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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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