Of all the significant additions made to the Bucs defensive line in the offseason, the one most likely to be overlooked might be a healthy Noah Spence.
The 24-year-old defensive end has been limited by shoulder dislocations in each of his first two NFL seasons, going on injured reserve last year to undergo surgery after only six games. Back healthy now and bulked up as the Bucs go through organized team activity workouts, he's confident about getting back to his old self this fall.
"It feels good. Just a blessing to be back out here, competing with the guys, out in the sun in Tampa and working," Spence said.
Spence wore a harness on his right shoulder much of his rookie year after it popped out, a move that showed his toughness but limited his range of motion and effectiveness. Last year, after offseason surgery to repair the injury, he made a splash in the season opener with a sack-fumble in the win against Chicago, only to dislocate the shoulder again in Week 2 at Minnesota. He would push through another four games before the team decided to opt for a surgery that could correct the injury longterm.
How much healthier does he feel now, seven months later?
"One hundred percent," said Spence, running his thumb down a scar that runs across the front of his shoulder. "You see this big scar here, so it isn't like nothing happened. It's all healed up. It feels great, feels back to normal. Full range of motion and everything."
Spence underwent a surgery known as a Latarjet procedure, designed to treat recurring shoulder dislocations (check out a good video here). A small piece of bone from the top of the shoulder is removed and attached to a lower position on the shoulder, reinforcing the strength of the joint with a high level of success.
"They took some bone from the top and put it underneath, so my shoulder won't pop out anymore," said Spence, who dealt with four dislocations in his 22 games with the Bucs. "I've got some nails (attached) to the bone."
Spence can now use his long arms and a larger arsenal of pass-rush moves, and he used the down time and offseason to add muscle. He said he weighed as little as 228 pounds in organized team activities last summer as he tried to lower his body fat percentage but is now a much sturdier 257.
"It feels good, especially when I'm going up against offensive tackles and I can use my body," Spence said.
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said Spence has looked good in OTAs, an encouraging step toward full-contact work in mandatory minicamp in two weeks.
"Noah has gained a lot of weight. … He looks good," Koetter said Thursday. "He's pretty close to where he needs to be. He's going to be somewhere between 253 and 295, probably."
The Bucs have also added considerable mass to their defensive front, trading for end Jason Pierre-Paul, signing end Vinny Curry and tackles Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein and drafting tackle Vita Vea in the first round. Five newcomers create a deeper rotation that will allow all the regulars to have fresher legs late in games, potentially shifting close losses to wins.
"I know it's going to help a lot, for sure," Spence said. "All the best d-lines have great rotations. For us to be able to do that is going to be beautiful."
Spence said the new arrivals and new defensive line coach Brentson Buckner are teaching him new techniques. He and Pierre-Paul are represented by the same agency, so there's been a familiarity before, but an appreciation now that he knows he can work closely with him.
"I watched him growing up. I don't want to say I've been a fan since we're teammates now, but I remember my dad sending me film of him when I was in high school," Spence said. "For sure, I've always been a fan."
Spence said you can't measure the physicality of the new line in non-contact OTA practices, but he can already see a more coordinated pass rush under Buckner, with players more on the same page.
"A lot of dudes are working hard and teaching me new stuff," he said. "It's nice. It's different, but it's definitely a blessing."