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NFL breakout players 2018: Ryan Smith can lead the Bucs in interceptions, if he trusts himself more

The cornerback needs to take more chances, but he should see a big increase in his picks and pass breakups this year.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Buccaneers cornerback Ryan Smith didn’t see a whole lot of playing time as a rookie in 2016 and notched only a single tackle in that season. The former fourth-round pick started off last year coming off the bench, but he came on strong enough that after former first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves continued his struggles as an outside corner, the Bucs decided to move Hargreaves inside to nickel and name Smith the starter in his place on the outside.

Smith went on to start 10 out of 15 games (the Bucs’ first game of the season was cancelled due to a hurricane) and racked up 62 tackles to go along with five passes defensed and two forced fumbles. That was a nice little bounce-back season, but I think he still has plenty of room to grow this year.

What Smith did really well last year was tackle.

Whether against the run, or when he had to take a guy down out in space, Smith came in under control with his feet underneath him, then exploded out of his hips and wrapped up his opponents. And he never seemed to hesitate no matter how big or small the guy with the ball was. Smith threw his body around with reckless abandon to get them on the ground, regardless.

He also appeared to have a really good grasp of where he was supposed to fit in the grand scheme of the defense. When he had to come up and play the run, he made sure to be in the right lane in relationship to his help. When he was dropping in coverage, he always seemed to keep his eyes in the right place, and he was rarely caught out of position. There is a lot to be said for a guy who doesn’t beat himself, one who consistently puts himself in position for success — and that describes Smith’s film to a T.

Where I believe he will really break out this year is in the interception and pass breakups department.

One of the things I hate about the Bucs’ coverage scheme under Mike Smith is how often the cornerbacks have to play off coverage. It’s one of the main reasons I think Hargreaves struggled on the outside in the first place: He was used to being more aggressive in challenging receivers at the line and trying to go after the football. Hargreaves looks like a brand new dude inside at the nickel position because he can play at the line of scrimmage a lot more when covering the slot receiver.

But, I digress ...

On the other hand, I will concede that when you have corners who are comfortable playing off a lot, there are opportunities to make plays on short passes because they can see everything coming. Being comfortable means they don’t bail out of there every time on the snap of the football. They have a feel for the route combinations they are about to see, and that allows them to pounce on short passes at times and make some big plays.

Having that kind of confidence and technique playing off coverage usually takes time, however, because nobody wants to end up on SportsCenter for getting Moss’d. And if you get caught flat-footed on a slant-and-go or any variation of that route, that’s exactly what would happen.

Smith seemed to be very concerned about ending up on the Not Top 10 list last season, even in off coverage.

He made sure to stay over the top of his guy in coverage, which was good when it came to protecting against deep balls, but pretty lame when it came to taking calculated risks to try to make big plays rather than just settling for tackles.

To his credit, after a pass was thrown to his man short, Smith was really good about sticking his foot in the ground and hauling ass and unloading on the receiver in an effort to dislodge the ball before it was secured. In fact, that’s how he got several of those five breakups last season. But waiting to break until after the ball has already been thrown isn’t likely to result in many pass breakups, let alone interceptions.

Now after almost a full season as the starter, Smith should be ready to start taking a few more chances. I believe that Smith will start to trust his own instincts more, especially because he showed he had enough speed to run downfield with most NFL wide receivers.

Last year, Smith proved he has the talent to be a starting corner in this league. This year, I think he will show that he can be a good starting corner in this league. And it starts with creating more turnovers and getting his hands on more footballs. I believe when it’s all said and done, Ryan Smith will lead the Bucs in interceptions this season.

Confidence Level: Moderate