year-old corner-safety hybrid Ross Cockrell is the oldest by far. No one else tops 25.

“They’re all very, very young,” Arians said. “The more understanding they have of what they’re playing and what’s trying to be done to them, the better they can get. I would think the entire secondary can all get better — a lot better.”

And perhaps a lot more consistent. An ebb-and-flow regular season that featured 15 interceptions (tied for seventh in the NFL), 5.9 net yards allowed per pass attempt (tied for sixth), and Davis’ 18 passes defended (tied for second) also included a couple of embarrassing torch jobs (see regular season versus Chiefs).

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Yet the unit, complemented by a relentless pass rush and the return of disruptive nose tackle Vita Vea, mostly shined in the playoffs.

The defense totaled seven postseason interceptions, with Murphy-Bunting getting one in each of the first three games. In three of the four contests, the opposing starting quarterback finished with a passer rating of 78.4 or lower.

While two of those quarterback — Washington’s Taylor Heinicke and the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers — had 300-yard games, opponents collectively posted a 59.7-percent completion rate. When the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes had his dreadful Super Bowl (52.3 rating) ended with a short rollout pass that White basically deflected to himself and caught in his end zone with 1:33 to play, the secondary had Super Bowl rings all around.

Yet the elaborate rocks on their fingers still couldn’t offset the chips on their shoulders. Even after that postseason flourish and a boat-parade coronation, the Bucs’ collection of corners and safeties — which includes no first-round draft picks — still feels disrespected.

None are among the four Bucs defenders listed on the NFL Network’s ranking of the top 100 players of 2021, and that year-old slap in the face from NFL.com’s Cynthia Frelund — who ranked Tampa Bay’s secondary the worst of all 32 NFL teams entering the 2020 season — still stings.

Sean Murphy-Bunting tackles Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill during Super Bowl 55.
Sean Murphy-Bunting tackles Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill during Super Bowl 55. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

None are among the four Bucs defenders listed on the NFL Network’s ranking of the top 100 players of 2021, and that year-old slap in the face from nfl.com’s Cynthia Frelund — who ranked Tampa Bay’s secondary the worst of all 32 teams entering the 2020 season — still stings.

“I’m an underdog. I’ve been an underdog my whole life,” said Murphy-Bunting, who had no Division I-A offers coming out of high school and initially grayshirted (enrolling on his dime for a semester) at Central Michigan.

“I’ve been overlooked my entire life, and I’m not going to act like I’m a champion in that aspect. But the work ethic and everything like that will still stay high.”

Seems that mindset is one they all dig.

“They’re bonding and working together and just making improvements every week,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said.

“I love going against them, and I’m sure we’re going to see big things out of them. I’m pretty confident we’re going to see some big plays out of the Grave Diggers, for sure.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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