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Rick Stroud, Greg Auman and Matt Baker

Bucs need Noah Spence to make a Beasley-like improvement



Two days before Super Bowl LI in Houston, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff recalled a conversation he had with Vic Beasley following his rookie year.

In his second season, Beasley told Dimitroff, he planned to triple his sack total of four. Of course, that seemed like a somewhat pie-in-the-sky goal. But Beasley actually did better than that. In fact, in 2016, the former first-round pick from Clemson led the NFL with 15.5 sacks.

What was the reason for the turnaround?

“Man, I honestly think it’s the work ethic that I’ve picked up this offseason and the experience that I had my first year,’’ Beasley said. “I played a lot of games that first year. Coach spent countless numbers of hours with me in the offseason and the addition of Dwight (Freeney) helped bring a different scheme to our defense.”

Why is Beasley’s story relevant to the Bucs? They need Noah Spence to match Beasley’s improvement in year two.

Spence has a chance to develop into one of the league’s best outside pass rushers. Although Beasley attacks quarterbacks as an outside linebacker in the Falcons 3-4 scheme, Spence, the Bucs' defensive end, improved steadily despite playing with a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

The second-round pick from Eastern Kentucky injured his shoulder early in the season, saying he dislocated it. He played most of the year with a harness on the shoulder to limit the chance of another dislocation. It happened again in the final game against Carolina and popped it into place, returning to the game.

Spence ranked sixth among rookies with 5.5 sacks. He was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for November after posting 4.5 sacks and 15 tackles in a span of six games in the middle of the season. But the production fell off at the end of the year as teams made an adjustment and devoted more resources to blocking Spence.

In a weird way, Spence said the harness helped his technique against the run by forcing him to keep his hands inside. If nothing else, he showed incredible toughness to battle through that injury when many would’ve elected to have surgery and call it a season.

Unfortunately, he figures to miss some time on the practice field during OTA’s and possibly minicamp. But the Bucs expect him to be ready to go for training camp in Aug.

“I can do a lot better and I’m going to go into the off-season and try to get better,’’ Spence said.

Other than quarterback, the hardest position to develop in the NFL is an outside pass rusher. The bust rate early in the draft is pretty big. Spence dominated in college and has the speed and natural lean to rush the passer. But developing a counter move and technique is very important and the biggest improvement often occurs in the second season.

Having a veteran defensive end such as Robert Ayers also should continue to help.

“I think Noah, his skill set is very good for being a good pass rusher,’’ defensive coordinator Mike Smith said of Spence. “He’s strong handed, he’s quick off the ball. He can bend. And I think we’re seeing the more opportunities he has to rush, the more success he’s going to have…I still believe the ceiling is a lot higher.’’

If Spence’s ceiling reaches as high as Beasley’s in 2017, the Bucs defense will make a huge improvement.

[Last modified: Friday, February 17, 2017 2:57pm]


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