The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III with the 11th overall pick in April, then set about determining exactly what role he would play in their defense. If there was ever any doubt that role would be a large one, it didn't last long. By the team's mandatory mini-camp in June, Head Coach Dirk Koetter was already making it clear that his rookie corner could excel on the outside or in the slot.
The final answer, as many suspected it would be all along, was that Hargreaves would play both positions. In Sunday's win over the Atlanta Falcons – Hargreaves' regular-season NFL debut – he started in the slot because the Bucs' first defensive snap was in a nickel package. When the Falcons ran with only two receivers, Hargreaves moved out to right cornerback in place of Alterraun Verner. Thus, the rookie was on the field for every defensive snap, in a role reminiscent of the great Ronde Barber.
And that meant a rather steep challenge for his first real game: a certain Mr. Julio Jones. Inarguably one of the hardest receivers in the NFL to contain, Jones averaged 8.5 receptions and 116 yards per game last season. Hargreaves wasn't on Jones every play, but he saw his share of matchups with the Falcons superstar and fared reasonably well. Jones finished the game with 66 yards and a touchdown on just four catches, his lowest reception total since Week Four of last season.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday, September 14th.
"For his first game in the NFL, going against a guy like Julio Jones, Vernon did a nice job," said Koetter. "First game in the NFL, road game, loud crowd, Julio Jones, Matt Ryan, playing nickel and playing outside, he had a lot on his plate. He had a couple plays that got away from him, but we're really encouraged with Vernon and glad we've got him."
Jones eventually scored on a crossing route that saw him break free in the middle of the field and run untouched 25 yards to the end zone. Hargreaves may have also been part of the coverage breakdown that let Mohamed Sanu get wide open down the left sideline for a 59-yard gain in the first quarter. But he also shadowed Jones effectively on a number of plays, including one deep comebacker down the left sideline in the second quarter that could have been a huge play but instead fell incomplete. Notably, Jones was targeted only eight times – his 2015 average was nearly 13 targets per game – and not once until five minutes into the second period.
"I had my plays that I didn't perfect the way I needed to, and that's on me," said Hargreaves. "That's something I've got to learn, I've got to get better at. Watch the film, see what I did wrong and go correct it – it's as simple as that. The game's a little bit different from college, not too different. There's little things that I need to start seeing more, and that will make me a better player.
"[You] just [have] play the whole 60 minutes. Things are going to go right, things are going to go wrong, but play the whole 60 minutes , stay with your teammates and the rest will take care of itself."
A behind-the-scenes look at the Buccaneers' game against the Falcons.
Hargreaves may not get a tougher individual test than Jones this year (especially without Pittsburgh on the schedule) but he won't have many easy Sundays, either. Next up is the Arizona Cardinals, who feature nine-time Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald as well as Michael Floyd and John Brown.
Hargreaves is a confident player, which is practically a prerequisite for playing cornerback, and he's ready to move on to the next challenge.
"I think the jitters left a long time ago for me," he said. "At the end of the day, it's football. Obviously, first-game jitters, those were there. But it's all gone, it's all settled in now, and now we're getting into the season. Every week there's going to be some type of a Pro Bowler or some all-star on the other team and we've got to find a way to handle him and contain him and we'll be alright."
- Rookie kicker Roberto Aguayo had, essentially, a perfect NFL debut on Sunday in Atlanta. It was the kind of performance the Buccaneers hoped to see a lot of when they selected him late in the second round in April's draft.
Aguayo opened the game's scoring by drilling his first NFL regular-season field goal try from 43 yards out. That was the only three-pointer he was asked to attempt, but he did hit all four of his extra point tries, which under the new rules are the equivalent of a 33-yard field goal. Aguayo also blasted all six of his kickoffs into the end zone, leading to three touchbacks.
The former Florida State standout was also good on all 10 of his combined field goals and extra points in the Buccaneers' final two preseason games, which is only particularly notable because he had endured some rather public struggles the previous two weeks. One missed extra point in the preseason opener and a pair of off-target field goal tries in game two were followed by a couple rough days in training camp, giving the confident young kicker a surprisingly early taste of adversity.
It didn't take long for Aguayo to right himself – he's now made 16 straight kicks – and in retrospect that little bump in the road might not have been the worst thing to occur.
"I guess you can say it happened at a good time, in the preseason," said Aguayo. "It's definitely good – I learned a lot from it, moved forward and I'm hitting the ball well. It's just something that at an athlete goes through at some point in his career. I'm just looking forward to the next day. You just learn from everything. I'm excited to go into Week Two and the rest of the season."
Aguayo's impact extends beyond placekicks, as the Bucs also believed he could be a valuable weapon on kickoffs. Though the team might eventually let him attempt shorter kicks in order to trap the return man short of the 25, on Sunday they were content to let him blast away. Given a less aggressive return man than Atlanta's Eric Weems, he might have had six touchbacks. However, Weems started the game by bringing the opening kickoff out from seven yards deep in the end zone.
"You always want to get enough hang time and drill it deep," said Aguayo. "I was surprised that first kickoff came out, but at the end of the day it's the NFL now and some returners are going to bring it out."
Pictures from the Buccaneers' Week 1 matchup with the Falcons.
That decision worked out fine for the Buccaneers, as the kickoff coverage team stopped Weems at the Atlanta 19, giving away six yards from the potential touchback. Aguayo's next three kickoffs all resulted in touchbacks but Weems ran out two in the third quarter from four and five yards deep, respectively, getting to the 25 on the first and the 29 on the second. The overall result was an average kickoff drive start of the 24-yard line.
"You don't really see that in college," said Aguayo of Weems' aggression. "You think if you hit it that deep they're going to take a knee. But in the NFL, it's different. A lot of the returners are good out here, and if they get good blocks they can get a good return. But I was pleased – good enough hang time for my cover team to get down there."
- The Buccaneers'injury reportremains light in Week Two, though that obviously does not reflect theseason-ending loss of defensive end Jacquies Smithto a knee injury. There are only four players on the list, all from the defense and three from the same position.
Linebackers Devante Bond (hamstring), Lavonte David (shoulder) and Adarius Glanton (knee) make up most of that report, which might raise a little concern considering that's half of the team's depth chart at that position. Fortunately, all three were able to practice and only Glanton was at all limited during the two-hour workout on Wednesday. The final player on the list is rookie safety Ryan Smith, who has a hand injury that did not prevent him from practicing last week, either. Smith was also full-go to start the week.
The Buccaneers also made one additional roster move on Wednesday morning before starting the practice week, and it may have been another reverberation of the Smith injury. On Tuesday, the Bucs filled the roster spot created by Smith's move to I.R. by signing Jacquizz Rodgers, who is a running back, not a replacement defensive end. Thus, it is not coincidental that a switch to the practice squad on Wednesday brought in a defensive lineman (rookie Rodney Coe) and removed a running back (rookie Russell Hansbrough).
The 6-3, 305-pound Coe entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Akron with the Dallas Cowboys this past spring. He racked up 12 tackles for the Cowboys during preseason play but was waived during the roster cutdown to 53 players. Also an undrafted rookie, Hansbrough went to training camp with the Buccaneers and was signed to the practice squad last week after being waived in the same round of cuts.