Playoff experience is priceless. The ability to play on the biggest stages in the game is an ability which escapes some, and leads others to perform better than ever before. There will be many eyes on the game as the Steelers visit Cincy in the 2016 AFC Wildcard round, and there will be more than just fans watching.
Teams who missed out of the playoffs will be looking to benefit from the playoff experience of others by poaching potential free agents once the confetti has fallen and the signing period officially opens in March 2016. For the Buccaneers, who have money to spend and weaknesses to fix, these games could serve as a sort of tryout to help identify the targets they will pursue.
Here are just a couple of the players to watch, as they may soon don the flag of the Buccaneer and help take on the NFC South.
CB, Brandon Boykin – The Buccaneers secondary was a source of pain, and many headaches throughout the season. After starting cornerbacks were replaced by new starters, and replaced again by other cornerbacks, the Buccaneers are far from having a long term solution at the position.
The most consistent combination at the position was easily the duo of Sterling Moore and Jude Adjei-Barimah; an undrafted journeyman and an undrafted rookie. While the two played well at times, the team is in dire need of young talent, and consistent play.
Enter Steelers cornerback Brandon Boykin. As part of the Chip Kelly Eagles’ talent purge, Boykin was traded to the Steelers in 2015 and has played in all 16 games this season with one start. While Boykin impressed early in his career with his ability to make plays, Kelly just didn’t see Boykin as possessing the size or physicality needed to be a starting corner in the NFL. Boykin didn’t appreciate the slight, and so a trade was born and Boykin became a Steeler.
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In Pittsburgh, Boykin has played sparingly. This may be due to a lack of experience in the system, but Boykin has broken onto the field more lately, and since week 13 Boykin has played in a total of 252 snaps on defense. Compare this to just 22 snaps in the first 12 weeks of the season, and it’s obvious the Steelers have recognized the talent Boykin possesses.
In his sudden increase in play Boykin has rewarded the Steelers with 18 tackles (13 solo), 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, and four passes defended. The 13 solo tackles will make Boykin more attractive to the Buccaneers as he has shown the ability to tackle opposing players consistently and effectively when on the field. Tackling was suspect in Tampa all year, and adding a young player with solid tackling skills is exactly what the team will be looking to do.
Boykin, on the other hand, will be looking for an opportunity to earn a starting position. The Steelers have two of their three top cornerbacks entering free agency with the other being veteran William Gay. Both corners shouldn’t be franchise tagged, and with new contracts looming for Le’veon Bell and Antonio Brown, it’s highly unlikely Boykin will get the money and opportunity he is looking for in the steel city.
If there is any team in the league that provides the 5’10” corner an opportunity to succeed it’s the Buccaneers. The organization is no stranger to shorter cornerbacks who play with heart and succeed because of their size rather than in spite of it. Nobody is ready to say Boykin can be Ronde Barber part 2, but he definitely has shown the potential to be an effective defender for years to come.
Against the Bengals, Boykin will have the complicated task of covering some fast and tall receivers alike, and will be looked upon to help contain Giovanni Bernard as he looks to turn short runs and catches into big plays. Boykin’s sure tackling will be needed and a big turnover may be in line for the young defender looking to earn a Super Bowl ring and starting position for 2016.
S, George Iloka – The fourth year safety out of Boise State has increased his tackles per game totals in each of his four years, and has been a consistent presence in the Bengals defensive backfield since taking over starting duties in his sophomore season. Iloka was hobbled for five games early in 2015 for an ankle injury, but has returned without incident since then and is looking to help his team get past their arch-rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
The young defender has been playing his entire career facing receivers like Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, Baltimore’s Steve Smith, and Cleveland’s Josh Gordon (did not play in 2015). In the Bengals 2015 campaign they also faced off against the likes of DeAndre Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald, and Demaryius Thomas. Despite these big play threats, the Bengals finished the season allowing the second fewest touchdown passes in the league while ranking third in the league with 21 interceptions.
While Iloka did not produce these results alone, he was a key to this stifling defense by providing over the top coverage against some of the game’s most lethal big play receivers.
The Bengals will surely try to secure the services of Iloka for a long time, and he may even be a franchise tag target, but if the Bengals allow the young safety to seek out the offers of other teams, the Buccaneers would be crazy not to make a run at a young man who is quickly nearing pro-bowl form.
A reunion with Boise State teammate Doug Martin may be in the cards, and would greatly benefit the Buccaneers secondary which ranks in the bottom half of every important category.
Saturday night he will be matching up again against Brown, Martavis Bryant, and an always dangerous Steelers passing game. With Ben Roethlisberger looking to add another winning chapter in his storied career, it will be Iloka and the Bengals secondary burdened with the task of keeping their explosive offense contained so that an A.J. McCarron led Bengals offense can score enough to win the game.
When Saturday night comes to a close two more NFL franchises will enter their off-season, and one of these players will begin the process of figuring out what city they will call home beginning with the 2016 NFL season. The Buccaneers have bunks open in One Buc Place and either of these two young defenders would be welcomed by Buccaneers fans worldwide.