ORLANDO — It was a humbling 2017 season for former first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves, as he was shifted from being an every-down outside cornerback to playing inside as the nickel or slot cornerback.
Hargreaves played well once he was shifted inside, though the nickel is typically only on the field about 65 percent of defensive snaps. While he missed the final seven games with a hamstring injury, coach Dirk Koetter said he remains a key part of the Bucs defense moving forward.
"We need Vernon to come back and play well, and I think he will," Koetter said from the NFL owners meetings in Orlando. "He had the hamstring injury, which lingered a long time. Vernon did not have a great year outside. Vernon played good at nickel … if Vernon was your starting nickel and you had another guy you liked at the other corner opposite (Brent) Grimes, there's not a team in the league that wouldn't like to have Vernon Hargreaves as their nickel."
Hargreaves, who played locally at Wharton and at Florida, was the No. 11 overall pick in the 2016 draft. He started every game as a rookie, but struggled early last season as the Bucs had the worst pass defense in the NFL, with a poor pass rush making it easier for opposing quarterbacks to pick the secondary apart. Hargreaves has only one interception in his first two NFL seasons.
Koetter conceded you normally don't have a part-time role from a pick as high as Hargreaves was, but remains hopeful he can thrive in that role.
"You usually don't pick a guy in the first round to be your nickel, but stuff works out how it works out," Koetter said. "Vernon is going to be a big part of what we do. I know he's anxious to get started. He wants to be an every-down player. At the very least, Vernon's going to be our starting nickel."
The Bucs have addressed the defensive line in a big way, adding two starting defensive ends and two defensive tackles, but they haven't added any defensive backs. They re-signed Grimes, but would be again counting on Ryan Smith on the other side unless they found a starter in the draft or in remaining free agency.
"Now that the defensive line has had so many additions, I would think the secondary, it's logical to think that would be an area of target in the draft," Koetter said. "I think it's a strong group in the secondary in this year's draft class. I know I've watched a bunch of guys, and there's a lot of guys I like."