Why the Bucs released Vernon Hargreaves

Rick Stroud: He didn’t hustle and they didn’t want to be hustled
Vernon Hargreaves was the Bucs' first-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft. On Tuesday, the Bucs released him.
Vernon Hargreaves was the Bucs' first-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft. On Tuesday, the Bucs released him. [ ALLIE GOULDING | Times ]
Published Nov. 12, 2019

TAMPA — This was about accountability. It was also about accounting.

Neither really worked in favor of Vernon Hargreaves remaining with the Bucs.

The 11th overall pick in the 2016 draft from the University of Florida was waived on Tuesday morning. It came two days after Bucs coach Bruce Arians benched Hargreaves in the third quarter of Tampa Bay’s 30-27 win over Arizona for not hustling to make a tackle on what became a 55-yard catch and run by Cardinals receiver Andy Isabella.

“There’s no argument,” said Hargreaves, who later re-entered the game. “I need to hustle. Point blank, end of discussion. I’ll get better. I’m sure I’ll talk with them this week and get things straight and see where we’re going.’’

That talk came Tuesday morning at the team’s training facility with general manager Jason Licht and Arians.

“After thoughtful consideration over the past few weeks, Bruce and I came to the conclusion that we needed to make this change,” Licht in a statement Tuesday. “Decisions such as this are always difficult, but I felt it was in the best interest of our team to part ways with Vernon at this time and allow him to explore other opportunities. We are disappointed that it did not work out here for Vernon and we wish him continued success moving forward.”

Every time you think decisions are made in the best interest of the team, remember the NFL is a big business.

The Bucs had picked up the fifth-year option on Hargreaves contract in 2020 for about $9-million which was only guaranteed against injury.

Once it was decided that Hargreaves was no longer a part of their future, the Bucs had to protect themselves from having to potentially shell out that kind of money next season for a player they no longer wanted.

And remember, injuries derailed two of Hargreaves’ previous three seasons.

Yes, this is a very bad look for the Bucs and Licht. The only remaining player from the Bucs’ 2016 draft class is cornerback Ryan Smith, who went in for Hargreaves Sunday and immediately gave up a 69-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kyler Murray to Christian Kirk.

Of course, that was the draft where the Bucs traded up to the second round for Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo, who was out of football within a year. Hargreaves is the fourth player to be released from that 2016 class this year.

The Bucs cut defensive end Noah Spence, a second-round pick, before the season began. After Week 1, they said goodbye to tackle Caleb Benenoch, their fifth-round pick. And during last month’s bye week, they waived linebacker Devante Bond before the league suspended him four games for using performance-enhancing drugs. Tight end Danny Vitale is a fullback for the Packers.

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The Bucs also have to take responsibility for Hargreaves’ failure.

At Florida and Wharton High School in Tampa, Hargreaves was known as a ball hawk. But he thrived in man-to-man coverage. The Bucs drafted him to play in the zone scheme of then defensive coordinator Mike Smith.

When Hargreaves arrived at minicamp and began work in the offseason, the Bucs crossed trained him at two positions. They wanted him to learn how to not only play cornerback but also move inside and cover the slot receiver.

It’s not Hargreaves’ fault he was over-drafted. At 5-11, 204-pounds, he wasn’t a very good match for the big, physical receivers you see in the NFL today.

As a rookie, he was the only player in the NFL to give up more than 1,000-yards receiving.

But just because you are playing off a receiver doesn’t mean you can’t make a play on the football.

That’s where Hargreaves struggled the most. In 35 games, 33 of them starts, Hargreaves had only two interceptions and 19 passes defensed.

By comparison, rookie Jamel Dean had played only three snaps all season before being pressed into service as a starter two weeks ago at Seattle. He already has one interception and eight passes defensed.

As the most experienced member of the secondary, Hargreaves made two memorable plays this season. He had an interception he returned for a touchdown in the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers and he made the key stop of Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey on fourth-and-1 to clinch a win against the Panthers in Week 2.

But overall, the film isn’t very good. Neither was his effort.

Maybe getting drafted by the hometown team wasn’t good for Hargreaves. Sometimes going to college a couple of blocks from your house just feels like 13th grade with all the people you grew up with just hanging around.

Maybe Hargreaves could’ve had a better role model as a rookie than cornerback Brent Grimes, whose effort was questioned, especially at the end of his career.

When Arians arrived in Tampa Bay, he made it clear that he would not tolerate anything less than 100 percent from his players.

"You can't play hard, you can't play here," Arians said.

That’s where the accountability got Hargreaves.

There’s a reason why the Bucs took three more defensive backs in this year’s draft. They didn’t much care for the guys playing. Carlton Davis, who is battling a hip injury, has started 19 games and has no interceptions and 10 passes defensed. But the Bucs still like his coverage ability and upside if he learns how to play without clutching and grabbing receivers.

The Bucs have seen the improvement by rookie cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting and safety Mike Edwards.

By contrast, after getting lit up for three touchdown passes by Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson two weeks ago, Dean was in the office of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles by 7 a.m. for an extra hour of tutoring every morning last week.

When he entered the game in the fourth quarter Sunday, he recognized a corner route and intercepted a pass from Murray at the Tampa Bay 8-yard line that set up the Bucs’ game-winning, 92-yard touchdown drive.

This is bad time for the Bucs to waive Hargreaves when they are thin at defensive back. Davis missed the last two games and M.J. Stewart left Sunday’s game with an injury. The Bucs promoted former South Florida cornerback Mazzi Wilkins from the practice squad.

The Saints and Drew Brees are coming to town Sunday hoping to light up the worst pass defense in the NFL.

Arians doesn’t know how young players such as Dean and Murphy-Bunting and Edwards will play.

But he knows they will play hard.

And if ya don’t, like the man said, you can’t play here.

Contact Rick Stroud at Follow @NFLStroud