By Ira Kaufman | Tribune Staff
Published: June 20, 2014 | Updated: June 21, 2014 at 10:57 AM
TAMPA — The Buccaneers feel like they got a free-agent bargain.
Alterraun Verner agrees.
Tampa Bay’s 25-year-old Pro Bowl cornerback doesn’t lack for confidence as he gears up for his first NFL season with a new team since the Titans selected him in the fourth round of the 2010 draft out of UCLA.
Tennessee thought it couldn’t afford to keep Verner, but he ended up signing a four-year deal with the Bucs for $26.5 million, including $14 million guaranteed. While not exactly chump change, the contract represents less value than comparable corners such as Vontae Davis (Colts), Sam Shields (Packers) and Brent Grimes (Dolphins) received in the offseason.
“There’s a lot to be excited about right here in Tampa,’’ said Verner, who intercepted five passes and posted 73 tackles for the Titans last season. “I wish we were playing the season opener this week because I’m so ready to go. Everybody on this team is thinking this will be a special year.’’
Joining a unit led by All-Pro performers Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David, Verner was asked whether he expected the Buc defense to finish in the Top 10 this fall.
“No question,’’ he said. “But why stop there? I’m thinking top five.’’
At 5-foot-10, Verner lacks ideal size and nobody has labeled him as a burner, but he compensates with smarts and instincts. At Mayfair High in Lakewood, Calif., he boasted a 4.17 GPA and scored a 1,740 on his SATs.
Now, he’ll put that intelligence to work as part of a Cover 2 scheme implemented by new head coach Lovie Smith, who was instrumental in luring Verner to Tampa for less than market value.
“Not only is Coach Smith defensive-minded, but he’s a big fan of getting the ball back for the offense — and that’s what I’m all about,’’ Verner said. “I’m disappointed in any game where I don’t find a way to hit the football.’’
When mandatory minicamp ended last week, Smith urged his players to get away from football for a while before reporting to training camp July 24.
Verner doesn’t mind the break, but his excitement about the upcoming season will keep him motivated for the next five weeks.
“First and foremost, people have to be in shape when we come back,’’ he said. “Relax, get away from football, and most importantly, take care of your body so you can hit the ground running and not take a step back when camp starts.
“I’m a big believer in staying active, even when you’re relaxing. We start off with the top dog in our division (Carolina), and as a group, we have to find a way to take advantage of this Florida heat.’’