The bloom is not yet off the rose for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2017 draft class, which collectively had a promising rookie year and could make some very reasonable improvements in 2018. Meanwhile, the Class of 2018 is a few days from its first NFL training camp, and the Buccaneers have high hopes for the likes of Vita Vea and Ronald Jones. (More on that later in the week.)
The five remaining members of Tampa Bay's 2016 draft class can safely be considered "veterans" now, but they are still very much in the opening stages of their professional careers. All five still have plenty of untapped potential, and all five could end up playing big roles in the Buccaneers' 2018 season.
On Tuesday we ran down that Class of 2017 and its first-year contributions, then suggested reasonable 2018 goals for each player. Today we'll do the same with the Class of 2018. That group includes first-round cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who has played a lot in his first two years but still heads into this season with a somewhat undefined role. It also includes second-round defensive end Noah Spence, a clearly gifted player who has been held back by injuries, and fourth-round cornerback Ryan Smith, who started for much of last season.
Third-round kicker Roberto Aguayo had a rough rookie season and did retain his job in 2017; he's now with the Los Angeles Chargers. Seventh-round tight end Dan Vitale didn't stick in Tampa but has since made it work in Cleveland. In between, the Buccaneers grabbed offensive lineman Caleb Benenoch in the fifth round and linebacker Devante Bond in the sixth round, and both have a shot at earning jobs in their shared third season.
Here is a suggestion for a reasonable third-year goal for each of those five 2016 draftees:
CB Vernon Hargreaves (first round): Carve out a hybrid inside/outside role in the secondary
Hargreaves had a typical rookie season in 2016, with some ups and downs, but he played nearly every defensive snap and looked like he was embarking on a long run as a starter. His second season started out a little slow, however, and was eventually derailed by a hamstring injury. Just before he got hurt, Hargreaves moved into a slot role and appeared to take to it well, though the sample size was small.
This offseason, Hargreaves saw a lot of practice time in that same slot job and continued to look like a good solution inside. He took the majority of the first-team snaps in the nickel defense and it would be no surprise to see him win that job in training camp and be productive in that spot during the season.
That in itself is a reasonable goal for Hargreaves but he can and certainly will shoot higher. Head Coach Dirk Koetter mentioned early in the offseason that the third-year corner would have a chance to compete for starting spots both inside and outside, which could lead to the sort of hybrid role that Ronde Barber handled so superbly for years in Tampa. The Bucs added two rookie cornerbacks in the second round of the 2018 draft – M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis – which will ratchet up the competition in camp, and that's without mentioning third-year man Ryan Smith, who was a starter of most of last season.
Winning that hybrid role, in which he would play on the outside in the base defense and then move into the slot on nickel snaps, doesn't necessarily mean that Hargreaves would play every single snap or that the other competitors would be shut out of playing time in the base defense. With more depth at the position, the Buccaneers could ready a variety of cornerback combinations that they could employ based on situation. Davis, in particular, started off his first NFL offseason strong and has the size the Bucs covet for their secondary to match up with bigger receivers.
Cornerback is clearly the Bucs' most wide-open position competition as camp nears and arranging the pieces will probably be a long process that takes all of August and possibly stretches into the season. The Buccaneers believe Hargreaves can have a significant role in that secondary; if he gets playing time inside and outside it would likely be a successful third season for him.
DE Noah Spence (second round): Six sacks
The Buccaneers grabbed Spence very early in the second round of the 2016 draft and envisioned using him as an edge-rushing specialist in obvious passing downs. A rash of injuries along the defensive line that season altered those plans a bit and Spence saw action in all situations. All the while, he had to deal with playing in a shoulder harness after suffering an early-season dislocation that nearly put him on injured reserve. Through all that he managed to record 5.5 sacks as a rookie, and given the circumstances that felt like a win for the Buccaneers.
Teammates predicted big things for Spence as the 2017 season began, but another shoulder injury essentially wiped out his second campaign. He had one sack in six games and then went on injured reserve, which gave him a chance to have corrective surgery and be ready for the 2018 offseason program. Before that program began, the Buccaneers loaded up on defensive linemen in free agency, which should deepen the rotation and allow Spence to actually settle into that edge-rushing specialist role in his third season.
Not only did Spence have a procedure that should put an end to his shoulder dislocations, he also packed on muscle and weight and will play the 2018 season closer to 260 pounds. He hopes that will add power to his game and allow him to hold up against bigger blockers. Still, his speed and first-step quickness is what made him a high draft pick and what will help him achieve the very reasonable goal listed above.
The Buccaneers' newfound depth at defensive end, which includes veterans Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry, should mean that the front line can vastly improve on its 2017 league-worst total of 22 sacks without any one player having a monster season. Spence might blow by our reasonable goal, but even if he only contributes a half-dozen sacks the Buccaneers will likely be very pleased with that production.
CB Ryan Smith (fourth round): Make his incumbent status stick
Smith has developed into one of the team's most important special teams players, as he and Josh Robinson form a very good pair of gunners in kick coverage. That alone made him a valuable player for the Buccaneers last year, but Smith ended up playing a lot more on defense than originally planned after a rash of injuries hit the cornerback position. He started 10 games, including nine of the last 10, and was on the field for 60% of the Buccaneers' defensive snaps.
Tampa Bay's pass defense finished last in the NFL in yards allowed per game, and even though an anemic pass rush figures prominently into that result, it's obvious that the team would be looking for ways to shore up the secondary in 2018. That was evident in the draft, which brought the two aforementioned cornerbacks in the second round and safety Jordan Whitehead in the fourth round. The result was a deeper group of competitors for the starting jobs in the secondary.
That doesn't mean Smith is necessarily going to cede the starting spot he settled into last year, however. When the Buccaneers drafted him out of North Carolina Central in 2016, they initially envisioned him as a safety and spent much of his rookie season working on that transition on the practice field. It eventually became clear, however, that he was better suited back at cornerback and he went into his second season at that position. Those 10 starts, then, represented his first real opportunity to test himself in the NFL and grow into the position.
That was very valuable experience for Smith, in other words, and now he's had another offseason to hone his cornerback skills. In essence, he's in the same position as all those 2017 draftees we discussed on Tuesday, potentially ready to make his own version of a "Year Two" leap. If that happens, Smith could very well hold off his competitors and retain the starting job he handled last fall.
G Caleb Benenoch (fifth round): Win the starting job at right guard
The Buccaneers signed former Baltimore Raven Ryan Jensen to a big deal in free agency and will start him at center. That in turn moves Ali Marpet to left guard, where he will man a third different position in his four years in the NFL. Those spots are essentially set heading into camp, as is left tackle with Donovan Smith and, when he's healthy, right tackle with Demar Dotson.
Right guard is another story. J.R. Sweezy started 14 games there last season but was recently released, so there will definitely be a new starter at that spot in 2018. It could be versatile veteran Evan Smith, who took over that job for the last two games of 2017 after Sweezy went on injured reserve. The Bucs might have chosen to give Benenoch a look at that spot last December but the second-year lineman was already starting at right tackle after Dotson took his own trip to I.R.
Now there's a bit more time for the Buccaneers to sort out their options at that position and look for a long-term solution. Dotson's spring knee surgery complicates matters a bit – until he's back on the field, Benenoch has to also be considered an option to start at right tackle. But if the way is cleared for Benenoch to get first-team reps on the inside, there's a good chance the coaching staff will want to take a long look at that option.
Having Smith as an option there gives the Buccaneers some flexibility with Benenoch, and third-round rookie Alex Cappa could factor into the right guard battle if he comes on quickly. All three of those players have excellent position versatility, which makes it harder to predict the final outcome here. Still, this seems like a golden opportunity for Benenoch to win an opening-day job among the starting five, which would keep his career on an upward trajectory heading into his third season.
LB Devante Bond (sixth round): Remain a core player on special teams and build on his role on defense
Smith didn't play on defense as a rookie in 2016, appearing in 14 games on special teams. Bond, however, didn't play at all that year, having landed on injured reserve for the start of the season. For Bond, the 2018 campaign is even more like a true Year Two.
Bond did the best thing he could do as an unproven young defender in his first bit of action: He became an important contributor on special teams. In fact, the former Oklahoma defender led the team with 10 kick-coverage tackles. He likely would have spent most of his sophomore campaign ably filling that job if not for a run of injuries on defense.
When both Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David went down with injuries early in the 2017 season, the Bucs had to scramble to replace their two stars in the middle of the defense. Impressive rookie Kendell Beckwith, who had won the starting strongside job in a camp competition that included Bond, slid into the middle and Bond started two games on the weak side. Late in the season, with the Bucs hurting for production and healthy bodies at defensive, both Bond and Beckwith were employed as standup edge rushers in obvious passing situations.
In all, Bond logged 138 snaps on defense, which was a good first taste for a young player who had already made his mark in the kick-and-coverage game. That action didn't necessarily get Bond closer to a defined role on defense, since he was essentially used to plug whatever gap the Bucs had at the time, but it gave the coaching staff some tape to watch of him in different situations.
Beckwith would seem like the obvious third starter next to Alexander and David if he is healthy when the season begins, but that remains an "if" as camp approaches. Beckwith fractured an ankle in a car accident in May and no specific timetable for his return has been stated publicly. Beckwith proved to be a fast healer a year ago and he hopefully will be ready to go for the start of the season. If not, Bond would be a prime competitor for more playing time.