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Bucs view injury plague to secondary as opportunity to flex scouting muscle

Only one starter remains in the Bucs secondary, but filling those holes is the stamp of a good organization.
“I think when you started to lose the guys we have, Ross adds even more value because he’s so smart,” John Spytek, the Bucs' vice president of player personnel, said of defensive back Ross Cockrell, pictured.
“I think when you started to lose the guys we have, Ross adds even more value because he’s so smart,” John Spytek, the Bucs' vice president of player personnel, said of defensive back Ross Cockrell, pictured. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Oct. 9

TAMPA — If the Bucs return to the postseason, much less defend their Super Bowl title, this season, they may wind up owing it to the scouts and the front office staff.

Jordan Whitehead is the last healthy member of the self-proclaimed “Gravediggers,” the starting secondary that has been buried by injuries. Cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting (dislocated elbow) and Carlton Davis (quad) are on injured reserve. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is in concussion protocol.

Even backup cornerback Jamel Dean has missed games with a knee injury but could return Sunday.

Injuries are part of the game, but rarely do teams survive such a targeted assault on one position group as important as defensive back.

While it’s true the Bucs are last in pass defense, allowing 327.5 yards per game, they still have managed a 3-1 start thanks to depth signed to the practice squad and the free-agent acquisition of Richard Sherman.

What’s being perceived as an obvious negative may actually become the Bucs’ edge.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for us to have a leg up on teams,” said John Spytek, the Bucs’ vice president of player personnel. “Everyone is going to lose players, but if we’re (replacing them) better than everybody else, it’s another advantage for us.”

What’s helped is the league’s inclusion of up to six veterans regardless of length of service to an expanded 16-player practice squad.

A year ago, the Bucs signed seventh-year veteran Ross Cockrell to the practice squad. He was promoted to the 53-man roster in Week 5 at Chicago but wound up playing in four regular-season games, starting two, before playing in all four during the postseason.

In training camp, Cockrell cross-trained at the nickel cornerback position (where Murphy-Bunting plays) and safety.

“I think when you started to lose the guys we have, Ross adds even more value because he’s so smart,” Spytek said. “He can certainly play corner well, but he can play safety if he needs to in order to get you out of a game.”

The ability to give players a few weeks to learn Todd Bowles’ system on the practice squad before having to play has been a huge help.

“It’s hard to find guys to play certain positions, and everyone is looking for corners right now,” Spytek said. “These guys wouldn’t be eligible to be on practice squads. We did this with Ross last year. We sat him on the practice squad for a week or two in September. The whole idea was to get him up to speed and then play him. Same as this year. You get a chance to have them learn one or two weeks until you have to put them in a game.”

It’s up to director of pro scouting Rob McCartney and his staff to update possible waiver claims and the status of all available players.

The decision to sign Sherman, who was a free agent, belonged to general manager Jason Licht and head coach Bruce Arians.

But in the case of players such as Dee Delaney and Pierre Desir, who have plenty of NFL experience, scouting certainly plays a vital role.

When Spytek was an area scout with the Broncos, Desir’s NAIA school of Lindenwood University in Missouri was the last visit he made on a fall trip.

“We use the information that we collect in college even as it transfers over into the pros to know how this kid is built,” Spytek said. “We can see all the physical stuff. We know Pierre is a survivor. We know he’s smart. Obviously, in spades with Sherm. Everybody knew that.

“But I think when you start to get the attrition that we did at the cornerback spot, you have to have a real conversation with yourself. These guys aren’t very far away from going into the game.”

One other key element is Bowles’ understanding of the talent he’s playing with. He’s only going to put players in positions to succeed, even if it means sacrificing some yards in the passing game.

“Todd does a great job of knowing what the guy’s strengths are and knowing what we have,” Spytek said. “He’ll say, ‘I can adjust, I just need to know who can do what and we won’t call certain things if they’re in the game. And if it’s the other guys and they can do that, then I’ll call them.’”

The injuries might seem like an insurmountable disadvantage now. But in time, the Bucs could owe their success to good scouting.

Wirfs’ sack-less stretch

Friday marked the one-year anniversary of the day tackle Tristan Wirfs allowed the only sack of his career.

It happened in the 20-19 loss to the Bears in Week 5 of the 2020 season.

Since that sack by Khalil Mack, there have been 1,193 sacks surrendered in the NFL. Including the post-season, Wirfs has played 1,625 snaps in 24 career games, having allowed only the one.

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