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SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. Can The Bucs Salvage Spence?
There may not be another Buccaneer that needs a fresh start in 2019 more than defensive end Noah Spence.
Or should I say outside linebacker Noah Spence?
New Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is expected to run a good amount of 3-4 Under defense, and a position change could be coming for Spence.
At this point in his career, Spence would likely welcome any change that can get his career revved up. Spence, the team’s second-round pick in 2016, enters a critical fourth year in Tampa Bay.
After a promising rookie season in which Spence used his speed and athleticism to record 22 tackles, 5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and two passes defensed, his NFL career isn’t stuck in neutral. It’s actually in reverse.
Spence’s shoulder injury has been well documented. He suffered a dislocation during his rookie season that required he play with a harness. Spence showed toughness in fighting through the pain and discomfort and was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month in November of 2016 with 11 tackles, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
That seems like ages ago.
Spence had shoulder surgery in the 2017 offseason, but that didn’t correct the problem as planned, and after recording a sack-fumble in the 2017 season opener against Chicago, Spence suffered a dislocation of his shoulder again and was placed on injured reserve after six games, notching just nine tackles in his second year in the NFL. Spence was finally healthy last year, and added nearly 20 pounds of muscle to hold up better in run defense.
But he and new defensive line coach Brentson Buckner didn’t see eye-to-eye, and Spence didn’t make things happen from a pass-rushing standpoint in the preseason when it mattered most. That caused him to be buried on the depth chart behind new defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry and Carl Nassib. Spence was inactive for four games and contributed just three tackles and no sacks in very limited playing time.
The Big Takeaway
Spence will get a clean slate to start 2019, and the potential move to outside linebacker in Bowles’ 3-4 defense could revitalize his career in the nick of time. After watching tape on Spence from his rookie year, the Bucs’ new coaching staff is eager to work him, which has to be music to the ears of general manager Jason Licht, who spent a second-round pick on the former Eastern Kentucky defensive end.
Playing weakside linebacker behind Jason Pierre-Paul in Bowles’ attacking, one-gap scheme could allow Spence the chance to live up to his potential and do what he was brought to Tampa Bay to do – get after the quarterback as a stand-up rusher.
After Spence’s rookie season, veteran defensive end Robert Ayers, Jr. said that Spence could be a 15-sack guy in 2017. Bucs right tackle Demar Dotson told me back in training camp that Spence could very well be a double-digit sacker last year.
“To me personally, and I think the most improved guy that I’ve seen on that defensive line, and the guy I’m most impressed with is Noah,” Dotson said in August. “He’s picked up 25, 30 pounds. When I saw him in the offseason I thought it would mess up his speed. But I’ve seen him out here in training camp and he’s got good speed off of the edge, he’s working more moves and he’s got more power now. He’s a guy where I’m really thinking could go out there and have 10 plus sacks.”
Of course, that never happened, but it doesn’t mean it can’t happen with a new position, a new scheme and a new position coach in Larry Foote, who will lead Tampa Bay’s outside linebackers.
I spoke with Spence near the end of the regular season in December and his demeanor was a mixture of frustration with the lack of playing time and production, as well as the relief that the year was coming to a close and that change would be coming to Tampa Bay.
‘It’s a learning process, trying to get better every day,” Spence said. “You come out and count your blessings and work and try to become better every day.”
Spence made the most of his time behind the scenes, learning from veterans like Pierre-Paul and Curry.
“To be able to learn from these types of dudes – legends – man, it’s a blessing,” Spence said. “Being in the same room with them and seeing how they work and how they come to work with a certain attitude every day. It’s good to help me in the future and to try and build on. That’s all I can do.”
Quotes That Matter
Curry appreciated how Spence would ask questions and pay close attention to the Bucs’ veteran defensive linemen in the classroom and on the practice field.
“Noah’s coming into his own,” Curry said. “He comes to work every day and busts his ass, works really, really hard, but he’s coming off of an injury. Like I said, he’s coming right into his own so when his time comes, he’ll be ready. What is Noah – 24 or something like that? He’s got a lot of NFL life ahead of him and the Bucs have a great player in Noah Spence.
“He’s a special player, a special teammate, a great guy to be around and he shows high energy, he’s energetic. He’s the guy you want in the foxhole with you. He’s got heart. He’s got a lot of football ahead of him and he’s going to be a great player for the Bucs.”
Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has always been in Spence’s corner and has seen the work he’s put in behind the scenes.
“Noah’s always been a hard worker,” McCoy said. “He gives it everything he’s got, day in and day out. Those are just the growing pains of being a professional. Noah hasn’t even started yet. We’ve all seen guys bloom late, blossom late – on the team they’re on now or other teams. He’s just got to stay the course.”
Spence has two things going for him as he heads into the 2019 offseason. He’s been healthy for over a year and he’s comfortable playing at a heavier weight.
“I was at 228 – 230 [in 2017] pounds,” Spence said. “Even after practicing right now I’m 256. That’s good. The shoulder feels good. I knew it was okay when I started hitting people in practice and I didn’t feel it. When I would hit people before it would lock up a little bit and I would have to try to get it back in and better. Now, it’s just perfect. It’s a blessing, for sure.”
The FABulous Ending
Spence told me that last season was “more of a learning year – and I am learning.” Buckner preferred to play the bigger defensive linemen rather than the 6-foot-2, 256-pound Spence, who was the smallest player in the D-line room. While there was some mutual frustration at times between the two, it was never personal, and Spence appreciated Bucker wanting to develop Spence’s mental approach to rushing the passer and playing defensive end.
“Honestly, before Coach Buck, I was just the type of player that played off athleticism and just went out there and really didn’t know the game that well,” Spence said. “He made me kind start over and just learn the basics and learn the whole game of football instead of just going out there and relying on my athletic ability and just running around. He’s made me use my brain to play the game. It’s a blessing to have him around and teach the different things we do on defense with the schemes and knowing why I would do something to help fit with another person on the defense, and knowing you can’t just go out there and freelance.”
The Bucs have not given up on Spence, and will likely choose to keep him on the roster over veterans like Curry and McCoy due to salary cap reasons. Spence is in the final year of his rookie contract and is scheduled to make $1,920,642 in 2019 – if he makes the team – compared to McCoy, who is set to earn $13 million and Curry, who is slated to make $8 million.
Spence will need to be a quick study in learning Bowles’ defense and making the switch to outside linebacker if the Bucs switch to a 3-4 Under scheme as expected. It’s a big year for Spence’s future in Tampa Bay, but the new coaches are optimistic about his future from what they’ve seen so far in the film room.