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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. The Enigma of Noah Spence
We’ve seen the flashes and heard the hype.
Heck, we at PewterReport.com have helped fuel the hype surrounding Bucs defensive end Noah Spence.
There were 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in an injury-filled rookie season and a Rookie of the Month honor in November of 2016.
Following offseason shoulder surgery, which failed to correct the problem, Spence started his second NFL season with a sack-fumble in the season opener against Chicago before re-injuring the shoulder and going on injured reserve to have another more involved procedure that would finally fix Spence’s shoulder, which kept getting dislocated.
Spence returned to action this offseason bigger and stronger – and just as fast. That had everyone at One Buccaneer Place encouraged at the start of camp.
“Noah’s weight has fluctuated a lot for a guy that has way less body fat than I have,” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said. “When he came out of college, he was somewhere in the 240s. His first year, he was somewhere in the 240s he got way down last year into the 230s and now he’s back up into the upper 250s. If you look at Noah, that guy’s all muscle and he’s worked very hard. Two shoulder surgeries – he’s worked very hard to come back from that and he’s lived in the training room and the weight room. I think he’s got the same motor and the same speed that he always had. We’re anxious to see him get out there and do it in real football.”
But any encouragement about Spence’s return at the start of training camp has turned into frustration by the end of it.
In three preseason games, Spence, a former starter, has been relegated to playing with the Bucs’ third-string defensive line and has produced just one tackle, one quarterback pressure and half a sack.
In last Friday night’s game against Detroit, Spence didn’t see any action with the starters as a situational pass rusher – a role he was expected to play this season. Instead, he was part of a reserve unit that allowed the Lions to come back from a 27-6 deficit to win the game 33-30 by only playing in the second half – and not being a factor at all rushing the passer against Detroit’s third-string left tackle.
Does Spence need a big game on Thursday to actually make the Bucs’ 53-man roster? When I probed some team insiders for comment this week they were tight-lipped. I’m not sure if the Bucs’ brass has decided what to do with the 2016 second-rounder just yet, but a good game against Jacksonville will certainly help Spence’s cause.
When Spence donned the pads at the start of training camp he was ecstatic to be working alongside established veterans like Vinny Curry, who was fresh off a Super Bowl win with Philadelphia, and Jason Pierre-Paul, who had been to two Pro Bowls with the New York Giants.
“It feels great to be back,” Spence told me. “I’m just learning from the older guys and they’re constantly telling me different tips and teaching me different stuff that I never even knew was a bad part of my game. My alignment, my set – I won’t give you all the details because we have to play against people. Little things, but the little things help you out with bigger things and it’s a blessing to have them in the room with us.”
Spence had impressed in a few practices against both left tackle Donovan Smith and right tackle Demar Dotson.
“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. “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.”
Spence started training camp as the starting right end in nickel rush opposite Vinny Curry and next to Jason Pierre-Paul, who moved inside to defensive tackle next to Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy on obvious passing downs.
“When you come in on third down we’ve got Jason Pierre-Paul inside, Vinny Curry on the other side, Gerald McCoy on one side, so you can’t really double team anybody,” Dotson said. “So you give a guy like Noah a one-on-one in pass rush because you’ve got to respect JPP, you’ve got to respect Gerald and you’ve got Vinny Curry on someone on the other side, so you can’t help out on anybody and that leaves Noah in a one-on-one and he’s bringing a new dimension to his game that he didn’t have last year so I think that’ll surprise a lot of people.”
After a hot start, Spence seemed to hit a wall when it came to the games, so I went to defensive line coach Brentson Buckner for answers.
“Noah’s camp was good physically,” Buckner said. “Noah is bigger and stronger than he has been in the past. The one thing Noah has to do is grow mentally as a player. This game is played from the neck up. You can be strong and fast, but you have to have a ‘chess’ mindset. You always have to be thinking and evolving. He’s made some strides in that, but he still needs to grow.”
I told Buckner that it looks like Spence is rushing without a plan on some downs.
“You’re exactly right,” Buckner said. “You have to have a plan and then you have to have a backup plan when things don’t go the way you think your plan is going to go. He’s a young guy. The one thing I don’t like is that people want to label guys after one or two years. I played this game. You’re not going to be who you are until your third year. It’s hard. You get to the point where everybody is athletic and you have to learn. Warren Sapp was drafted in 1995, but he wasn’t Warren Sapp until 1997. We just get so caught up in the finished product that we forget the struggle they went through to get there.”
Will the Bucs be patient with Spence? He has yet to play an entire season healthy, and only played in six games last year before being shelved for the year with his injured shoulder.
“Right now he’s going through the mental struggle to get better,” Buckner said. “The one thing he can control is getting better every day. Sometimes it happens early, but there isn’t going to be an Aaron Donald every year. Guys mature at their own rate. He’s working on it. Physically, he’s got that part down. Now let’s work on the mental part. As soon as you get both down, then you blossom.”
Spence is comfortable with the physical part of his game. He feels stronger than ever and now has a mix of power and speed to his game.
“I didn’t think it was going to be like this,” Spence said. “I didn’t think I’d be able to keep my speed. I thought it would be one or the other, but I kept my speed and quickness. I’m able to bull rush people now. I’m like, ‘What the heck? I’m actually touching people and they’re going backwards toward the quarterback.’ I just went in there and tried it and I had never tried to do anything like that, but it actually worked, so I’m going to keep putting that in my game and keep using the bull rush, too. The shoulder feels great. So if it can withstand 300-something pounds I think it’s good.”
But it’s the mental part of the game that Spence has to grapple with now. It’s getting that “chess mindset,” as Buckner calls it.
Where Spence’s roster spot – or at least his spot on the 46-man game day roster if he indeed makes the team this year – is in jeopardy is the fact that he’s a one-trick pony.
Spence is a pass-rush specialist who is having a hard time rushing the passer and getting to the quarterback.
“He just needs experience,” Buckner said. “Experience is the greatest teacher of all. It’s a bad teacher because it gives you the test before it teaches you the lesson – but that’s the way football is. Time is detrimental to young guys. You can’t make up for it. You can be in the classroom all you want but if you don’t have your hand in the dirt and you’re not hitting a guy that moves, you can’t put it together. He has to make up that time. He already has the attributes. When he makes up that time, and mentally it slows down for him, we’ll have a hell of a player.”
Pass rushers with speed are hard to find. The Bucs have a second-rounder invested in Spence. They wouldn’t give up on him now, would they?
The fact that Spence didn’t receive any playing time with the starters in the first half of the Lions preseason game was eye-opening and a bit alarming. Right now he’s no better than the seventh-best defensive lineman on the depth chart behind McCoy, Pierre-Paul, Curry, defensive tackles Beau Allen, Mitch Unrein, Vita Vea and defensive end Will Gholston, who has shown his versatility by playing inside at nose tackle due to injuries to Unrein and Vea during training camp.
“I told those guys that we are D-linemen and we are football players,” Buckner said when I asked about Gholston’s preseason. “So why would you lock yourself up and say, ‘I’m only going to be an end’? Okay, what if we have all these ends and all of a sudden we need a tackle? You should be able to get in there and play tackle. Will is showing his willingness to do it. Is it going to be perfect, no? But him being willing to go in there and trying to fight, yeah, it shows his versatility. I told him at the end of the day that the Bucs can only keep so many defensive linemen. Now he’s showing us – and everybody – that he can play end and he can play tackle. He’s a Swiss army knife.”
The problem with Spence is that he’s the only defensive lineman that can’t move inside to tackle. Gholston, DaVonte Lambert, Patrick O’Connor and Will Clarke all have the size to move inside in a pinch, and that gives them the edge over Spence right now.
What does the future hold for Spence in Tampa Bay? Will he make the team? Will he be inactive on Sundays if he does make the team? Or will he restore the team’s faith in him that Spence can be a designated pass rush specialist with a big game against the Jaguars?
We’ll know more by Thursday night.