FAB 2. Hargreaves For Comeback Player Of The Year?
If everything goes according to plan, this is the year Tampa Bay cornerback Vernon Hagreaves III will extract his vengeance on his critics – and the football gods that have derailed his last two seasons with injuries – this year.
Of course it was supposed to be last year when Hargreaves regained his confidence during training camp, had a fine preseason and had seven tackles, a forced fumble and one pass broken up in just one half of the Bucs’ 48-40 opening day win at New Orleans before injuring his shoulder and being placed on injured reserve after Week 1.
Not that Hargreaves is a vengeful person. He’s not.
He’s actually a hell of a nice guy, he’s funny and he just had some growing up to do over the last couple of years.
But Hargreaves really needs to have a bounce-back year in 2019. It’s time.
Hargreaves has his share of detractors because he hasn’t lived up to his first-round draft status yet – largely due to injuries that were beyond his control. Before leaving Tampa Bay this offseason after six Pro Bowl appearances, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the third overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, was labeled a bust because he missed 13 games in his first two years, winding up on injured reserve due twice due to a pair of triceps injuries.
Justified or not, Hargreaves has also carried that bust label for the last few years after being constantly targeted as a rookie and recording just one interception in a trial-by-fire season in 2016, followed by two seasons that ended prematurely on injured reserve.
“It’s crazy what people have said about him – like he’s not doing anything,” Bond said. “The guy’s been injured. I don’t think Vern worries about any labels. I think Vern is out here getting better.”
Plenty of Hargreaves’ teammates see it.
“A healthy Vern is a really good Vern,” said Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans. “Vernon Hargreaves is a really good corner – real smart and savvy. He switches it up on you a lot. He’ll switch inside, leverage inside, leverage outside, and just switch it up a lot. He’s very savvy, [and he’s got] really good ball skills. He’s having a really good camp.”
Part of the reason why Hargreaves is having a good training camp in Tampa Bay this year is because he’s being used properly.
After exceling at Florida in press-man coverage and recording 10 interceptions and 27 pass breakups over three years, Bucs general manager Jason Licht made him the 11th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft – in part because former defensive coordinator Mike Smith wanted more aggressive corners for his system. But after telling the team’s scouts of his intentions of mixing in more press-man coverage, Smith reverted back to his old coaching comfort zone, which was off-man coverage and Cover 4 – or Quarters coverage.
“It’s a real touchy situation because coaches are going to do what they want to do,” Hargreaves said. “But certain players do certain things well and it’s all about finding that happy medium. I think we definitely found that with what we have going on right now with this coaching staff. It’s exciting. We’re working, we’re making plays and we’re a lot more comfortable.”
Bond agreed with that sentiment.
“Vern is a big energy guy and I love that about him,” said Bucs linebacker Devante Bond. “He has a different attitude about him now. He’s had some injuries and you can tell that’s behind him now. He’s in a scheme that fits him like a glove – it just fits him.”
Coaching matters in the NFL, and Hargreaves is playing for one of the league’s best cornerbacks coaches in former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Kevin Ross, who spent 2013-17 coaching with Bruce Arians in Arizona. I’ll have more on Ross in the next segment of SR’s Fab 5.
“I mean, they have one of the greatest cornerbacks probably of all time with Coach Ross on their side,” Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston said. “He was a dog back there in the secondary with the Kansas City Chiefs so I’m excited to see them. I’m happy to see Vernon coming on the field bringing energy and [being] back to his full self.”
Ross believes in Hargreaves in a way that perhaps no other Bucs defensive coach believed in him over the past three seasons. The fact that defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is having Hargreaves do what he does well – play press-man coverage at the line of scrimmage where the former Florida standout excels – is also a huge reason why Hargreaves has a new lease on life in Tampa Bay this summer.
“Coach Ross will make a two-star guy feel like a five-star player without a doubt,” Hargreaves said. “He instills confidence in you. He’s a great coach and he’s a great motivator.
“Coach Ross doesn’t care that we’re young. This coaching staff is all on the same page. They’ve been on the same page for years going back to Arizona. They believe in us and that feels good. We’re going to make them proud and do exactly what they want us to do – be in position to make plays and make them.”
While the Bucs picked up Hargreaves’ fifth-year option for 2020 at just over $9 million, it isn’t guaranteed unless he’s injured and can’t play next year. If Hargreaves doesn’t perform well this year the team can release him in the offseason without any cap penalties.
Ross has some specific goals for Hargreaves as he enters an all-important contract year in his fourth season.
“I’ve challenged Vernon Hargreaves to be Comeback Player of the Year,” Ross said. “I’ve challenged Vernon Hargreaves to finish all 16 games. I’ve challenged Vernon Hargreaves to put four to six balls in his hands by the end of the year. That’s the Vernon Hargreaves I’m looking for.”
Hargreaves and his young teammates in the cornerbacks room are ready to follow Ross’ lead – and the lead of Arians, whose arrival has injected new life into players like outside linebacker Noah Spence, inside linebacker Devante Bond, defensive back M.J. Stewart and right guard Alex Cappa that may have looked like potential busts under the previous coaching staff.
“Coach Arians says it best – the talent is not the issue,” Hargreaves said. “Talent hasn’t been an issue around here. He came out of retirement to coach again for a reason. He saw the roster before he decided to sign up for this. He knew what he was getting into and talent here is not the issue. You’ve got to put guys in the right spot doing the right things if you want to see them excel.
“People are definitely quick to jump on the ‘bust’ wagon, but it’s all good. We’re football players and we’re built to deal with adversity. Now we’re finally comfortable in what we have going on and we have to take advantage of this situation and we keep getting better. This is going to be a fun year.”