The Buccaneers were able to retain one key young member of their cornerback room this offseason, but another is set to depart. Sean Murphy-Buntinghas agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the Titans, per Jordan Schultz of The Score (Twitter link). The pact has a maximum value of $5MM.
The 25-year-old saw his playing time peak in 2020 with Tampa, when he saw an 83% snaps share. That campaign came one year after he was named a member of the All-Rookie team, raising expectations for Murphy-Bunting. He saw his workload drop in each of the past two seasons, however, ceding playing time to fellow corners Carlton Davisand Jamel Dean.
Each of the latter have signed new deals over the past two offseasons, leaving Murphy-Bunting as the odd man out in the Buccaneers’ secondary. He has racked up 188 tackles, six interceptions and 21 pass deflections over the course of his career, adding three interceptions during the team’s Super Bowl in the 2020 postseason. In coverage, he allowed a completion percentage of 51.2% in 2022, the best mark of his career.
That could make this deal a highly effective one for the Titans, a team which ranked dead last in passing yards allowed (275 per game) last season. Tennessee has invested first- and second-round picks over the past three years in Kristian Fulton, Caleb Farleyand Roger McCreary. Murphy-Bunting will provide more experience than that trio, but his age points to him still having notable upside.
The Titans will have another option to choose from at the corner spot in 2023, as they look to get more consistent production from their young personnel group at the position. Murphy-Bunting is likely in line for an uptick in usage compared to his last two seasons in Tampa Bay, as he will look to find success in his new home and in doing so, boost his value heading into next offseason. Tennessee, meanwhile, has added another starting-caliber defender, having already inked linebacker Azeez Al-Shaairto a new deal.
Hicks has been sidelined since Week 2 while nursing a foot injury. The veteran defensive lineman started 77 games during his six seasons in Chicago before joining the Buccaneers this past offseason. He started each of Tampa’s first two games, collecting five total tackles. His return to the lineup will surely help a defensive line that has struggled against the run.
“It helps because it puts everybody back in their roles,” coach Todd Bowles said. “It puts everybody back in their roles and they can get the amount of time and play how they’re used to playing, and it helps us up front because it gives us a dimension we haven’t had over there.”
Davis had missed the past two games after aggravating a hip injury in Week 6. The 25-year-old started each of the Buccaneers’ first six games, collecting 31 tackles and four passes defended. Murphy-Bunting suffered a squad injury in Week 5 that forced him to miss a handful of games.
It was also discussed recently that if Murphy-Bunting was unable to win the job, he would only be able to come on the field in a backup capacity, since the Buccaneers would prefer to man three safeties in their nickel package this year. In nickel packages, Tampa Bay will use Davis and Dean on the outside with safeties Antoine Winfield, Logan Ryan, and Mike Edwards manning the rest of the secondary.
Head coach Todd Bowles spelled out the situation for Murphy-Bunting after awarding the starting job to Dean, saying that “he doesn’t plan on rotating his outside corners,” meaning that Murphy-Bunting’s playing time will largely come as a sub in both base and nickel packages.
Here are a few more rumors coming out of central Florida, starting with some more news on the depth chart:
After a frustrating offseason that saw Tampa Bay offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs deal with a postseason ankle injury, and an oblique strain once his ankle had healed, the 23-year-old finally got some good news. After he practiced the last two days, Bowles told the media that Wirfs was trending towards being able to play in Week 1, according to Andrew Crane of the Tampa Bay Times. Another youngster should be joining Wirfs on the line as rookie second-round pick Luke Goedeke is in line to start at right guard for the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay doesn’t really have much of a choice with Aaron Stinnie and Ryan Jensen on injured reserve, but Goedeke will get an early opportunity to prove his draft-stock.
Tampa Bay got a little bit of breathing room in their cap space today as starting guard Shaq Masonagreed to restructure his contract, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN. The renegotiated deal will free up over $6MM against the cap this season for the Buccaneers.
As Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield starts to run away with the starting job, questions have been raised about the future of incumbent starter Sam Darnold. When a rumor surfaced that Carolina may be shopping the fifth-year passer, general manager Scott Fittererpulled Darnold aside to set him at ease, according to Joseph Person of The Athletic.
“I talked to Scott,” Darnold explained. “He said not to worry about it. To be honest, before he talked to me, I didn’t even see it. So I’m just gonna continue to do me and do what I can to put myself in a good position and put this team in a good position.”
Aiding Fitterer in convincing Darnold that he’s not likely to be dealt is Darnold’s $18.86MM salary. There could certainly be a team willing to make a call about Darnold if an injury occurs to their starter, but if the Panthers wanted to offload him, they’d likely have to eat some of his contract, as well.
There’s a good chance, though, that Darnold stays put. As Person explained, “in a league that saw only 12 teams make it through the 17-game regular season in 2021 with one quarterback,” the backup quarterback is still a crucially important position. And, while Darnold may not rank highly among the starters in today’s game, he certainly ranks as one of the better backup quarterbacks in the league. The backup job appears to be his, too, as long as the Panthers continue to slow play the development of rookie third-round pick Matt Corral.
Here are a few other rumors from around the NFC South, starting with another note out of the Tar Heel state:
As certain as it seems that rookie first-round pick Ikem Ekwonu will start the 2022 season as the Panthers’ starting left tackle, Carolina is still giving last year’s third-round pick, Brady Christensen, plenty of snaps at the position. According to Person, Christensen took the majority of the first-team reps this past Thursday at the position. Christensen has a highly sought after versatility that gives the Panthers the option of playing him as a guard or a tackle. With Ekwonu still expected to win the starting job, perhaps offensive line coach James Campen just wants to ensure his best backup option has enough experience at one of the offensive line’s most important positions.
The Buccaneers‘ interior offensive line will look completely different in 2022 after the departures of Alex Cappa and Ali Marpet, as well as an injury that may cause center Ryan Jensen to miss a significant amount of time. Trade acquisition Shaq Mason will man the right guard position, while the left guard and center positions are still up in the air, according to ESPN’s Jenna Laine. The center position is currently a battle between Robert Hainsey and Nick Leverett. Leverett is also competing for the left guard starting job with Aaron Stinnie and rookie second-round pick Luke Goedeke. A tweet from Bucs staff writer Scott Smith, though, may hint at one of the positions. Smith reports that assistant head coach & run game coordinator Harold Goodwin “hopes a decision (at left guard) will be made prior to the third preseason game” so that the new left guard can “build chemistry with Donovan Smith and (Hainsey).” Smith is projected to be the starting left tackle, so this comment from Goodwin may point to the fact that Hainsey has won the position battle at center.
The Buccaneers allowed depth players Richard Sherman and Pierre Desir to walk in free agency this offseason, but held onto their most important free agent cornerback when they re-signed Carlton Davis to a three-year, $45MM contract. Besides the departures of Sherman and Desir, and the rookie depth additions that counteract them, the room looks quite the same as it did last season. If the position group can stay healthy, how does the depth chart play out with most of last year’s contributors returning? Let’s take a look.
Davis is the only for sure starter at cornerback for Tampa Bay. He’s been a consistent starter since getting drafted in the second round in 2018, but really broke out in his second year of NFL football. After a rookie season that saw him break up only 4 passes, Davis exploded in coverage recording 19, 18, and 11 passes defensed in each year after. Davis has six interceptions in his first four seasons (four in 2020, alone), but his 52 total passes defensed says plenty about his ability to make plays on the ball. He’ll enter the season as the team’s No. 1 cornerback, with questions surrounding who will be No. 2.
Jamel Dean is likely the top prospect to start opposite Davis in base formations. He or his competition for that second spot, Sean Murphy-Bunting, would still see plenty of the field as the third cornerback, as the Buccaneers primarily utilize a nickel defense, but, when utilizing only four defensive backs, Dean is currently the favorite to be on the field. Not only are they competing for a spot atop the depth chart, but, considering both were members of Tampa Bay’s 2019 draft class, they will also be striving to earn a new payday like Davis’ in their contract years.
Dean didn’t enter the 2021 NFL season as a starter, but, after an elbow injury sent Murphy-Bunting to injured reserve, Dean took over and made the most of his opportunity. Dean has consistently missed at least two games every season with injury, but, considering the extended time Davis and Murphy-Bunting missed last season, two games doesn’t seem so bad. With 33 passes defensed, Dean has shown the ability in coverage to stay close and make plays on the ball. The biggest downside to his game is that Dean hasn’t quite been able to convert those plays into turnovers, only totaling five interceptions over three seasons. Dean possesses ideal size and speed for the position and was even graded one slot above Davis last season according to Pro Football Focus’ position rankings (subscription required).
Murphy-Bunting was drafted one round earlier than Dean and, so far, his opportunities have reflected that. Last year was the first that saw Murphy-Bunting miss time due to injury, but that doesn’t make Dean’s impressive showing in his absence any less inimical to Murphy-Bunting’s starting role. The injury last season really limited Murphy-Bunting, as PFF graded him out as the 90th cornerback in the NFL, compared to Dean and Davis’s 20th and 21st, respectively. Murphy-Bunting has shown the player he can be when healthy, though, and if that version of him shows up for competition, he may find his way back into a solidified starting role. As a rookie, Murphy-Bunting showed off his ball skills with three interceptions. While he only has one pick in the next two regular seasons, he was able to reel in an interception in three-straight playoff games in 2020. Which version of Murphy-Bunting the Buccaneers get this season will largely affect the starting roles, but, as mentioned above, Tampa Bay’s nickel defense should allow plenty of snaps for both Dean and Murphy-Bunting.
Now Tampa Bay does have another option. If either Dean or Murphy-Bunting struggle coming into the season, the Buccaneers could move Logan Ryan, whom they signed in the offseason to fill in the free safety role left vacant by Jordan Whitehead‘s departure, back to his natural position of cornerback. Ryan hasn’t played cornerback since 2019, but he serves as a more-than-qualified “break glass in case of emergency” option.
Behind the top three corners, Tampa Bay returns Ross Cockrell, Dee Delaney, and Rashard Robinson. Cockrell is a journeyman cornerback with plenty of starting experience with his past teams. He and Delaney filled in a bit as starters when Davis and Murphy-Bunting were out last year, but, over the course of the season, Cockrell proved the most effective backup cornerback. Delaney made the most of his defensive opportunities getting an interception and two passes defensed in five games of extended action on defense. Delaney is a core special teamer, though, and really only serves as a depth piece on defense. Similarly, though Robinson has starting experience from his time in San Francisco, he mainly served as a reserve cornerback last year in Tampa Bay.
Rookie fifth-round pick Zyon McCollum and undrafted rookies Kyler McMichael and Don Gardner round out the roster for Tampa Bay at cornerback. They may be able to fight their way onto the 53-man roster by proving their worth on special teams, but McCollum is probably the only rookie here who may find his way into the cornerback rotation as a depth piece.
Tampa Bay’s nickel look should field, essentially, four cornerbacks, with Davis, Dean, Murphy-Bunting, and Ryan all surrounding starting strong safety Antoine Winfield Jr. Dean and Murphy-Bunting will compete throughout the preseason to determine who stays on the field in base formations. Cockrell and Delaney will likely continue their role as key backups. Robinson may find himself competing with McCollum for a roster spot, with McMichael and Gardner attempting to beat the odds. The Buccaneers know they can achieve success with this roster of cornerbacks, based on its similarities to last season, but just how they choose to employ their corners will determine how much success they can achieve.
The change in throwing motion is a direct result of the time Mayfield had to miss last year due to a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
“When it comes to my shoulder…my throwing motion was extremely violent,” Mayfield explained. “I’ve made some small changes and worked with a great QB coach, Jeff Christensen. He’s helped me get back to a form that…I haven’t thrown the ball this well in a long time. And throwing motion looks a little different and I’m thankful for that.”
Here’s a few other rumors from the NFC South, starting with another note out of the Tar Heel state:
The Panthers’ cornerback situation was a bit chaotic last year. After drafting Jaycee Horn in the first round of last year’s draft, and subsequently losing him to a right foot injury, Carolina was forced to acquire both C.J. Henderson and Stephon Gilmore via trades. Henderson spent most of his first season with the Panthers adjusting to his second NFL defensive system in as many years in the league. This offseason, though, he’s reportedly begun to show the talent that got him drafted in the first round in 2020, according to ESPN’s David Newton. If Henderson can develop into a consistent starting talent, this would allow defensive coordinator Phil Snow and secondary coach Steve Wilks to have Horn move inside to play more nickel in passing situations, trusting Henderson and starting cornerback Donte Jackson on the outside.
Falcons’ defensive mainstay over the past few years, linebacker Deion Jones, will have a bit more than an injury recovery to battle with this offseason, according to D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Atlanta experienced an influx of inside linebacker talent this offseason, bringing in veterans Rashaan Evans and Nick Kwiatkoski in free agency and drafting rookie Troy Andersen in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Jones will be coming off shoulder surgery and head coach Arthur Smith told Ledbetter that “everybody is going to have to earn a spot” at the position.
The Buccaneers will have a lot to figure out in their secondary this offseason, according to Greg Auman of The Athletic. The team was able to return starting cornerback Carlton Davis on a three-year deal back in March but has two options battling to start opposite him. Both being in contract years, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting will both be working to try and earn a similar new deal to Davis’. Tampa Bay will operate primarily in a nickel-look defense, meaning all three can be on the field, but when they revert to a base formation either Dean or Murphy-Bunting will have to earn that time. Not to mention, in the off case that one or both struggle at any point, veteran safety Logan Ryan is ready and waiting with his years of cornerback experience in his back pocket.
The Buccaneers will be getting some reinforcement at cornerback for tonight’s game against the Giants. The team announced that they’ve activated cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting off injured reserve.
The former second-round pick suffered a dislocated elbow in Week 1, but he returned to practice earlier this month. Murphy-Bunting started 23 games through his first two seasons in the league, collecting four interceptions and 114 tackles. He also came up big during last season’s Super Bowl run, snagging three picks in four games. He’ll surely slide right back into the lineup for the defending champs.
Murphy-Bunting was the first of a few Tampa Bay corners to go down this season. The Bucs subsequently lost Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis, though Dean has since returned. Davis, who has been out since Week 4, was previously eyeing a Week 10 return, and his return appears to be imminent. The cornerback brought in because of this injury run, Richard Sherman, later landed on injured reserve, and fellow replacement Dee Delaney was knocked out of last week’s contest with a concussion.
The Buccaneers also activated long snapper Zach Triner from IR today. The veteran was also injured during the season opener, with Carson Tinker filling in. The team is temporarily holding two long snappers, and the team will surely make a decision at the position before next weekend.
The Buccaneers’ cornerbacks and pass-catching corps have encountered constant injury trouble this season, but the defending champions will have some help soon.
Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting and wideout Scotty Miller surfaced as IR-return players Tuesday. Given that this is a bye week, that marks a good sign for their prospects of being active when the Bucs resume play in Week 10. Each has 21 days from Tuesday to return to action.
Murphy-Bunting, a former second-round pick, has been out since going down with a dislocated elbow in Week 1. A two-year Bucs starter who notched three interceptions during the 2020 playoffs, Murphy-Bunting was the first of a few Tampa Bay corners to go down this season. The Bucs subsequently lost Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis, though Dean has since returned. Davis, who has been out since Week 4, is eyeing a Week 10 return. The cornerback brought in because of this injury run, Richard Sherman, has also missed the past two Bucs games. Fellow replacement Dee Delaney also missed last week’s game.
Operating as the Bucs’ No. 4 wide receiver, Miller has seen a “severe” turf toe case sideline him since Week 3. Miller has just two catches this season but eclipsed 500 receiving yards in 2020. He added a rather crucial deep touchdown grab in the NFC championship game to help the Bucs to their second Super Bowl.
The Bucs have since played without Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski for much of the time between then and their loss to the Saints on Sunday. With Brown not expected to need an IR stint, it is possible the Bucs will deploy Gronk, Brown and Miller alongside Mike Evans and Chris Godwin following their bye week.