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How the Bucs built that crazy-talented young secondary

Todd Bowles may call the plays, but he has one of the most talented defenses in the league

Super Bowl LV Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

This morning, I read a text from a friend in which he was trying to come up with a myriad of reasons for why the Chiefs lost a game that so clearly he felt they should have won. Not even with the benefit of having watched the Bucs in the Super Bowl does everyone realize that Tampa Bay is one of the most stacked teams of all time.

One 2020 Pro Bowl player on the roster? That’s more misleading than total passing yards.

But I don’t want to spend a lot of time here writing about the 2020 Buccaneers. They came, they signed Tom Brady, they started 7-5, they won eight in a row. It is true that many of the star veterans are either past their most productive years (Brady, Rob Gronkowski, LeSean McCoy, Antonio Brown, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh) or they never lived up to the hype (Leonard Fournette) or they never got the credit they deserved (Lavonte David, Shaquill Barrett, William Gholston, Ronald Jones II) or they played on an offensive line that has a lot more going for it than just Tristan Wirfs (Ryan Jensen, Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Alex Cappa).

Not all of those names held significance throughout the 2020 season, but when you consider just how many of those players have proven themselves at the NFL level — and that I didn’t even mention Mike Evans or Chris Godwin or the secondary yet — it becomes a lot easier to unpack how the Bucs came together to easily defeat a great team in a football game.

But it was that glossed over secondary, a unit that features six players who were selected on day two over the last three years, that may have been the key to Tampa Bay sneaking past Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, and Taylor Heinicke towards a Super Bowl championship.

It started in 2018.

In the first round, the Bucs selected defensive tackle Vita Vea over a number of immediate star defensive players, including Tremaine Edmunds, Derwin James, Jaire Alexander, and Leighton Vander Esch. They also passed up Daron Payne and Marcus Davenport. Though Vea has missed considerable time in his short career thus far, Tampa Bay picked up two second round picks from the Bills when they traded down from seven so that Buffalo could select Josh Allen.

After selecting Jones with pick 38, the Bucs picked cornerback M.J. Stewart with pick 53, then traded down again from 56 to 53, where they selected cornerback Carlton Davis. Stewart flopped in Tampa and is now with the Browns, but by acquiring those extra draft picks they were able to land Davis at the end of round two and he’s now started 40 games at cornerback in three years.

Davis had four interceptions in 14 games in 2020 and he’s ranked second in the NFL in passes defensed in each of the last two seasons.

Then in the middle of round four, the Buccaneers picked safety Jordan Whitehead out of Pittsburgh. The 10th safety off the board, Whitehead may not be the same as Minkah Fitzpatrick or James (the top two safeties that year) but he could be in the same conversation as first rounder Terrell Edmunds. Whitehead has started 41 games in three years and he had 74 tackles, two sacks, nine tackles for a loss and two interceptions in 2020.

The 2018 class included Vea, Jones, Davis, Whitehead, and Cappa.

The following year, when Bruce Arians was hired to replace Dirk Koetter, Tampa didn’t let up on targeting defense. They selected linebacker Devin White with the fifth overall pick (legitimate superstar in year two with 140 tackles, nine sacks, 15 tackles for a loss, and not enough credit) and their next four picks were also on defensive players.

First came cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting with their second round pick, but true to 2018, the best was saved for next — and the LA Rams even gave them an assist. After trading down from 70 to 94 and 99 so that the Rams could select Darrell Henderson, the Bucs picked cornerback Jamel Dean and safety Mike Edwards at their two new spots in the late third round. Edwards is barely a role player on the defense, but Dean could be shaping up as the best cornerback on the team.

If not just an elite talent, period.

Tampa’s 2019 class included White, Murphy-Bunting, Dean, Edwards, and sixth round receiver Scotty Miller, who fell out of favor once Antonio Brown was signed but has given Tampa Bay yet another bonus weapon to choose from. They also picked a kicker in round 5 — Matt Gay — who has at least given back some value to the Rams.

Then in the 2020 draft, the Bucs saw offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs nearly fall into their laps so they traded a fourth round pick to the 49ers to move up one spot to secure a franchise cornerstone that could also help protect recently-signed Tom Brady and to open up running lanes for Jones. But things got even nastier for Tampa’s draft class when Antoine Winfield, Jr appeared like magic in the second round, going after safeties Xavier McKinney, Kyle Dugger, and Grant Delpit.

Winfield had a legitimate argument for Defensive Rookie of the Year (94 tackles, three sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles, six passes defensed as a 22-year-old leader of that young secondary) and he had an interception off of Mahomes in the Super Bowl. Seventh rounder Raymond Calais would at least join Gay in LA eventually.

But the Rams and the other 30 teams who aren’t Super Bowl champions right now must be asking themselves a lot more questions of how they allowed Tampa Bay to get so good ... and that question barely has anything to do with Brady.

In the last three years, the Bucs have added Devin White, Tristan Wirfs, and Vita Vea in the first round, Antoine Winfield, Ronald Jones, Carlton Davis, and Sean Murphy-Bunting in the second round, Jamel Dean, Alex Cappa, Mike Edwards, and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the third round, Jordan Whitehead and defensive end Anthony Nelson in the fourth round.

This isn’t about opportunities that the Rams didn’t have because they traded away all their first round picks. This secondary was built without a first round pick: Winfield (22), Whitehead (23), Murphy-Bunting (23), Dean (24), and Davis (24). They’re all returning next season.

In 2018, the Rams traded their second round pick to acquire Sammy Watkins from the Bills. Buffalo then used that pick to trade up for Allen, which as you know, was eventually used by the Bucs to trade down with New England for picks that ended up as Davis and Whitehead. LA didn’t get involved in the 2018 draft until Joe Noteboom at pick 89.

By pick 94 that year, Tampa Bay had already selected five players. Four of them were starters or important reserves on Sunday.

In 2019, the Rams still had a first round pick when the draft started, but then a series of moves didn’t put them at the podium until selecting Taylor Rapp with pick 61. They had used their own second round pick, 63rd overall, to trade for Marcus Peters. And as you remember, Les Snead had also used picks 94 and 99 to move up for Henderson.

By pick 97, the Rams had picked Rapp, Henderson, David Long, and Bobby Evans.

By pick 99, the Bucs had picked White, Murphy-Bunting, Dean, and Edwards.

Last year, LA didn’t have a first rounder because they did a very good thing in acquiring Jalen Ramsey. They even came away with the most exciting rookie running back with their first pick, getting Cam Akers at 52. It’s early to say how anybody’s 2020 draft class will turn out, but certainly Tampa Bay is elated so far with Wirfs and Winfield.

And we also know that while the Bucs are setting up to have the best young secondary in the NFL, the Rams begin a rebuilding project for that unit around Ramsey.

John Johnson and Troy Hill are unrestricted free agents, while Darious Williams is a restricted free agent for a team that could quickly run out of cap space. It could be up to players like Long, Rapp, and Terrell Burgess to fill their roles, but pretty much every team had the opportunity to select the secondary players who make up the Bucs’ championship unit of defensive backs.

Is it a fact worthy of Snead’s admiration for a lucky spin of the draft wheel or regret that the Rams scouting department must have missed something during the evaluation process?

That’s a question that can only be debated. There is no right answer. But the question of whether or not the Bucs had the most talented roster in the NFL last season, or at least close to it, should not be arguable. Whether they are ahead or past their time doesn’t matter: the Bucs built the team to beat and when the games mattered, nobody could.

How do the Rams do that in 2021?


First and foremost, build your team through the draft

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