Second-year defensive end Noah Spence won't take part in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' organized team activity days (OTAs) or the mandatory full-team mini-camp in June. Spence played much of his rookie season while dealing with a shoulder injury that required him to wear a harness – impressing the team with his grit in the process – and now the correction of that issue has him focusing on rehab.
Spence is scheduled to return to the field when training camp arrives in late July. According to some of those closest to him at One Buccaneer Place, it will be well worth the wait.
If you're looking for an individual breakout candidate on a defense that collectively on the rise, you might want to start with the 39th overall draft pick from a year ago. As a rookie, Spence played in all 16 games, made three starts, ranked third on the team with 5.5 sacks. The bulk of his sacks came during a midseason rush, after he presumably had adjusted to his shoulder harness and the speed of the NFL.
Spence didn't have any sacks in the Bucs' last five games, which meant fellow defensive end Robert Ayers was proved wrong in his guess – just revealed this Wednesday – that the rookie would hit the 10-sack mark. Now Ayers is thinking even bigger.
"I think he's a player who could be a 15-plus sack guy this year – that's my opinion," said the veteran lineman of his young teammate. "Whether he goes and does it is another thing, but that's how I feel about him because I think he has tools that not many people come into this league with, and he's still learning. I'm excited for him. It's going to be a good year.
Spence's shoulder injury came at a time that the Buccaneers were hit with a rash of ailments along the defensive line. The ranks were already thin and the team came very close to making them thinner by putting their rookie lineman on injured reserve. But Spence wanted to fight through it, and ironically, the shoulder harness seemed to help refine his technique against the run. The coaching staff mostly expected Spence to be a pass-rushing specialist in his rookie year but he progressed farther towards being a complete end than had been expected.
"He's one tough dude," said Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith. "The injury that he played through the whole entire time that he was injured early in the season shows how tough he is. He's a guy that we're expecting big things from. Unfortunately, he's not going to be able to really participate with us until we get to training camp. But he is much more than what we anticipated, being able to be a three-down linebacker, and he is looking really good watching him work on the side. [I'm] very excited about having him join us when we get started in training camp."
Spence may not be rushing the passer at this point in the offseason program, but the prohibition on practice-field contact prior to training camp means that would have been of limited value anyway. Nevertheless, Ayers has become even more convinced of Spence's breakout potential since the end of the 2016 season, based on what he's seen in the young player's demeanor.
"Being around Noah and talking to him, he's motivated," said Ayers. "He has a huge chip on his shoulder. A lot of people might think, 'Why does he have a chip on his shoulder? He played pretty good as a rookie.' But to him, he didn't meet his standards and he didn't do the things that he wanted to be doing. Talking to him, I know how hungry he is, and I see what type of shape he's in. I thought last year he was going to be a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate and a 10-sack guy. He wants to do that, and I think this year he's even more hungry than he was last year. So I'm excited for him."
The Buccaneers famously have not had a 10-sack performer since perennial Pro Bowler Simeon Rice last did it in 2005. Breaking that barrier would be nice – and there are other candidates on the team, including Ayers himself, Gerald McCoy and Jacquies Smith. Getting to 15 sacks would satisfy Ayers' much bolder "prediction" and make him just the third Buccaneer to do so, along with Rice and Hall of Famer Warren Sapp.
That fifteen-sack idea may be a bit aggressive, and Ayers is mainly just fleshing out his belief in Spence's talents. Whatever the final number is, it's probably enough to say that Ayers expects the second-year player to have a significant impact in 2017.
"He's going to tear some stuff up this year and I'm looking forward to it," said Ayers.