TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting read the play perfectly -- the receiver he was manning motioned down and back out, Murphy-Bunting's cue that a slant route was coming -- and he jumped the route to intercept it, keeping the offense out of field goal range in the end-of-game, two-minute drill.
“I almost started running,” Murphy-Bunting said, laughing. “I heard guys [yell], ‘Get down, get down!’ So I had to slide. And then I saw a lineman next to me too, so I could have really gotten it bad. Like coach said, I could have broke my sternum. I would have gotten smashed.”
It was Murphy-Bunting’s second pick of the day (the first came in a goal-line drill working against WR Breshad Perriman) and the fourth for the rookies in their three days of mandatory minicamp last week. It suggests that not only are the Bucs seeing some early returns on their 2019 draft class, but they may be finally starting to improve what’s been a dreadful pass defense the past three years.
Opposing teams completed 72.5% of their passes against the Bucs’ defense last year and 67.7% from 2016-18 -- both most in the NFL. Fast-forward to now, and the Bucs feel they have gone from viewing their defensive backfield as a weakness to an area of depth.
“I don’t give a s--- if they’re rookies, these guys can play. They’re getting their hands on a lot of balls. They’re doing things that veterans do, because they listen and they’re smart,” coach Bruce Arians said. “All those guys we drafted are very bright, very mature and have picked it up extremely fast, which is unusual for rookies. But, these guys are all very, very mature players.”
“With Carlton [Davis] and Vernon [Hargreaves], we knew we had two solid corners. Now we have five solid corners. I think Ryan [Smith] came a long way," Arians said. "So yeah, I think what was earmarked as a problem in January is totally fixed. Just knock on wood they stay healthy.”
Murphy-Bunting, a second-round draft pick, lined up as a first-team nickelback during OTAs and mandatory minicamp, rotating with M.J. Stewart. Murphy-Bunting also has been lining up on the outside, pushing projected starters Davis and Hargreaves. Murphy-Bunting may stand the best chance of earning a starting role, although Jamel Dean, a third-round draft pick, has gotten his hands on some passes too, including a pick on the first day off Jameis Winston.
Asked what's been the key to his and his teammates' early success, Dean said, “[It’s] really just confidence, knowing that we’ve got coaches that are telling us they believe in us, and really just feeding off of that.”
Murphy-Bunting credits cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross’ daily 6 a.m. wake-up calls after the draft for establishing expectations.
"You’re gonna have to rise up to the occasion at all times -- no matter what your age is, no matter how you got here, you’ve just gotta rise up because everyone’s held to the same standard," said Murphy-Bunting, who plans to link up with Dallas Cowboys safety Kavon Frazier during the seven weeks they have off. “At the end of the day when I get back for training camp, [I] have to be ready. There is no time for mental errors, the mental mistakes."
Mike Edwards making early impact
Safety Mike Edwards, a third-round draft pick, also nabbed an interception during minicamp -- he dove for a tipped Winston pass over the middle -- and is pushing Kentrell Brice and Jordan Whitehead, who have been lining up as starters (last year’s starter, Justin Evans, remains sidelined with a toe/foot injury).
The Bucs are hoping Evans will be ready in time for training camp, although he did just undergo a non-surgical procedure on his foot. Sources tell ESPN that they do not view this as a setback, although Evans struggled with issues in that same left foot all last season, making the safety position unsettled.
The Bucs view versatility as a priority in Todd Bowles' defense, which plays in Edwards' favor. He has ball skills, he's a strong tackler and he can blitz (Bowles loves to blitz his DBs).
Whitehead, who was forced into action as a starter last year due to injuries, will need to show he can be more than just a thumper in the box. Brice is viewed as a cerebral player, and Arians feels he has to show he can be physical when the pads come on.
Spence benefiting from scheme change
No one may be benefiting more from the Bucs' switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 than outside linebacker Noah Spence. While his smaller size worked against him as a defensive end -- he was a healthy scratch for four games last year -- his athleticism and movement make him far more suited to work out of a two-point stance than having his hand in the dirt, and he has had success getting to the quarterback during team periods, even beating out left tackle Donovan Smith.
Carl Nassib, who recorded 6.5 sacks last year, is also handling the transition well -- he's a high-effort player -- although he may see some challenges dropping into coverage and moving laterally in this system. He does have some stiffness -- it's much more natural for him just to rush the quarterback. Look for Shaq Barrett to make a real impact here -- the staff has been pleased with him.
Devin White emerging as a leader
On the second play of OTAs and in his first practice with the veterans, White picked off Winston -- his third pick in three practices. He followed that up with a strong minicamp where he continued to lead the huddle on defense. Even more impressive is that veteran players have already taken to him.
“Devin [White] didn’t show up here as a leader, he became one real fast and the locker room followed him real fast,” Arians said. “So, they don’t always follow everybody. They know who’s a bulls--- artist and who’s not. When you talk a game and when you play a game, two different things.”
Look for White, along with Lavonte David, to remain on the field for all downs. Bowles will use White’s athleticism in a number of ways, including blitzing (Bowles loves to bring pressure up the middle) and even having him come off the edge. He’ll be a huge factor in their run defense because he’s one of the few players who can physically hang with Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey.
“It’s been great,” White said of adjusting to Tampa. “I take it one day at a time. I try to learn as much as possible because the expectation has been put on me but I’ve always had an expectation on me, everywhere I went. But I like it because I hold myself to a higher standard.”