It was evident as early as June that Vernon Hargreaves was too talented to keep off the field; still unsure of Hargreaves' exact role in the defense at that time, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter nevertheless said – repeatedly – that the rookie cornerback was "going to play."
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Now it appears that Hargreaves may be too good to keep out of the starting lineup for long. After his two-interception performance in the Buccaneers' 27-21 win in Jacksonville on Saturday night, the number-11 overall draft pick is ticketed for some first-team work, on the practice field at least.
"Today, he started working with the ones at corner as well," said Koetter, who was impressed by both catches Hargreaves made on Saturday. "Heck, I'm thinking about moving him to receiver. Those were two great catches, two beautiful plays. Brent Grimes might argue, but you're not going to see a whole lot of better catches than those two."
Hargreaves' two takeaways were a critical part of the Buccaneers' narrow win, particularly the one he snared just before halftime. His redirection of a deep seam pass intended for tight end Neal Sterling turned a potential last-second scoring opportunity for the Jaguars into one for Tampa Bay, as Hargreaves returned the pick 28 yards to the Jacksonville nine. One quick pass into the end zone fell incomplete but the visiting team still got a go-ahead 28-yard field goal from Roberto Aguayo out of the turnover and never trailed again in the game.
"Number one [was] his athleticism to make those two catches and they both should have led to more points," said Koetter. "You have to be thrilled for Vernon to get as many picks in one preseason game as we did all last year with our corners. I thought our DBs really did a nice job against a couple good quarterbacks."
Hargreaves nabbed another Chad Henne pass shortly after halftime, and like the first one it was an acrobatic and eye-catching play by the rookie. The Buccaneers went in search of defensive backs with standout ball skills in the offseason, using their first pick on the former Florida Gator star and also signing free agent Pro Bowl CB Brent Grimes. Tampa Bay's defense had just 11 interceptions in 2015, and only two of those belonged to cornerbacks. Both Grimes and Hargreaves are listed at 5-10, but their height won't matter if they continue to make plays on the ball.
"They have to have good ball skills, and our guys do," said Koetter of shorter cornerbacks who can succeed in the NFL. "They have to be explosive to the ball, and our guys are. We said before, they're not going to grow. We're not going to change them out at this point. Our corners are who they are and we're happy with them. We like what they're doing. But they've got to be able to go get the ball."
Earlier in training camp, the Buccaneers gave Hargreaves some first-team work as the nickel back, but he has gotten strong competition at that spot from second-year man Jude Adjei-Barimah. Tampa Bay's coaching staff believes Hargreaves can be an asset either in the slot or on the outside – or possibly in a hybrid role that involves both – but they focused on evaluating him in the nickel first because he was already more familiar with outside work from his Florida days. As Koetter noted above, Hargreaves started getting first-team work at cornerback on Monday, presumably in place of Alterraun Verner; that portion of practice was not open to the media. The Buccaneers will hold joint practices with Cleveland on Tuesday and Wednesday before facing in the Browns in a preseason game on Friday, and those may be additional opportunities to get Hargreaves time with the starting defense.
And Hargreaves has obviously been making the most of his opportunities, as he did on Saturday night.
"The ball was in the air and I have to make a play," he said of his first interception. "It's not that complicated. It was fairly simple. At the end of the day, I have to make a play. It's simple, it's always about the ball. Everything is always about the ball. I have to find a way to stay close to it and make a play on it."