There was a time when Jamel Dean thought this day would never come.
It was the fall of 2016. The 6-foot-1, 206-pound cornerback had already overcome two serious injuries to the same knee, transferred schools and sat out what should have been his freshman season. And right before he was finally going to get onto the field, he suffered a serious injury his other knee, sidelining him for another year.
“He was like, ‘Well, maybe this is just not for me, so I’ll just give up,'” his aunt, Tinita Brown, told the Montgomery Advertiser. “We were like, ‘Jamel, it’s just a setback. Do you really want to play football?’ He was like, ‘Yes, I love it.’ ‘Well, you got to fight for it. It’s not going to come to you easy. You got to fight for it.’”
Dean did exactly that. On Friday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected the former Auburn cornerback with the 94th overall pick in the third round of the 2019 NFL draft.
It marks the fourth straight year that the Tigers have had a defensive back selected, following Blake Countess in 2016, Rudy Ford and Joshua Holsey in 2017, and Carlton Davis in 2018. Dean will rejoin his former teammate in Davis, who went to the Bucs with the 63rd overall pick of the 2018 draft.
“He’s a wonderful person and he’s a great player too. He’s had some adversity with his knees, but since he’s been healthy he’s one of the better defensive backs, I feel like, since I’ve been here,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said last month. “He’s going to be a big-time pro.”
It’s the outcome many expected for Dean when he was a four-star cornerback out of Cocoa, Florida, ranked 29th at his position in the Class of 2015. Former Auburn defensive backs coach Greg Brown described Dean as “the total package.”
The only thing that ever held him back were injuries. Dean tore his ACL and meniscus during his junior season, the same year he committed to Ohio State. He recovered in time to play his senior season at Cocoa High, then tore the meniscus again in that same knee before a postseason all-star game.
The Buckeyes’ medical staff disqualified Dean from competition, deeming his knee injury to be that serious. A second opinion from renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews stated that he would be ready to resume full activity that summer with continued rehab, but Ohio State wasn’t willing to offer him any more than a medical hardship, meaning he would be on scholarship but not part of the football team.
Dean transferred to Auburn instead.
“He basically gave up his senior year of high school on the promise that he was going to get taken care of, and he didn’t get taken care of,” said former Cocoa head coach John Wilkinson, who is now at New Smyrna Beach High. “Thank God that Auburn took a chance on him.”
That chance more than paid off when Dean finally did get on the field in 2017. He started two seasons at cornerback in 2017 and 2018, totaling 73 tackles, 17 pass breakups and two interceptions over 26 games while allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 40.2 percent of the 92 passes thrown into his coverage during that time, per Pro Football Focus.
If that wasn’t good enough, Dean wowed scouts when he ran a 4.30-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, which was the fastest among corners and second-fastest among all players in Indianapolis.
“He was inconsistent, but he tested off the charts. He obviously has the length and size,” ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “You watch him, and one game, he’ll look like he had the chance to be an early round pick, the other, he looked like more of a later round guy. I never thought he tackled well enough; he wasn’t reliable there. He was inconsistent in coverage. But, I think the potential, because of that workout, made him attractive at this point.”
Dean not only joins a former teammate in Tampa Bay, but also a secondary that proved to be one of the worst in the NFL last season, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete a league-worst 72.5% of their passes. The Bucs added Dean and fellow 2019 draft pick Sean Bunting (No. 39 overall out of Central Michigan) to the returning tandem of Davis and Vernon Hargreaves in attempt to shore that unit up.
After spending nearly two years not knowing if he would even play football in college, let alone in the NFL, Dean won’t be intimidated by the big stage.
“There aren’t many dudes who have had three knee surgeries and still continue to play football,” Dean said. “That lets you know that I know how to handle adversity.”