Christian Izien

Graham Barton Likely To Be Bucs’ Starting Center; Tykee Smith To Play Nickel CB

Unsurprisingly, Buccaneers rookie Graham Barton is expected to become Tampa Bay’s starting center right away, as ESPN’s Jenna Laine writes. Barton, the No. 26 overall pick in last month’s draft, will compete with Robert Hainsey for the job, but given Hainsey’s struggles at the pivot in 2023, it would be surprising if the first-year pro does not beat out his veteran counterpart. Our Ben Levine said as much when the team first turned in the card for Barton.

The Bucs won a Super Bowl with Ryan Jensen snapping to Tom Brady in 2020, and after another quality performance the following season, Jensen earned a three-year, $39MM deal with the club in March 2022. Unfortunately, he suffered a major knee injury during training camp just a few months after the ink dried on his new contract, and although he suited up for the Bucs’ lone playoff game at the end of the 2022 campaign, he never made it back onto the field. He announced his retirement back in February.

Hainsey, a 2021 third-rounder, took over at the pivot in Jensen’s stead over the 2022-23 seasons, and after a solid enough showing in 2022, he struggled mightily last year. Pro Football Focus assigned Hainsey a poor overall grade of 50.2 in 2023, which made him the fifth-worst center in the league among players with enough snaps to qualify. Laine writes that Hainsey himself was responsible for 11 sacks last season, and while PFF was more forgiving in that regard — it charged Hainsey with just four sacks — the advanced metrics site did attribute nine penalties and 27 total pressures to the Notre Dame-produced blocker.

Regardless of the numbers themselves, it is clear that Tampa Bay could do with an upgrade, and head coach Todd Bowles specifically wanted “more beef” in the interior of the O-line. Barton possesses plenty of beef, with a 6-5, 314-pound frame and the type of lower body mass that Hainsey does not have.

Barton, a Duke alum, served as the Blue Devils’ center as a freshman but operated as the team’s left tackle for the remainder of his college career. As such, his transition back to the interior of the line may not be entirely seamless, but both Bowles and GM Jason Licht are intrigued by his size, temperament, and technique.

On the other side of the ball, the Bucs see third-round rookie Tykee Smith as a nickelback, according to Laine. 2023 UDFA Christian Izien held down the fort as the club’s primary slot corner as a rookie, but his play began to slip in the middle of the season. Izien and Smith will compete for the starting nickel gig while also cross-training at safety behind starters Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jordan Whitehead.

Buccaneers Name Christian Izien Starting Nickel Corner

As Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times notes, Buccaneers head coach Todd Bowles expects to have more rookies and undrafted free agents on his 2023 squad than he has ever had on one of his teams. Given that the Bucs lead the league in dead money, they naturally have to fill out their roster with modest contracts, and players who may not have gotten a chance elsewhere will have an opportunity to make a name for themselves in Tampa.

One such player is Christian Izien, whom Bowles named as the club’s starting nickel corner (via Stroud). Izien, a UDFA from Rutgers who signed with the Bucs in May, immediately impressed the team’s coaching staff with his speed and athleticism, traits that Bowles wants to inject into his defense this year.

As Scott Smith of the team’s official website details, Izien played safety during his first three collegiate seasons and moved to the slot in his redshirt senior year. With Ryan Neal and Antoine Winfield Jr. set to occupy the Bucs’ starting safety positions, Tampa Bay always had the slot cornerback role in mind for Izien, who saw action in the club’s first and third preseason games.

In the preseason finale against the Ravens, Izien chased down Baltimore quarterback Anthony Brown, who had broken off a long run into the Tampa Bay redzone, and punched out the ball from behind. The Bucs recovered the fumble, and Izien seemingly cemented himself as the starting nickel.

While Izien was occasionally beaten in coverage during his preseason audition, the Bucs hope that his explosiveness will compensate for whatever struggles he has in that regard as he adjusts to professional offenses. The fact that he is surrounded by veterans in the secondary, including Neal and Winfield at safety and Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean on the boundaries, will certainly help.

Izien beat out veteran Dee Delaney and rookie sixth-rounder Josh Hayes for the job.

NFC Rumors: Bucs, Lions, Panthers, Packers

The Buccaneers may be considered as a rebuilding squad, but that doesn’t matter much to the players fighting for roster spots in the late preseason. As the regular season inches nearer and nearer, two starting positions are starting to come into focus, according to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times.

On offense, center Ryan Jensen has not returned to practice as he continues to recover from three knee ligament tears that he opted not to have surgery on. In his absence, Robert Hainsey and Nick Leverett have been competing for the starting job. Hainsey likely has a bit of an edge after playing the position in college and starting all 17 games last season for Tampa Bay, but Leverett has meshed well in new offensive coordinator Dave Canales‘ new zone-blocking scheme. Even if Hainsey can’t hold onto the job, Leverett may keep the position competitive.

On defense, Dee Delaney has really stepped up at nickelback after the team opted to move Antoine Winfield Jr. back to free safety full-time. Delaney, who spent four years at The Citadel before transferring to Miami (FL) and going undrafted, has stuck in Tampa Bay, playing 32 games over the past two seasons while starting three of them. Delaney has had a great camp as reflected in a stellar performance in last week’s preseason game against the Jets. Undrafted rookie Christian Izien has also impressed with physical play throughout the preseason, while rookie sixth-round pick Josh Hayes has fallen a bit behind in the position battle.

Here are a few more roster battles to watch heading into the final weekend of preseason games this season:

  • Nate Sudfeld was viewed as a solid backup option at quarterback for the Lions last season. Coming into 2023, though, he may be struggling to retain a roster spot, according to Justin Rogers of The Detroit News. Obviously, Jared Goff has the starting job locked up, but recently signed veteran Teddy Bridgewater has made a strong case for the QB2 role behind him. Sudfeld still has value to the team, but head coach Dan Campbell made it clear that his roster status depends on if he adds more value to the team than depth at other positions on the roster. If CB5 or CB6 end up adding more value than Sudfeld as QB3, he may find himself missing out on the initial 53-man roster.
  • As starting guard Austin Corbett waits to be cleared following ACL surgery, the Panthers‘ situation at guard is feeling a bit precarious. A tweet from Joseph Person of The Athletic tells that a decision on the starting right guard job in Corbett’s absence has been delayed until the returns from injury of rookie fourth-round pick Chandler Zavala and undrafted rookie Nash Jensen. Head coach Frank Reich wanted both rookies to have a chance for the spot before making the decision. Zavala was recently activated from the physically unable to perform list and hasn’t seen much action. Jensen was impressing early in the offseason before a back injury slowed his progress. They’ll compete with Cade Mays and Justin McCray for the position, but Person believes that Carolina may pursue some added competition at roster cutdowns.
  • Last week, the Packers‘ seventh-round pick from last year, Rasheed Walker, got the starting call at left tackle ahead of usual backup Yosh Nijman, according to Matt Schneidman of The Athletic. Nijman has been the usual go-to at tackle when starter David Bakhtiari isn’t available, but Schneidman thinks that Walker may have worked his way past Nijman on the depth chart as of late.

DB Rumors: Elam, Panthers, Bolts, Bucs

The Bills have hoped to plug Kaiir Elam into their starting lineup opposite Tre’Davious White, but the 2022 first-rounder remains in a position battle. Elam is battling 2022 sixth-rounder Christian Benford and veteran Dane Jackson for the boundary job opposite White, Joe Buscaglia of The Athletic notes (subscription required). Elam played 477 defensive snaps as a rookie, but even as White did not debut until Thanksgiving, the younger Buffalo Round 1 corner only started six games. Benford started five of the nine he played, while Jackson led Bills corners with 14 first-string appearances in 2022. The Bills would clearly prefer Elam seize the role, but for now, the Washington product has not distinguished himself as a surefire starter.

Here is the latest from NFL secondaries:

  • Asante Samuel Jr. resides in a similar boat, needing to fend off a lower-profile challenger. Thus far, it appears Samuel has fallen behind Ja’Sir Taylor for the Chargers‘ slot cornerback role. As it appeared in June, Taylor looks to be the favorite to open the season as the Bolts’ slot player, Daniel Popper of The Athletic notes. Samuel’s shaky run defense has concerned the Bolts, per Popper, with Taylor — a 2022 sixth-round pick — seeing time ahead of the second-generation pro as an outside corner last year due to tackling ability. With primary 2022 slot defender Bryce Callahan unsigned, Taylor and Samuel are battling for the position. Despite Samuel’s experience (27 starts) and draft pedigree (Round 2), he may well open the season as the top backup behind a Taylor-J.C. JacksonMichael Davis trio. Having Samuel as a depth piece would certainly benefit the Chargers, with Jackson attempting to come back from a ruptured patellar tendon.
  • The Panthers have played without first-round pick Jaycee Horn for extended stretches, and the 2021 top-10 pick spent time rehabbing another injury this offseason. Horn did not say how he injured his foot this spring, but he is 100% early in Panthers camp. Ditto Donte Jackson, who missed eight games last season due to an Achilles tear. Both starting corners have received full clearance, GM Scott Fitterer said recently.
  • Although the Buccaneers have re-signed Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean in free agency over the past two years, they let Sean Murphy-Bunting leave in March. Murphy-Bunting, who had spent time in the slot in Tampa Bay, left for Tennessee. The Bucs are holding an expansive slot competition in training camp. Zyon McCollum, Dee Delaney, Josh Hayes, Christian Izien and Anthony Chesley are all vying for the gig, Todd Bowles said (via’s Brianna Dix and Scott Smith). Delaney and Chesley have both bounced around the league, while Hayes and Izien are rookies. Some of these players will not end up on the Bucs’ 53-man roster, but it is interesting to see a five-man competition for this role. A 2022 fifth-round pick who played 277 defensive snaps last year, McCollum may have the lead here. Bowles expects the second-year cover man to play a big role in the nickel spot, Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times tweets.

Buccaneers Announce 19-Man UDFA Class

After selecting eight rookies in the 2023 draft, the Buccaneers added 19 undrafted rookie free agents. Here is the list:

Brown was an absolute animal for the Division-II Rams this season, piling up 1,864 rushing yards and 19 rushing touchdowns as well as 589 receiving yards for five touchdowns on 56 receptions. He and Tucker, who scored 23 rushing touchdowns in the last two years for the Orange, are the only rookie additions to a Tampa Bay running backs room that’s looking for someone to take over.

With only six receivers on the roster following the draft, the Buccaneers added several here. Miller caught 12 touchdowns last year for the Paladins as an FCS All-American. Warner is the son of Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner.

On the offensive line, Haggard and O’Neal join as true left tackles with each starting over 20 games at their respective institutions. Dzansi provides some unique versatility having played all the guard and tackle spots on both the left and right sides of the ball for the Hokies. Murray provides some versatility, as well, having experience at both guard and center.

Banks provides some young depth at inside linebacker after having led the Volunteer defense in tackles last season. Bouyer-Randle and Mbanasor, both former Texas Tech transfers, provide some well-rounded depth at the outside linebacker spots. At safety, Merriweather was a second-team All-American after a stellar senior year with the Hawkeyes.

The Buccaneers also added some potential competition for long snapper Zach Triner, the team’s starter at the position for the past four years. Deckers served as the Blue Devils long snapper as a grad transfer after four years at UMass. He’ll battle with Triner for a starting job this summer.