When Brandon McDonald first arrived at One Buccaneer Place, it was August 20, less than two weeks before the Buccaneers would trim their camp roster down to the regular-season limit of 53 players. That’s not the ideal situation for making a team, as there is relatively little time to absorb the system and then impress the coaching staff within that system.
And, in fact, McDonald was not retained when the team originally made that cut to 53. However, he was called back later in the week and was even active for opening day, in part because the injuries to fellow cornerback E.J. Biggers and Anthony Gaitor were lingering.
And that’s how a sixth-year veteran who had been a free agent the entire spring and through most of the NFL’s camp-and-preseason phase was suddenly playing about 40% of the Buccaneers’ snaps as the primary nickel back.
McDonald would play in each of the Bucs’ first eight games, starting twice when the team opened in nickel packages. He contributed 20 tackles, one tackle for loss, one interception and two passes defensed during that span, which was decent production.
But if any position has been in constant flux for the Buccaneers this season, it’s cornerback, where both opening-day starters (Aqib Talib and Eric Wright) are now elsewhere or unavailable and where nine different players have seen at least somewhat significant action. That doesn’t even include former cornerback-turned-starting-free-safety Ronde Barber, who occasionally still sees action in what is essentially a nickel corner role. McDonald was part of that turnover when he was released on November 6.
“It happens,” said McDonald, who may have been slowed down in midseason by a “nicked-up” ankle. “One guy goes down and another guy has to step up. That guy played well, and that’s just how the cookie crumbles. I know how it is. That’s everywhere – guys are in and out each week.”
That doesn’t mean he wanted to leave Tampa. And he definitely was hoping to come back. He got his wish earlier this week when the Buccaneers called after being forced to put CB Myron Lewis on injured reserve.
“I’m glad they called me back,” he said. “I want to be a Buc. I’m just trying to get in here and make sure I’m zoned in on everything, so if my number gets called, whatever role it is, I’m ready to go full-speed. I didn’t want to go anywhere else; I wanted to come back here. At the end of the season, trying to go somewhere and learn a new defense? That’s tough.”
McDonald was signed by the Dolphins right after he left the Bucs, but released again before he could get into a game. During his six weeks away from the team, he watched every Buccaneer game on Sunday Ticket. He also made sure to keep in shape in case Tampa Bay or any other team came calling.
“I think I’m in better shape now than I was before I left, honestly, because I didn’t have anything else to do,” said McDonald. “I was just running and working out every day. I feel good.
It’s not immediately obvious what role McDonald would fill, but it’s worth remembering how quickly he carved out a fairly big role earlier in the year. With CB LeQuan Lewis trying to come back from a knee injury, there could be some available snaps in nickel or dime packages. McDonald said he’s open to any role and just wants to help the team get back on the winning track.
All that Sunday viewing, of course, gave him a good feel for how close the Buccaneers have come to victory on most of their unsuccessful afternoons. McDonald’s thoughts on reversing that trend could just as easily apply to his own experience in trying to gain and hold on to an NFL roster spot.
“It’s been tough, but that’s how it is in this league,” he said. “You’ve got to keep fighting until the end.”