TAMPA, Fla. — The Buccaneers traded safety J.J. Wilcox to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday in exchange for a sixth-round draft pick in 2018. The move created a roster spot for safety T.J. Ward, who agreed to a contract with Tampa Bay earlier in the day.
The Buccaneers also sent a 2019 seventh-round pick to the Steelers in the deal.
In Wilcox, the Steelers get a reliable third safety with starter’s experience. Sources say Mike Mitchell and Sean Davis both expect to play Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns, but they’ve missed some time in the preseason, with Mitchell missing more than a month.
Backups Jordan Dangerfield and Robert Golden are core special-teamers, but the secondary as a whole was not crisp early in the preseason, and the Steelers look ready to upgrade in case their starters go down again.
Wilcox signed a two-year deal with the Bucs this spring for $6.25 million to help fill the void left by Bradley McDougald, who signed with the Seattle Seahawks.
He was brought in to challenge for a starting role but wound up behind Chris Conte and Keith Tandy on the depth chart. Wilcox was seeing action as the third safety in the Bucs’ “big nickel” packages, however.
Before coming to Tampa Bay, Wilcox spent four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, with whom he saw action in 58 career games, starting 38.
Wilcox’s strength is his physicality — he’s a thumper. Ward, whom the Bucs signed to a one-year deal worth up to $5 million after he was released by the Denver Broncos on Saturday, also has that strength, along with coverage skills and experience as a three-time Pro Bowler.
The Steelers keeping five safeties on the 53-man roster is hardly a guarantee. Dangerfield had some good moments in camp but suffered a mild ankle sprain in the preseason finale, which accentuates the need for Wilcox. Golden is a former team captain who enters the second year of a three-year, $4.95 million contract. The Steelers entered the day with around $10 million in cap space, and Wilcox is set to count $3.375 million against the cap.
Wilcox is known as a run-stopper but set out to show his pass-coverage skills in Bucs training camp. He had a few strong moments in this area, particularly against tight end O.J. Howard, the team’s first-round pick in the 2017 draft.
Wilcox’s cap hit is manageable, but the team is cutting it tight if it wants to sign defensive end Stephon Tuitt to an extension before the season.