TAMPA — The Bucs parted ways with 2016 second-round pick Noah Spence on Saturday, the most surprising move among the final round of cuts in arriving at their season-opening 53-man roster.
In three-plus years, the 25-year-old Spence couldn’t build on the promise he showed during his rookie season, when he had 5½ sacks. He lost most of his second season to a shoulder injury and was mysteriously buried on the depth chart last year.
This season was expected to be different for Spence because he was more comfortable rushing the passer standing up in new coordinator Todd Bowles’ 3-4 defensive alignment. And the opportunity was his this preseason with outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, the team’s sack leader last year, injured to open the season.
“I just feel like I can make a lot more plays, and it feels natural,” Spence said in August. “I don’t have to try to get all huge to play the position and (can) just be myself. … We attack, and we try to get to the ball every play. We’re able to go get it.”
Early in camp, Spence said playing in the new defense was the most fun he’s had, but the production wasn’t there. Playing in all four preseason games, he logged just three tackles and no sacks.
Throughout the preseason, coach Bruce Arians said he wanted to see more production from Spence in stopping the run. In the third preseason game against the Browns, he played all 60 defensive snaps, a clear sign he had more to show the new coaching staff. And even though teammates praised his speed off the line of scrimmage, he didn’t make enough impact as a pass rusher to overcome his struggles against the run.
The Bucs kept Demone Harris as the fifth and final outside linebacker in favor of Spence.
Among the surprises were the cuts of veterans Andre Ellington at running back and Kentrell Brice at safety. The Bucs will enter the season with just three running backs, with Dare Ogunbowale being the third, and just four safeties. Ellington, who was released, could conceivably return to the team, but his $805,000 salary would have become guaranteed if he made the Week 1 roster.
Opening the season with just three running backs, in part, allowed the team to keep four right ends, including Tanner Hudson, and six wide receivers, including Scotty Miller.
Among the team’s other roster cuts, former Newsome running back Bruce Anderson, who led the team in rushing in Thursday’s preseason finale, and cornerback Mazzi Wilkins, a Plant High and USF product who rose from late signing to roster contender, were both waived. Their versatility could earn both a spot on the team’s practice squad if they clear waivers.
Other cuts included safety John Battle, offensive tackle Cole Boozer, quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, receiver Emanuel Hall, safety Isaiah Johnson, tight end Jordan Leggett and center Nate Trewyn.
Included on the final roster are 18 players who weren’t with the team last season and another seven who weren’t on last season’s initial 53-man roster. The Bucs kept all but one of this year’s draft picks, waiving seventh-round defensive lineman Terry Beckner Jr., who is a candidate for the practice squad if he clears waivers.
The final defensive lineman position came down to Beckner and Patrick O’Connor, who was on last year’s practice squad and had a strong preseason after injured defensive lineman Jeremiah Ledbetter was waived.
The Bucs also went externally to round out their final offensive line spot, trading for tackle Jerald Hawkins from the Steelers in a swap of 2021 draft picks. Pittsburgh receives the Bucs’ sixth-rounder and sends its seventh-rounder to Tampa Bay.
Hawkins, who spent two of the last three seasons injured, played five games for the Steelers in 2017. He offers the Bucs some much-needed depth at tackle behind starters Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson. Still, the Bucs will enter the season carrying nine offensive linemen, including undrafted rookie Zack Bailey.
The Bucs couldn’t find a trade partner for kicker Cairo Santos, who was ultimately released, officially giving the placekicking job to rookie Matt Gay.
The Bucs also placed outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul on the reserve/non-football injury list and moved cornerback Ryan Smith to the reserve/suspended list. Both players do not count toward the 53-man roster.
Pierre-Paul, who suffered a neck injury while in a car accident in May, won’t be able to practice until after the Week 6 game against the Panthers in London. Once Pierre-Paul resumes practice, the team has 21 days to make him active.
Smith will begin serving a four-game suspension for a positive PED test, during which time he cannot practice or be at the team facility.
Here is the final roster:
Running backs (3)
Wide receivers (6)
Tight ends (4)
Offensive line (9)
Defensive line (6)
Inside linebacker (5)
Outside linebacker (5)
Matt Gay (kicker)
Bradley Pinion (punter)
Zach Triner (long snapper)
Does not count against 53-man roster:
Reserve/NFI list (1)
Reserve/Suspended list (1)
A look ahead at Bruce Arians’ first year in Tampa Bay and a critical season for Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers.
Contact Eduardo A, Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.