Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Safety Decisions Could Make or Break 2017 Defense

Focus this offseason on defense will lie on the safety position, and the decisions made could make or break the Buccaneer defense in 2017

One of the glaring holes in the Buccaneers defense this season was evident in the safety position. Although the position as a whole showed improvement in 2016, especially during the five-game winning streak that brought the Bucs into the playoff conversation this past season, there is still much room for improvement.

Question now lies in the hands of the Buccaneers brass. Do they feel that Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald grew enough this past season to be able to elevate their game to the next level?

Chris Conte will be eligible to test the market come March 7th. He served his second one year contract this past season with the Buccaneers as their starting strong safety. Conte spent the first half of the season with fans getting a great view of the back of his jersey chasing down the opposition, but showed improvement in coverage as the season wore on. However his tackling skills do still leave much to be desired.

Conte did miss games against the Chargers and the Saints this season, and backup Keith Tandy played extremely well in his stead, which could make him expendable regardless of the way free-agency pans out for the Bucs. It was noted that Conte showed no interest in sticking around the locker room following the Buccaneers season-ending victory against the Panthers. Tandy had 12 tackles and two interceptions in the game.

Depending on the dollar amount Conte is looking for, he may be better suited in the back-up role or extending his services at the safety position to another franchise.

Listed as the starter this season opposite of Chris Conte, safety Bradley McDougald is also eligible to dip his toes in the free agent pool this offseason. McDougald has shown to be the better of the two against the run, but can often find himself in trouble in pass coverage. If the Buccaneers are interested in retaining one of the two men, McDougald may be the better option as far as what he has shown on the field with the Buccaneers.

Chances are, however, that both players will be sporting different uniforms next season, as the Bucs appear to be a promising up-and-coming team, and a ‘been there done that’ attitude would portray the inevitable, change is needed.

Best way for a change, bring in an experienced player and a young player to develop into a possible star. Number one safety target for the Buccaneers this offseason should be Eric Berry, that is, of course, assuming Berry hits free agency.

Eric Berry has made it quite clear to the Kansas city Chiefs that he will not play in 2017 under the franchise tag. Berry, 28, has arguably been one of the best safeties in football the past two seasons, playing in all 16 games for each of those two seasons. What makes that stat remarkable is the fact Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma during the 2014 season. Berry was named Comeback Player of the Year in 2015, and followed it up with First team All-Pro honors in 2016. There will be many teams who will be unable to afford Berry’s services, however with a projected $72.8 million in cap space according to spotrac.com, the Buccaneers should be considered a favorite to land him if the Chiefs cannot come up with a contract with him come March 9th.

If Berry does decide to return to the Chiefs, the Buccaneers should turn their attention towards the services of Arizona Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson. Jefferson may not have made the splash Berry has in the NFL, but he is a quality cover guy who will come at a much smaller price tag than Berry would. Although not quite the ball hog that Berry is, Jefferson finished a solid 2016 campaign with 74 tackles, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and two sacks. Jefferson has ties to Bucs GM Jason Licht, as he was the Vice President of Player Personnel in Arizona when Jefferson began his career there in 2013.

Depending on how the search for a number two wide receiver goes for the Buccaneers in free agency, the Buccaneers could use the 19th pick to chase a safety. Depending on the results of the combine, they may be able to draft LSU safety Jamal Adams. Adams has a knack for being a leader and creating turnovers, two things the Buccaneers could use in their defensive backfield in 2017. He is well-built and an uncanny ability to sniff out plays and cause a disruption.

The name John Lynch comes to mind with those descriptions….

As the Buccaneers prepare to make the leap into a playoff caliber team heading into 2017 and beyond, the right approach to improving the secondary, primarily through the safety position, will be key in determining how big of a jump the Buccaneers will take in 2017.