"We're off to a good start."
That was the assessment of Dirk Koetter after the first round of his first draft as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach, and it was a nod to the deft hand that Jason Licht, the team's third-year general manager, continues to show on draft weekend.
"Exciting night for the Bucs," said Koetter. "[It's] great to be able to get the guy that we were looking for and still pick up an extra pick in the fourth round."
After seriously restocking the offense and finding multiple starters on both sides of the line of scrimmage in the 2014 and 2015 drafts, Licht guided the Bucs into this year's proceedings with an eye toward defense. Not only did Licht make a significant addition to that crew with the first-round pick of Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, but – as Koetter mentions – he did it while also increasing the team's chances of finding even more young talent.
The Buccaneers began the evening in the ninth slot of the opening round and had their eyes on Hargreaves, who Licht called the best pure cover corner in the draft. The team was prepared to make Hargreaves their pick, but a conversation with the Chicago Bears sweetened the pot. Licht agreed to move back two spots, allowing Chicago to grab Georgia linebacker Leonard Floyd while believing that Hargreaves would still be there at #11. It was a small gamble – one that might have gotten a little frightening jolt when the Giants took cornerback Eli Apple at #10 – and it paid off. The prize was an extra pick early in the fourth round (#106 overall), in a draft that is considered quite deep in the middle stanzas.
"We were confident that he [would be] there," said Licht of the trade machinations. "We did a lot of research. There is a gamble, there's always a gamble. But there was a guy that I worked with, Bruce Arians, [who] always said, 'No risk it, no biscuit.' Sometimes you've got to be bold and sometimes it works out.
"We're very excited with Vernon. He was a guy that we targeted, and not only were we able to get him but obviously we were able to pick up a fourth-round pick as well. My staff did an incredible job of preparing for this and scripting about a hundred different scenarios where we could possibly get an extra pick and get a player that we wanted."
It worked out wonderfully for Hargreaves, who was born in Tampa and played his prep ball at Wharton High, about 15 minutes from Buccaneer headquarters before staying in-state to play with the Gators. He was so enamored of the idea of landing with the hometown team that he wore shoes emblazoned with the word "Tampa" at his UF workout.
Photos from the Draft Room at One Buccaneer Place and Vernon Hargreaves in Chicago.
"It was awesome," said Hargreaves of getting the call from Licht. "It was the best thing I ever could have asked for. It was a dream come true. It doesn't get better than this. It doesn't get better than to get drafted by your home team. You know, I'm forty minutes away from the facilities and it's great. I can see my mom when I want to now, it's awesome. It's great."
Licht's first two drafts with the Buccaneers produced such offensive cornerstone pieces as quarterback Jameis Winston, wide receiver Mike Evans, running back Charles Sims, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, guard Ali Marpet and tackle Donovan Smith. It also brought in a new starting middle linebacker in Kwon Alexander, a fourth-round steal in 2015, but that was the only defensive player the team selected on those two weekends.
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Tampa Bay's offense set a new single-season franchise record for net yards in 2015 and Winston looked every bit the burgeoning franchise quarterback. The defense, however, surrendered 26.1 points per game to rank 26th in the league and was particularly susceptible to the pass, allowing a completion rate of 70%. Licht and company responded by signing defensive end Robert Ayers and cornerback Brent Grimes in free agency, but that didn't mean they were done addressing those two areas on defense.
"There's no doubt in my mind we added a top flight corner when we added Brent Grimes in free agency and if you don't believe me ask our offensive players when you see them next week," said Koetter. "That was a starting point through free agency. Of course, he's not the only guy we added and then we added another guy tonight in Vernon in the draft."
As for Hargreaves specifically, the only purported negative in his scouting report was his height, which falls short of six feet but does not, according to Licht, define him as a player. The Bucs' GM has seen plenty of cornerbacks excel without what one consider ideal stature, and he points out that Hargreaves isn't exactly small.
"You can ask Brent Grimes if lack of height has affected his career," said Licht. "You can ask Ronde Barber if lack of height has affected his career. I worked in Philly on some really, really good teams with Andy Reid and Jim Johnson, our defensive coordinator, with two corners that were shorter than Vernon, and one coincidentally from Florida, Lito Sheppard. There have been a lot of Pro Bowl corners – a lot – that have been his size: 5-10 and a half. He's a thick guy so he plays big. He plays big in the run game, especially."
Koetter sees Hargreaves as a versatile addition to his defense, a defensive back who can excel in any scheme Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith cooks up. Hargreaves, who doesn't lack for confidence – a trait that Licht and Koetter covet in a cornerback – agrees and is eager to get his NFL career started.
"I'm just an overall good football player," said Hargreaves. "Love to play ball, can adapt to any type of defense, any type of receiver. I've covered them all. I can play bump coverage, can play man coverage. All of that is in my game and now it's time to perfect my craft."