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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. Barber Still Believes In Hargreaves
Before he was the best cornerback in Tampa Bay history – heck, the best defensive back in Bucs history with apologies to John Lynch – Ronde Barber was a third-round pick in 1997.
He came to Tampa Bay with moderate expectations placed on him, as he and his twin brother, Tiki, became household names on the college football scene during their time at Virginia. Barber played in just one game as a rookie, against the Phoenix Cardinals in which receivers Rob Moore and Frank Sanders lit him up. Barber’s poor performance earned him a seat on the bench of the rest of the season. It wasn’t until the Bucs’ second playoff game at Green Bay that Barber played another defensive snap.
Barber struggled so bad that the Bucs drafted cornerback Brian Kelly in the second round the next season.
Barber didn’t become Ronde Barber – a playmaking force in Tampa Bay – until 2000 when he recorded 5.5 sacks, two interceptions, two defensive touchdowns and forced a fumble. The next year, Barber led the NFC with a career-high 10 interceptions, including another pick-six. The following season in 2002, Barber only had two interceptions, but had three sacks to go along with two postseason INTs, including a 92-yard pick-six against the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game that delivered the Bucs to Super Bowl XXXVII.
Meanwhile, Kelly toiled at left cornerback for four years before truly making an impact. He had only three interceptions in his first four years, and failed to record a single pick in 2001 – a season in which he started 11 games. Kelly was vilified by Bucs fans in 1999 after missing a pass breakup by merely an inch – despite great coverage – on a touchdown pass to Ricky Prohel in an 11-5 loss at St. Louis in the NFC Championship Game.
In 2002, Kelly led the NFC with a career-high eight interceptions and also had a sack and a forced fumble while helping to lead Tampa Bay to its first and only Super Bowl championship. This spectacular season coming five years after Kelly was drafted.
What’s the moral of these stories? It takes time to learn how to be a good cornerback in the NFL. That’s why the Bucs are being patient with Vernon Hargreaves III, a first-round pick in 2016 that has underwhelmed in his first two years in the NFL.
If you don’t believe me, believe Barber.
“There’s a learning curve with corners, and it’s different with different guys,” Barber said. “For me, as opposed to a guy like Vernon, who had his opportunity right away, I had to learn how to be a pro. In that regard it’s the same. You have to learn how to be a pro, how to take care of your body and how to prepare. Most of your success comes from what you learn along the way and I had, basically, a full year to learn how to be a room and I had Herm Edwards in the room and they were telling me how to go from being a college guy that had a lot of success to going to the NFL where you have to prepare for your success. Fortunately for me I had Anthony Parker helping me get there, too.
“Well, Vern comes in and you put him right out there. That’s to be expected – he’s a first-round draft pick. And some people, when I’m talking about him, feel like I’m being homerish with him, but I’m in love with his movement. Vernon’s movement is rare. I’ve watched a lot of film, watched a lot of teams, watched a lot of corners – and he’s got rare movement. But he’s got to be able to put that movement to good and reach his potential. And he’s got it, but at the end of the day you’ve got to be able to put it on film.”
I asked Barber if fans and the media need to remember that he and Kelly struggled for years early on before becomes established stars on defense – not just starters.
“BK was in a very unique situation and it relates somewhat to the situation that’s going on here now,” Barber said. “He came in – they drafted Donnie Abraham in 1996 and he was starting, had five interceptions his rookie year, I was coming into my own in ‘98, which was BK’s rookie year, and so he’s a USC second-round draft pick and the competition is here. Competition puts the writing on the wall for you. It took BK a couple of years to figure it out. I led the league in interceptions in 2001 and he led the league in interceptions in ‘02, and you can say what you want to, but it took him three or four years to turn into the guy that we all know is a great football player.”
The stakes are higher for Hargreaves because not only was he a first-round pick, but because he was the 11th overall selection three years ago. Barber is a big fan of Hargreaves and applauded the team for drafting him in 2016. The Bucs’ all-time interception leader is a fixture at training camp as he works for the team’s preseason television broadcast on WFLA News Channel 8, and he’s told Hargreaves that it took time for he and Kelly to develop.
“He always tells me that,” Hargreaves said. “He says, ‘Don’t worry. Just keep working, just keep working,’ and I’m listening. I’m listening to him. I’m hearing him and getting there, trying to get to that next level and trying to push it. Time heals all and I’m ready, I’m being patient and I’m taking advantage of my opportunities.”
Hargreaves has split starting outside cornerback reps with Ryan Smith and rookie Carlton Davis, but has been the starter at nickel cornerback in the slot ahead of another rookie, M.J. Stewart. Barber, who is an NFL broadcast analyst for Fox during the season, has spent some one-on-one time with Hargreaves on the field and in the film room in the offseason in an attempt to accelerate his learning curve.
What better person to learn from when it comes to the nickel cornerback position than the prototype himself, right?
“I can’t say enough about him,” Hargreaves said about Barber. “Nothing but love, nothing but help. It’s rare to find people that genuinely want to help you and that genuinely cares for you. Ronde Barber … I don’t even know what to say. I hate even speaking about him because I don’t feel like I’m saying enough. He’s a Hall of Famer. I don’t need to speak on him, but we’ve been getting together and working and he’s helping me, been helping me a lot and helping me grow. Hopefully it pays off for me.”
Hargreaves’ teammates are already seeing a difference in his play. Gone is the timid version of No. 28 that we saw last year, playing too far off the line of scrimmage in off coverage. Instead, a more confident, serious and energetic version of Hargreaves has appeared on the practice fields at One Buccaneer Place.
“I think the main thing, that I’ve noticed, is his detail to the defense,” said Bucs safety Keith Tandy. “So if it gets going and he’s supposed to do this, he knows why he’s supposed to do that and where his help is so he knows when he can be more aggressive and when he can take more chances. He’s even stepped into more of a leadership role this year. I think he realizes that we’ve brought in a lot of young guys that we want to play and we need them to play pretty soon, so he’s been taking on a leadership role and has been trying to bring them along. In my experience, when you help somebody else out, it helps you out even more.”
Tandy believes that transitioning to nickel cornerback in the slot has done wonders for Hargreaves’ confidence and his level of play.
“Just playing defense in general you’re going to have ups and downs, but it’s all about how you respond to it,” Tandy said. “He responded well. In the Minnesota game, nobody in the secondary played well and he responded well after that. Unfortunately he got hurt, so we don’t know how he would have ended the season. But when he got hurt he was definitely on the way up. I’m excited to see what he’s got, what this whole defense has got. His confidence has always been high, but his leadership is on the rise. When you can know something so well that you can explain it to someone else, that’s when you really know it.”
Some might look at Hargreaves playing in the slot as a wasted top-15 pick because it doesn’t appear like he’s going to be an outside cornerback in Tampa Bay. But considering the Bucs play in the pass-happy NFC South division and play nickel defense 65 percent of the time or more, Hargreaves can still make an impact by being one of the best nickel corners in the league.
“He’s done a very good job at the nickel position,” Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith told me. “He has a very good understanding, that’s a cerebral position, and he has a very good understanding of what’s happening inside and outside of him. We anticipate that he’s going to hold that position down for us this season.
“I think Vernon’s really showed his toughness this camp, coming back as quickly as he did from the laceration on his shin. But I see a guy that’s comfortable playing inside and outside and he’s going to be a guy that’s going to really help us this year.”
The one area where Hargreaves has to really come on is as a playmaker. He has just one interception in the first 25 games of his NFL career.
“Yes, he does – and we all have to do that as a defense,” Smith said. When the opportunities come, and you’re going to get opportunities, you have the awareness of down and distances and where we’re at on the field – and those plays will come to him. He’s doing a nice job.”
Where Smith can help Hargreaves is by calling for more press man coverage rather than quarters coverage, which uses off man technique. Hargreaves thrived in press coverage at the University of Florida.
“He does thrive in it for the same reasons I told you earlier,” Barber said. “He’s got rare movement. He’s got rare foot skill. His shuffle agility is effortless, and for a guy that, on paper, might be a mid to high 4.4-guy, he can win with his feet and stay on top. I wasn’t fast. I could run, but I wasn’t a blazer. You win with technique, and if he can win with technique, he could play in this league for a long time.”
Did you hear that? Barber thinks Hargreaves can have a long career in the NFL.
It just might take Hargreaves a while – like it did for both Barber and Kelly.
How quickly we forget.