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Can Vernon Hargreaves be more than a reminder of the Bucs’ dismal 2016 draft?

Martin Fennelly: The former first-round pick is still around, and at age 24 is the elder statesman of Tampa Bay’s secondary.
Bucs cornerback Vernon Hargreaves is the only starter still standing from Tampa Bay's 2016 draft. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth) [MICHAEL AINSWORTH | AP]
Published Sep. 8

TAMPA — One day Vernon Hargreaves III looked around and saw that he was the last starter standing between the 2016 Bucs draft class and utter oblivion. One day the Tampa native and former Wharton and Florida star realized he was the senior leader on a young, still suspect Bucs secondary and day care, and that he was as suspect as anyone.

Now what?

“We’ll find out Sunday,” Hargreaves said.

MORE BUCS: What Mike Evans stands for

We’ll find out, when the Buc host the 49ers. For all the talk of head coach Bruce Arians’ first season riding on Jameis Winston, a lot might depend on a secondary that was historically awful in 2018.

Arians pronounced the secondary “totally fixed” during the offseason. And new leader of the pack is Hargreaves, almost by default with the departure of veteran Brent Grimes.

No matter that Hargreaves enters his fourth NFL season with people still wondering why the Bucs used the 11th pick of that 2016 draft to select him. His career has been marked by injuries and ineffectiveness.

But at least Hargreaves has survived, which is more than we can say about some of his draft classmates, like pass rusher and second-round pick Noah Spence, who never delivered a pass rush, was recently cut loose. Another second-round pick was a kicker named Roberto … Well, you know.

Is this where the 2016 Curse comes to an end? We’d hold Bucs GM Jason Licht’s feet to the fire, but he has a flame-retardant five-year extension.

Hargreaves said he doesn’t feel the back draft.

“If I play my game, everything will take care of itself,” he said. “I wasn’t comfortable. I wasn’t myself. When you get drafted into the league and you start playing, you start realizing some guys come along faster than others. Some guys catch on their first year, some their second year, some later than that.”

The Bucs defense allowed an average of 29 points last season, and the secondary bore the brunt. Quarterbacks torched it for a 72.5 percent completion percentage and a QB rating of 110.9, positively ghastly numbers, one reason why the Bucs went 5-11.

Expected to start in the backfield Sunday with Hargreaves are second-year cornerback Carlton Davis, second-year safety Jordan Whitehead and rookie safety Mike Edwards. Somebody has to be in charge back there.

“I love it,” Hargreaves said. “I’ve been playing football most of my life, like a lot of guys in here. I’ve seen guys lead. I’ve been around it my whole life, with my dad being a coach. I know what I have to put out every day.”

Vernon Hargreaves. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) [CHRIS O'MEARA | AP]

“He’s helped me on the field, getting the calls down, getting the routes down, but off the field he’s made me take preparation more seriously,” said Bucs rookie reserve cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting. “He’s kind of been through it all.”

Hargreaves speaks from experience. As a rookie, he was the most targeted cornerback in football, allowing more than 1,000 receiving yards in his coverage area. In 2017, a hamstring injury cost him seven games. Last season, he started big, as if this was a breakout, with seven tackles and a forced fumble in the Bucs’ upset win at New Orleans. But a shoulder injury wiped out the rest of Hargreaves’ season.

He has played in only 26 of the team’s 48 games since arriving and still has only one career interception. He will have to step up for the team to pick up his fifth-year option, which net him roughly $9 million. Hargreaves hasn’t earned anything yet.

He smiled.

“I’m healthy. I’m happy. I’m ready to go,” he said.

Hargreaves has looked sharp, as have several others in the secondary. New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ defense calls for open aggression, no backing down, which reminds Hargreaves of UF days.

MORE BUCS: The feel-good portion of the program is over. Now it’s time to face reality.

“In college, I didn’t play off,” Hargreaves said. “I had to learn how to backpedal. I had to learn how to break out from my backpedal. I had to learn how to read the quarterback. I’m doing all this while I’m trying to play on Sundays too. It was tough.”

Now look.

“Just man-to-man, press coverage, up at the line of scrimmage. Coach Bowles lets us have our way with it. And that’s all I can ask for.”

What that adds up to remains to be seen. It has to add up to more than that 2016 Bucs draft.

“People are going to talk, whether we do good or we do bad, whether we’re young or we’re old,” Hargreaves said. “Everybody is going to have something to say. That’s life. We’re not going to worry about that. I never back down from anybody or anything.”

We’ll find out today.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly

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