A year ago, Noah Spence's teammates were predicting big things for him. The since-departed Robert Ayers thought the second-year defensive end had 15-sack potential. After a rookie campaign that included 5.5 sacks but was marred by a shoulder injury that required him to play in a harness, Spence did indeed seem poised for a breakout in 2017.
It didn't happen. Spence, the 39th pick in the 2016 draft, stripped the ball away from Chicago quarterback Mike Glennon in the Buccaneers' opener but that would be his only sack of the year. After appearing in just six games he was once again sidelined by a shoulder injury, and this time he went directly to injured reserve and underwent a more significant surgery on the problem area.
As it turns out, though, Spence is in a much better position now, a year later, to actually deliver on those lofty expectations. His shoulder is much stronger, he has added nearly 13% to his body mass since his low point of 228 pounds in last year's training camp, he's got a more talented group around him and, crucially, he's driven by last year's disappointments.
Photos from the Buccaneers' OTA practice on June 7.
The healthy shoulder is the starting point. His surgery, called the Latarjet procedure, is aimed at people with recurring shoulder dislocations and it involves moving a piece of bone from one part of his shoulder to another part to act as a block against those dislocations. Since he had the procedure in October, Spence has also had more time to recover and has been able to take part in all of the Buccaneers' offseason activities. A year ago, even while teammates were talking him up, Spence was sitting out practices while he recovered from surgery – albeit a less dramatic one – that he underwent after his rookie season.
"I feel great, man," said Spence after the Buccaneers' final OTA practice of the offseason on Thursday. "It's a blessing that I got the surgery I got, with the Latarjet. It's a lot different. It's a lot different. It's a little more intense but it's a lot better, though. [The rehab process] was a lot longer and a lot more intense. I had to stay still for a lot longer because it was a big surgery. It went great, though.
"I think that was the biggest thing, that it happened during the season and not after the season so I wouldn't be struggling to get back for the next season. Since it happened during the season I had all of the rest of the season to get healed up and a whole offseason to stay right, keep rehabbing and get ready for the season."
Spence said the fully-functional shoulder allows him to employ a lot more pass-rushing moves and also gives him a better chance to hold the edge. He is currently working at 257 pounds and believes that is adding a power component to his game. The drive to add muscle mass has him eating 10 meals a day and mixing in a variety of shakes in between, but it's only working because he has rededicated himself to the effort, both in terms of diet and his workout habits. It was watching the Buccaneers struggle to win games and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks that pushed him to work harder.
"You know that hurt," he said of the line's struggles in 2017. "You know that hurt, but it pushed me to be a lot better this season. It pushed me to step up my eating habits and step up my study habits and try to be the best person I can be on and off the field."
Spence's injury early last season was, in a way, partially responsible for him having a different group of pass-rusher around him in 2018. Expected to be one of the team's best invaders of the backfield, he instead was lost early. Outside of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and, at times when he wasn't slowed by injuries, Ayers, the Buccaneers didn't manage to put much pressure on opposing quarterbacks. After finishing last in the NFL with 22 sacks, the team made wholesale changes up front, including the import of veterans Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry, Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein. The Bucs hope to utilize a very deep D-Line rotation, and Spence is excited by that idea, even if it potentially means fewer snaps for everyone involved.
"I think it's going to make us better, though, because with less reps we're going to be not as tired when we get out there so we can play our best," said Spence. "It's going to be better, I feel like – less people tired, less injuries, so it's going to be good."
Spence also has a new linemate in first-round draft pick Vita Vea. Along with Allen and Unrein, the 347-pound rookie should make the Bucs a lot more stout in the middle, hopefully drawing double-teams and creating more pass-rush opportunities for the guys on the edge. Meanwhile, the aforementioned veteran additions are helping Spence hone his game and stay focused on the field.
"I grew up watching JPP and Vinny a lot, and it's crazy that I'm on the same team as them now," said Spence. "It's just a blessing to be able to learn from them, talk to them in the locker room and just get little tips from them to play defensive line better. I feel like them dudes bring a different type of energy. Like, Vinny's always talking; he's a new type of animal for the defense and he just gives us all energy when we get on the field. You've got dudes like that are just talking all the time and telling us to get better, get better – you can't lose."
Nobody is making a point of predicting specific sack totals for Spence this time around. It's not that his teammates or coaches think any less of his talents, it's just that the more current story is how good he looks and how hard he's working. The Buccaneers simply want to see him get to the next stage – training camp – and then progress from there to playing a significant role in the edge-rushing rotation.
"I'm pretty sure Noah's ready to go," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "[I don't need to see anything] in next few weeks, it's when we put the pads on. Noah's had a hard time staying healthy, two unfortunate injuries. He did all he could do, he got them fixed. So, he's taking care of his body. He has his weight where it needs to be. Physically, he looks great out there."