The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had two of the first 39 picks in last April's NFL Draft and used both of them to address a defense that needed a boost in its edge rush and some help in the secondary. The 11th overall pick, after a small trade down from #9, secured Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves; the eighth pick of Round Two landed Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence.
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Since Hargreaves and Spence arrived in Tampa, their respective roles in the defense have gradually evolved. Hargreaves' progression was fairly predictable; Spence, on the other hand, has had an accelerated evolution, born out of necessity.
From the beginning, Hargreaves was ticketed for immediate playing time. Head Coach Dirk Koetter made it clear during a June mini-camp that, while the young corner's exact role was still being defined, he was going to be on the field a lot. In fact, Hargreaves has only missed 12 of a possible 392 defensive snaps so far in the regular season. He was worked on the outside and in the slot and started the season in a hybrid role doing both, but he has since been moved exclusively to the outside, with Jude Adjei-Barimah taking over the nickel corner position.
Spence, meanwhile, was meant to be a designated pass-rusher early on as the rest of his NFL game developed. In fact, the Bucs started the season with a very obvious plan up front, with veteran Robert Ayers starting at right end but moving into the interior line in passing downs to make room for the rookie pass-rusher.
That didn't last long. Jacquies Smith, who would come in along with Spence and play left end, suffered a season-ending injury after just one defensive snap in Week One. A Week Two game claimed Ayers, who suffered an ankle injury and has only recently begun practicing again. Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald were soon sidelined as well. Spence had his own shoulder injury, suffered in Week Four against Denver, but he managed to stay in the mix while wearing a restrictive shoulder harness.
Despite that injury, Spence has seen his snaps go up three games in a row, culminating in a season-high 42 out of a possible 70 in San Francisco last Sunday. Only stalwart Will Gholston and Gerald McCoy, freshly back from his calf injury, played more among the eight D-Linemen active for the Bucs. Facing one of the most run-heavy offenses in the NFL, Spence couldn't have logged that much playing time if he wasn't now being used in all types of situations instead of just on obvious passing downs.
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"They just gave me more responsibility and stuff and I'm just trying to do the best I can to learn as quickly as I can, even with the harness and not letting the injury hinder me," said Spence. "It's a blessing and I'm just trying to play at as high of a level as I can. I just keep trying to get better every game."
Spence is still playing with the harness to make sure his shoulder does not get dislocated. It definitely restricts his movements but he says he is learning new ways to use his hands in order to still get an effective punch against his opponents. He must be adjusting well, because the coaching staff is pleased with what he has done with the unexpectedly large amount of playing time.
"He's done well," said Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith. "Noah has had to play a lot more snaps than we had anticipated. We really felt like early on that he would be only a pass-rush specialist, or what we call a 'designated pass rusher' in our defense. And his pitch count was up and snap count was up, close to 50 [in San Francisco]. So, he had to play and be prepared to play in some of our base, in some of our big sub packages."
Of course, somebody had to pick up extra snaps on the edge of the line with Ayers and Smith out, and in recent weeks much of that has gone to DaVonte Lambert, an undrafted rookie who has also played far more than would have been expected on opening day. Lambert has been solid in his expanded role, helping the team remain stout up front despite all the injuries. Spence, obviously, has more pass-rush potential, however, so the Bucs would like to get him on the field more often. That will happen more if he is actually productive with the additional snaps, and that was the case on Sunday. Spence had one of the Bucs' four sacks and was also credited two quarterback hits and a pass defensed.
"[I'm] very pleased with what he is doing," said Smith. "It's tough. For him to come back and not miss a game with the injury that he sustained, it says a lot about his toughness."
When Ayers and McDonald are ready to return to action, the Buccaneers will be very deep along the defensive line. They have 10 linemen on their 53-man roster, and even if one or two of those are declared inactive on a given game day, the team will still be able to rotate frequently the way that Smith and Defensive Line Coach Jay Hayes have always planned to do.
"As each day goes on, we feel like we've got a better chance of getting guys back that are going to help us win," said Smith. "It will help us on a rotation. We've been forced to play our defensive line and our guys up front way too many snaps. But it's just been a function of the number of guys that we have dressed and who is healthy enough to go out and play."
For Spence, that has meant a more rapid evolution than expected. And for the Buccaneers, that's a sneaky silver lining to all of their D-Line injury troubles.