What?!?! The Bucs Only Have 2 Safeties Under Contract

by Douglas O’Connor
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     The Buccaneers safety position has been in the cross hairs of nearly every Buc fan at one time or another these past couple of years. The underwhelming combination of two year starters Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald were a part of a defensive backfield that gave up a NFL league worst 70% completion rate in 2015.

     The addition of corner backs  Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves and new defensive coordinator Mike Smith shaved almost seven points off of that total, but the Bucs are still only middle of the pack in the category.

     Most NFL personnel experts agree, for the Buccaneers to take the next step. An upgrade at the safety position is needed. Luckily, the free agents and 2017 draft class has the players to do just that, and Jason Licht has the cap room to make it happen.

     I’ll breakdown who the Bucs have under contract. What possible free agents they could be looking at and what draftees could be catching Jason Licht’s eye.

Who The Bucs Have

     It may come as a surprise to Buccaneers fans that their team only has two safeties under contract. A five year roll player and a futures contract guy who has never played a down in the NFL. 
     Kieth Tandy was drafted by the Bucs in 2012 out of the University of West Virginia. Only 7 starts in his first 4 years Tandy’s seemed to be destined as a career NFL backup. That all changed when starter Chris Conte went down with an injury in week 12. Taking over the last 5 games Tandy put up Pro Bowl type numbers, with 44 TOT, 7 PDEF and an eye popping 5 INT, including 2 that sealed Buccaneer victories.
     Tandy’s late season play defiantly earned him a starting safety spot when training camp opens. Buc fans will just have to wait and see if Tandy was a flash in the pan or can become a long term solution.
     Isaiah Johnson bounced around during his college career. JUCO to the University of Kansas and finally landing with the Gamecocks in South Carolina. Known as a big hitting safety with above average cover skills Johnson could make the 53 man roster because of the lack of safeties under contract.
Free Agents
     The 2016 free agent season saw Buccaneers GM Jason Licht sign key second tier contributors to fill out the roster. I expect much of the same from Licht this year. ACCEPT when it comes to the safety position. Given the depth on the roster, age of the top free agent safeties and amount of cap room the Bucs have. Licht could go all in this year, hoping to shore up one of the two safeties spots for years to come.
     Eric Berry, Age 28 Regarded as the best safety in the NFL. Berry is a 5 time Pro Bowler and a 3 time All Pro. Already the highest paid player at his position Berry as come out and said he will not play the 2018 season under the franchise tag and who can blame him. 
     The franchise tag guarantees a player makes an average of the 5 highest paid players at his position. Since Berry is already the highest paid player essentially he would be taking a pay cut. As of time of posting the Kansas City Chiefs, the team Berry currently is under contract with, only has 4.7 million of cap space to sign free agents and draft choices. 
     Best guess. Berry hits the free agency market but his asking price is more than the Bucs are willing to pay him.
     John Cyprien, Age 27 Has been playing football in the state of Florida his entire life. A Miami area product that suited up for the Panthers of FIU before being drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2nd round of the 2013 draft. A sure tackler with over 100 TOT in each of his first 4 years. Cyprien is a thick bodied and likes to play physical with the wide receivers. If this kid played for a perennial playoff team, he would be a household name.
     Jacksonville has plenty of cap room to sign Cyprien and he should never hit the free agency market, but there have been player grumblings about the scheme DC Todd Walsh runs. Especially from the DB’s. 
     Best guess. Cyprien test the free agent market and continues his football career in the state of Florida. Jason Licht makes a hard push for Cyprien and he will have to decide between the Bucs and the Jags.
     Tony Jefferson, Age 25 A 2013 UDFA that signed with the Cardinals and has had the opportunity to learn from some of the best DB’s in the game. And it looks like he paid attention. Jefferson is a jack of all trades type of player. Solid tackler, good cover skills, above average blitzer and a knack for causing fumbles. His NFL arrow is pointed straight up and he isn’t yet in his prime. Arizona has the money available to pay him but also has to try and resign high priced free agents Chandler Jones and Calais Campbell. 
     Best guess. Jefferson listens to his agent and hears offers from other teams. Someone is going to overpay for this guy thinking that their safety concerns are over for the foreseeable future. This is the guy I see Licht coveting for that very reason. Add in that he is only 25, Jefferson will be seen as a cornerstone type player. Something every team is looking for.
Mike Adams, Safety – Indianapolis Colts
     Mike Adams, Age 36 If Jason Licht misses out on his targeted young free agent safeties, Adams is the type of bridge player he likes. A mentor for the young guys on the team to teach them the right way to go about being a pro. A player like Adams could be instrumental to the development of the safety the Bucs will certainly pick up in the 2017 draft. 
     Adams has been a top NFL safety for many years and the Colts are looking to get younger on defense. I think Adams would jump at the chance to end his playing days with a young competitive team. 

     Best guess. I don’t think it comes to this. Licht will make sure he gets a young free agent safety on his roster in 2017. It’s not out of the question that Adams ends up with the Bucs as well, given the lack of experience on the team. If the price is right of course.

2017 NFL Draft

     The 2017 NFL draft is stacking up perfectly for the Buccaneers. Every position where the team has a need the draft is deep and the safety position might be the deepest of all. Some sites have as many as 30 safeties with draftable grades. 

     Now knowing this I’m just going to go quickly go through some top players because I firmly believe that one of those players will be drafted by the Buccaneers.

Malik Hooker, Ohio State – 1A best safety in the draft. Will not be available for the Bucs at 19.

Jamal Adams, LSU – 1B best safety in the draft. Will not be available for the Bucs at 19.

Obi Melifonwu, U Conn – His size to speed ratio is the best in the draft. A sub 4.6 40 at the combine cements his day one draftability. 

Jabrill Peppers, Mich – Freakish athlete, to small to play LB not enough reps at safety to be considered a 1st rounder. Total wildcard IMO.

Budda Baker, Wash – Makes plays all over the field, on the smallish side but great instincts. Won’t make it out of the 2nd round.

Marcus Maye, UF – Does everything good nothing great. Broken arm cut his season short, could end up being the safety steal of the draft.

Justin Evans, Texas A&M – Better in the box tackler than a cover man. Slated to be a SS by most analyst. 

Marcus Williams, Utah – A turnover machine and will stick his nose in there despite his sub 200 lbs frame. The combine and his Pro Day performance will decide which round he is taken.

Rudy Ford, Auburn – A solid SEC safety. His Senior Bowl week opened some eyes. Watch for his stock to rise after the combine.

Eddie Jackson, Alabama – A liability in the run stop game but outstanding ball hawking skills. Jackson is a gifted punt returner as well.

     Just to be clear Buc fans this is not my Top 10 list. It is a list of 5 players you probably heard of and 5 players you might not.

What I Think Will Happen
     The Buccaneers will add at least two safeties this off season, probably more because there is zero depth as of now. Most will come as UDFA to fill out the training camp roster. 
     If Jason Licht gets his young safety in free agency I see the Bucs not drafting one until the 4th round or later. If he misses on his top targets the Bucs will draft safety early, no later than the 3rd, depending on how the draft breaks.
     Lastly don’t rule out the return of Bradley McDougald. His play was very consistent throughout the year and he knows Mike Smith’s system.
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