In all likelihood, the Bucs will miss the playoffs for the ninth consecutive year after Sunday, win or lose against the Panthers.

But this time the promise for a better future feels real.

Just look at the rookies. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, the Bucs first-round pick last May, appeared to come into his own in the latter half of the year while second-rounder Noah Spence steadily progressed from a designated pass rusher into a improving run stopper. Their success comes a year after Kwon Alexander came out of nowhere to surprise many around the league, and developed into one of the Bucs defensive leaders, along with Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy.

Bucs CB Vernon Hargreaves III and Falcons WR Julio Jones – Photo by: Getty Images

“I really believe that Jason has had two, back-to-back, really strong drafts,” coach Dirk Koetter said after Friday practice. “There’s always the talk, ‘Do rookies fade at the end of the season?’ I don’t think our guys have. I think they’ve hung in there.”

Though Hargreaves only defended two passes and picked off one during the five-game win streak, it felt as if you could count on one hand how many times quarterbacks threw in his direction. It’s also worth noting that the former Gator tipped a pick-six to Lavonte David in San Diego and helped to force a fumble in a tight contest against Seattle. A physical corner, the rookie has 71 tackles and counting.

Spence, meanwhile, picked up four and a half sacks since the bye week, in addition to three forced fumbles. All the while he was dealing with a shoulder injury, one that nearly sidelined him for his freshman campaign but instead forced him to improve his technique. He became a better player as a result.

“That’s how really good teams build, through their young players,” Koetter said. “They hit on their draft choices, they get a good young nucleus and they build around them. I think if you look at the young guys we have – with three or four years or less in this league – we have a strong nucleus to move forward with.”

Bucs DE Noah Spence – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR

Koetter wasn’t just referring to Hargreaves and Spence, either. Tampa Bay has 12 rookies on the active roster that he said the Bucs are “really excited about.” And heck, even Roberto Aguayo, who started 6 of 11 on FGs with two missed PATs in the first half of the year, has hit 14 of 16 for three and all 17 PAT attempts since Week 9.

“He’s been on a little hot streak,” Koetter said, adding that the Bucs will give Aguayo more opportunities for longer kicks in the future. “And we’ve had faith that Roberto would come out of this thing on the backend and be a really solid kicker for a lot of years.”

So while it’s not time to reflect on the 2016 season just yet – avoiding a three-game skid and ending the season on a high note is the focus – it’s evident that, beyond Jameis Winston and the offense, the Bucs also have a solid nucleus to build around on defense.

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About the Author: Zach Shapiro

Zach is entering his 3rd year covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a writer for PewterReport.com. Since 2014, he's handled a large part of the beat reporting responsibilities at PR, attending all media gatherings and publishing and promoting content daily. Zach is a native of Sarasota, FL, and a graduate of the University of Tampa. He has also covered high school football for the Tampa Tribune and the NFL for Pro Player Insiders. Contact him at: zshapiro12@gmail.com
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Buc 1976
4 years ago

I believe V Hargreaves would be better in the slot because of his size and quickness. The receiver’s just in our division are very tall. I have to admit I didn’t care for N Spence I thought he was to small but he has had a good year even being hurt some players would have taken many weeks off like one TE we had! As far as Aguayo I still think we could have had him in the 3rd maybe even 4thround

seat26
4 years ago

I have been wrong about a lot of things over the years with the Bucs. Usually being overly optimistic is my problem. I got a couple of things right this year. I predicted early on that we would go somewhere between 7 and 9 wins probably 8. Hopefully it will be 9 and I said playoffs were really not realistic and I would say short a miracle that would be true now. I however was wrong about this rookie crop. I thought Hargreaves was a bit too slow to make an impact this year, I was definitely wrong about that… Read more »

seat26
Reply to  seat26
4 years ago

I forgot to mention TE. This draft is actually strong in TE. I like Brate a lot, and feel we don’t really need to draft TE, but with the talent there I would not be surprised if Bucs picked one late.

scubog
4 years ago

I’m sure Scott will do a more in depth analysis of the 2016 Draft class and the rest of our rostered players at season’s end. At his point it’s too soon to know much more than what we have seen. What I find interesting is that Danny “Superback” Vitale, the one Draft pick about whom many were excited, was cut and now plays for the Browns in a limited role.

Buc 1976
4 years ago

I agree with seat26. As far as the draft goes I think Bucs could address DT,WR and TE. Get the O line in better shape and Running Back maybe ok. I really don’t understand why Bucs STILL TRY TO RUN SIMMS up the middle. GO BUCS!