The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were hopeful that cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, the team’s first-round pick in 2016, was going to have a stellar season with a change of coaches and a change in defensive scheme.
The team’s new coaching staff was pleased with his effort in the offseason and in training camp. Hargreaves’ ability to play press man coverage, which is what he did best at the University of Florida, was going to be showcased in Todd Bowles’ defense and allow Hargreaves to finally live up to his first-round draft billing after three years of mediocre play, injuries and just one career interception.
On Sunday in Tampa Bay’s 30-27 win over Arizona, Hargreaves was benched early in the second half after not showing great effort in tracking down Cardinals rookie receiver Andy Isabella on a 55-yard gain before returning to the game in the fourth quarter only after M.J. Stewart was injured.
Just 48 hours later, Hargreaves was released by the Bucs.
There are a number of reasons why Hargreaves is no longer a Buccaneer. Let’s start with his play on the field.
Hargreaves had a good start to the season with a pick-six in Tampa Bay’s season opener against San Francisco and a 12-tackle performance in Week 2 in a win at Carolina, including the game-winning play when he knocked running back Christian McCaffrey out of bounds an inch short on fourth-and-1. But in the last seven games, Hargreaves hasn’t played aggressively, evidenced by no splash plays from the team’s supposed top cornerback.
No forced fumbles, no fumble recoveries, no interceptions, just two pass breakups and not enough effort when it comes to pursuit and tackling.
To put that in perspective, rookie cornerback Jamel Dean has eight pass breakups and one critical interception in only one and half game’s worth of play on defense in his young NFL career. Hargreaves has played too passively in run support and also in pass coverage when the team has demanded its cornerbacks play aggressively. As the veteran in a room full of young cornerbacks, Hargreaves needed to be setting the example with effort and he just wasn’t doing that.
With the team preaching accountability, it was time for the coaches and the front office to hold him accountable.
Hargreaves is a good guy and wasn’t polluting the room with a bad attitude. It’s just that the coaches are trying to set a standard with effort and aggressiveness, and Hargreaves, the lone veteran in the room, should be leading the charge – not getting benched during a critical game in a critical time for loafing. Actions have consequences, but sometimes inaction has consequences, too.
It became clear after Sunday that the team was ready to start Dean and second-year cornerback Carlton Davis outside with rookie Sean Murphy-Bunting in the slot. If Hargreaves was benched this week leading up to the game he might be a distraction – not from an attitude standpoint, but simply from a media coverage standpoint because that would be the topic in the locker room interview period on Wednesday. The team probably considered that in making the decision to release him on Tuesday.
And the final reason the Bucs likely elected to make this move now is that once the team came to the realization that it was moving forward with the trio of Dean, Davis and Murphy-Bunting at cornerback this year, keeping Hargreaves on the team and taking a chance that he could get injured in games or in practice was a risk the team did not want to take. In the offseason, Tampa Bay picked up his fifth-year option for 2020, which is just over $9 million, but it wasn’t guaranteed for anything except injury.
If Hargreaves had torn his ACL in practice in December and been out for the 2020 campaign, his $9 million-plus salary would count towards Tampa Bay’s cap space next year. Now the team is no longer obligated to pay him the $9 million-plus as he has been released, and there is no salary cap penalty for doing so, either. Hargreaves’ play just hasn’t warranted anywhere to close to $9 million.
He wasn’t going to be back in Tampa Bay in 2020 regardless. The Bucs just decided to move on from Hargreaves earlier than most expected.