Buccaneers Safeties a big question mark

Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith (right) greets Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith (right) greets Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports /

The Buccaneers have made wholesale changes at the cornerback position, but safety remains suspect.

There are a lot of new faces at One Buc Place, with the majority of those new faces coming from the defensive side of the ball.  We all know why and how we got here, with Coach Lovie Smith bringing in his antiquated version of the Tampa Two defense and all his old retread players.  That led to the defense, primarily the secondary, declining both years with Lovie as Buccaneers’ head coach.

Think about that; Lovie Smith, the big defensive-minded coach actually had our defense worse than Greg Schiano…That’s telling.  So out walks Lovie Smith and in walks a new Smith, Mike Smith.

Mike Smith has already stated this defense is going to be different.  It will include different looks, more aggressiveness, and playing to the players’ strengths, not the scheme.  What more could you ask for, besides this defensive unit becoming top ten of course?

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With Mike Smith comes two key veterans who are very familiar with his scheme; Brent Grimes, a Pro Bowl cornerback who played for Smith in Atlanta, and Daryl Smith, a linebacker who played under Mike in Jacksonville.

The defensive line has hopefully been shored up with the additions of Robert Ayers from the Giants, and second round draft pick Noah Spence who has been hailed as the best pure pass rusher in the draft.  The cornerback position saw Grimes, Josh Robinson and 1st-rounder Vernon Hargreaves, as well as retaining Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks.

Everything is looking great for the Bucs’ new defense on paper…except for the back half of the DB group…the two safety positions.

The current starters at this point are Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald, with Keith Tandy playing a versatile role as backup for both of them.  I personally think the safety position is the biggest weak link for the Bucs’ new defense.  Would Conte be a starter right now if it wasn’t for Lovie Smith bringing him in last season and the new regime wanting to see how these players did in a more aggressive and modern scheme?  He’s made some plays for the Bucs, but he also is known nationally for some seriously bad plays and costly mistakes.

Although McDougald is a player that interests me, I am not quite sold on him.  He’s definitely shown some potential since starting 15 games last season, like that great interception against Dez Bryant and some seriously solid tackling, but is Bradley McDougald a quality safety in a modern NFL where the passing game is dominant?

There are some new faces in the safety meeting room though, particularly 4th round draft pick Ryan Smith who played both corner and safety during his time at NCCU.  Another player with the versatility to play multiple positions, Smith’s greatest asset is definitely his speed.  He’s had his 40 times between 4.35 and 4.45; with some development this guy has everything but the size to be a good free safety who can cover the backfield in a flash.

Even though he’s a smaller guy (5′-11″ 190 pounds) who won’t be a feared, physical, hard hitter like Kam Chancellor, Smith isn’t afraid to put his body out there to make a tackle.  So remember, he may be a 4th round pick, but so was Kwon Alexander and we all know the rookie year he had…Keep Ryan Smith in mind.

The next two guys are a little bit more of a stretch to become starters, and are just trying to make the roster right now.  Elijah Shumate out of Notre Dame and Isaiah Johnson from South Carolina were undrafted rookies.  Shumate is a traditional in the box safety, whose strong suit is playing the run.  He isn’t too great in coverage, which would really hurt his chances if we weren’t talking about Conte and McDougald as the starters.

Johnson is someone I’d really like to see develop into a quality safety.  Johnson has the ability to become that hard-hitting safety that the Bucs are lacking; he has a nose for the football with over 220 tackles and seven interceptions in 36 games.

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With all the changes being made on the Bucs’ defense it’s a shame that we didn’t snag a legitimate starting safety in free agency or the draft, but the potential for some surprises are certainly there.  What do you think, Bucs’ fans?  Are we sticking with Conte and McDougald as the starters this season, or could someone grab a starting position before the season beings?  Either way it will be interesting to see how things end up at both free safety and strong safety. Go Bucs!