The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't give rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves a free pass to the starting lineup, but it doesn't look like they'll be able to keep him off the first team for long.
Through their first five training camp practices, the Buccaneers have primarily run out a front-line defense that had free agent acquisition Brent Grimes at left corner and holdover Alterraun Verner at right corner. When they've gone to a nickel package, second-year man Jude Adjei Barimah has rounded out the "starting" trio as the slot corner.
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The Bucs will follow those first five days of camp with an off day on Tuesday. When they return to the field on Wednesday, Hargreaves will begin taking first-team snaps, most likely as the nickel back in the early going.
He'll start rotating in there with the first group," confirmed Head Coach Dirk Koetter after practice on Monday. "As I said in the spring, the guy is a good football player, he's going to play. He's doing a nice job, his athleticism shows up every day. That doesn't mean at all that we're disappointed in Jude because Jude is doing a good job, too. We're building our depth at corner especially. I like what we're seeing out of those guys."
Indeed, Adjei-Barimah drew praise for his strong work in May and June, and he was a surprisingly strong contributor to the defense last year as an undrafted rookie. Koetter also pointed to Grimes and Verner as two of the players who have gotten off to a fast start during the first week of camp. Hargreaves' elevation to the front line is basically an acknowledgment that the rookie is going to have a significant role in the defense this fall, one way or the other.
"Once we feel like he's got a comfort level inside, we'll give him some snaps on the outside," said Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith. "We know that he has played at the corner position, and at the inside corner there are a lot of nuances and we're trying to get him up to speed on that."
Since Koetter stated the obvious during June's mini-camp, that Hargreaves was too good to be kept off the field, the main issue has been to define the rookie's specific role. Will he challenge for one of the two starting cornerback jobs on the outside, or will he focus mostly on playing the nickel back position. Alternately, he could eventually end up in a Ronde Barber-type of hybrid role in which he starts on the outside but moves into the slot in nickel packages.[
The Bucs won't be working Hargreaves in that type of dual role in August, however, because they don't want to wear him out with an oversized workload.
"We can't have him play both of those positions at the same time because we've got to keep him fresh," said Smith. "One of our main goals is to be as fresh as we possibly can be at the first [regular-season] game. So we're going to move him and some days he's going to play the corner position and other days he'll play the nickel position. But he will be working with the first group. Vernon has skills to be a very good player in this league."
On the other hand, the Bucs are not worried about overloading Hargreaves' brain. He may not play both positions on any given day, or sequence of days, but he's eventually going to know them both.
"He's very cerebral," said Smith. "He has a great understanding of football – his dad's a football coach and he's been around it forever. He doesn't make the same mistake more than once."