Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting is dressed in an all-white co-ord, wearing black designer sunglasses as he mills about Neiman Marcus at International Plaza mall in Tampa, Fla. He and his mother’s foundation, Successful Jocks, is holding a fundraiser—an evening of fashion, fun and football—to kick off the new year. It’s aptly named ‘Stepping into a New Season’ and it couldn’t be more fitting for Murphy-Bunting, who spent a lot of 2021 rehabbing from injury.
“For me personally, I dealt with a lot of things the past couple of years, whether it was injuries, and that’s kind of been the main thing for me,” Murphy-Bunting said. “But last year specifically was a year that knocked me out for a while and something that I wasn’t used to. So just stepping into a new season, stepping into a new journey and getting ready to establish yourself again. [It’s about letting] everything else go that’s happened in the past and [being] able to let loose, enjoy your time and have fun.”
Let loose, enjoy your time and have fun might be the mantra for the Buccaneers’ defense this year, specifically the secondary, who was limited in 2021 due to the injury to Murphy-Bunting along with a rash of others, including cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean, and safety Jordan Whitehead. Tampa Bay didn’t field their entire starting secondary until Week 16 last year save for the first part of Week 1 before Murphy-Bunting got hurt.
Because of that, the defense was likely more vanilla than the Buccaneers and Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles would have liked. And just like Bowles got elevated to the head coach role, so too will his defense. The depth is better than it’s been on that side of the ball since Bowles’ arrival and they look like they’ll finally be able to execute whatever intricate scheme Bowles had undoubtedly been concocting this offseason. It started to show in camp.
Murphy-Bunting has been playing almost exclusively on the outside, though he’s been an outside corner in the Buccaneers’ base package for multiple seasons now. He kicked in at nickel when Tampa Bay went into their flex package, but that role has been reserved for a safety more often than not thus far in the preseason.
“I think that for me personally, I strive to be the best every year,” said Murphy-Bunting. “I strive to be better than I was here before. It’s just been a steady incline for me and my mind and my mental. I’ve kind of gotten out of that phase of always relying on my athletic ability with just knowing the film work and studying and things like that—the little things matter.”
Those little things have compounded into bigger things that are now allowing the Buccaneers to get more creative—like that aforementioned three-safety look they’ve been presenting as of late. A lot of the reason for that is the arrival of both safeties Logan Ryan and Keanu Neal. Both semi-positionless players on the backend, they can be deployed in myriad ways, which serves a multiple and variable defense like the one the Buccaneers possess well.
“They bring more of that Swiss Army Knife style of defense that we have,” Murphy-Bunting said of Ryan and Neal. “Both of those guys are interchangeable in many different positions on the field. They’ve all had success with what they have been doing so just having them added on to what we already had—it’s going to make our team that much better. I think they’re both very smart players. They are both very hard-working guys, and they still put in work each and every day like they were 22-23 years old trying to make a name for themselves. I’ll always respect that out of somebody and respect their hustle, their grind. Just having them around has made me a better player.”
The secondary is also served by a new arrival up front in the form of defensive tackle Akiem Hicks. Because of all the pressure generated up front, the secondary is going to have the opportunity to make more plays on errant throws and forced plays. They also won’t have to cover as long with pockets collapsing at the sight of Hicks and nose tackle Vita Vea together. It will again allow for more freedom and creativity on the back end, which is yet another level up from their previous iteration.
“I feel like as a group we’ve taken a step,” said cornerback Carlton Davis. “We’ve taken a step every year since I’ve been here, taken a step every year and I feel like this year we’re going to be possibly the best back end.
“I said that. I said that.”
Bold statement maybe. But it’s one his teammates agree with.
“I mean, I’ve felt that way for a while,” Murphy-Bunting said. “It’s not like you can sit there and look at our secondary and say that we’re lacking. I feel like we have everything that we need, that we’re all just ready, willing to do whatever we have to do to be great and so I think that that is just another big part of the game.”
“Yeah, we’re doing the thing,” smiled Davis. “We are ready.”
Murphy-Bunting gathers with safety Mike Edwards and fellow cornerback Jamel Dean, both dressed to the nines, for a picture. The three were drafted together in 2019—Bowles’ first crop of defensive backs. They’ve grown and evolved together and now here they are, stepping into a new season with the rest of the Buccaneers’ secondary together.
*Successful Jocks is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to making a difference in the lives of student-athletes. Their mission is to inspire, motivate and empower student-athletes equipping them with the tools, resources and support needed to become successful in the game of life.
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