The rejuvenation of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense is officially underway.
One night after adding perhaps the best pure cover corner in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Buccaneers addressed their other pressing need on defense, grabbing Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence with the eighth pick of the second round, number 39 overall. Considered one of the best pure edge rushers in this year's class of prospects, Spence joins 11th-overall pick Vernon Hargreaves in giving the Buccaneers' a much-needed infusion of high-level defensive talent.
"I'm just blessed to be able to be taken in the draft at all," said Spence. "I'm going to do as much as I can to make this team great."
In his third season as the Buccaneers' general manager, Jason Licht has clearly turned his attention to a defense that ranked 26th in points allowed in 2015. After targeting a potential shut-down corner in Round One, Licht played to this draft's strength, landing one of the four defensive linemen who went in the first eight picks of Round Two. In doing so they added what they believe will be an outside complement to Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and big-time free agency acquisition Robert Ayers, hopefully giving Tampa Bay's it's best pass-rush since the Warren Sapp-Simeon Rice days.
INFOGRAPHIC: DE NOAH SPENCE
Spence has the potential to develop into the next great edge rusher for the Buccaneers, who have not had a player produce a 10-sack season since Rice in 2005 (though McCoy annually gets very close). Last fall at Eastern Kentucky he recorded 11.5 sacks, 22.5 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hurries to go with 63 tackles and three forced fumbles. Prior to transferring to EKU, Spence was the Ohio State Buckeyes' leading sacker in 2013 with 8.0 along with 14.5 tackles for loss and 52 tackles overall.
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In addition to his impressive statistics, Spence is considered a high-effort, every-down player.
"You've just got to keep going at it, 100 percent every play, like you want to win every rep," he said. "You're never going to win every rep but you've always got to feel like you want to get there. I thought I was [one of the top pass-rushers in the draft]. But we'll see after the season."
Licht and the Buccaneers began the offseason by making several surgical strikes in free agency to acquire Ayers and cornerback Brent Grimes, two projected starters who addressed those aforementioned needs on defense. Still, for a franchise that intends to build through the draft – and which has done exactly that in two previous offensive-minded drafts – those positions were still high on the Bucs' wish list entering the weekend. With another pick still to be spent in the third round on Friday night and an extra fourth-rounder gained in a small trade down on Thursday evening, Licht and the Buccaneers may very well continue to give new Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith more young talent.
A Harrisburg, Pennsylvania native, the 6-3, 261-pound Spence was a top national recruit before choosing Ohio State in 2012. He played in 11 games as a true freshman as a reserve on defense, then jumped into the starting lineup in 2013. After ranking second in the Big Ten in sacks in his sophomore campaign, he was named to the all-conference first team by the media.
The Buccaneers made Spence one of the 30 players they were allowed to bring to One Buccaneer Place for a pre-draft visit. That time at team headquarters may have cemented the Bucs' interest in him, possibly leading to some anxious moments as the early picks of the second round became so defense-heavy. In the end, the Bucs got their man for the second night in a row and Spence was just as pleased with the outcome as was the team.
"I love their coaches a lot," he said. "I feel like I had a good feel with them; I felt like family when I walked around the facility. When I was with [Defensive Line] Coach Jay [Hayes] I felt like he reminded me a lot of my dad. It felt almost like a home away from home."