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Bucs, with Saints on horizon, move forward without Hargreaves

The reaction to the release of the former 2016 first-round pick ranged from dismay to acceptance.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ryan Smith, seen here celebrating after breaking up a pass during a preseason game against the Miami Dolphins, was dismayed that fellow cornerback Vernon Hargreaves was released by the Bucs. [MONICA HERNDON  |  Times]
Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ryan Smith, seen here celebrating after breaking up a pass during a preseason game against the Miami Dolphins, was dismayed that fellow cornerback Vernon Hargreaves was released by the Bucs. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Nov. 14

TAMPA – Cornerback Ryan Smith was in the hot tub at the Bucs training facility Tuesday morning when things reached a boiling point with Vernon Hargreaves.

The two came into the NFL together. They were roommates at the league’s scouting combine and part of the Bucs’ 2016 draft class.

“He saw me in the hot tub and then he said he would text me,’’ Smith said. “He told me what happened and I ran out of the hot tub. I didn’t expect that.

“I didn’t think he was joking but it was just a surreal feeling. Coming in (the locker room), I was like, ‘Dang, you’re leaving.’ It (stinks). It (stinks). That’s my boy, so personally it hurts. I can’t speak for nobody else.’’

The Bucs decision to waive Hargreaves, the 11th overall pick from Florida, was met with mixed reaction by players Wednesday.

The Bucs secondary was already thinned by injuries to cornerbacks Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart, yet the team parted ways with their most experienced homegrown defensive back. Houston claimed Hargreaves, 24, off of waivers Wednesday even though he had fallen out of favor with Tampa Bay.

Hargreaves was benched in the third quarter of Sunday’s 30-27 win over the Arizona Cardinals after failing to hustle and make a tackle on what proved to be a 55-yard catch and run.

Because the Bucs had picked up his fifth-year option for 2020 at $9-million that’s guaranteed only against injury, they couldn’t risk putting a player on the field they no longer wanted.

Bucs coach Bruce Arians did not want to elaborate on his reasons for waiving Hargreaves, referring to a fairly unrevealing statement by general manager Jason Licht.

“The statement said everything,’’ Arians said Wednesday. “I don’t really want to get into it but it’s a decision Jason and I made.’’

Speaking of statements, cutting Hargreaves was one that was sent by Arians and received by his players.

Arians said the decision wasn’t based on anything specifically that happened in Sunday’s game, calling the reasons “cumulative.”

The Bucs are last in the NFL in passing and scoring defense, allowing 31 points per game.

If there is a broader message it’s that those results are unacceptable, along with losing games. But Arians did seem to emphasize part of the problem was a lack of effort.

“There’s two things you can control,’’ Arians said. “You can control your attitude and your effort.’’

Aside from the injuries in the secondary, this isn’t necessarily the best game to go with your most inexperienced defensive backs when future Hall of Fame and Saints quarterback Drew Brees is coming to town and trying to rebound from a stunning loss to the Atlanta Falcons in New Orleans Sunday.

But Arians was impressed the way rookie Jamel Dean bounced back against the Cardinals. Two weeks ago, pressed into starting his first game when Davis injured his hip in pre-game warmups at Seattle, Dean gave up three touchdown passes. But he and fellow rookie Sean Murphy-Bunting met for an extra hour every morning at 7 a.m. with defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Dean entered the game in the fourth quarter and recorded an interception at the Tampa Bay 8-yard line that set up the Bucs’ game-winning drive.

“I knew Dean would. That’s just his makeup,’’ Arians said. “He was embarrassed and went out and fixed it.

“I think they learned about preparation. Now (rookie safety) Mike Edwards needs to get out there and join that crew. I think all those guys, I’ve got confidence in them they’ll do a good job. They got a heck of a challenge in front of them.’’

While cutting a veteran starter at midseason isn’t that common, Bucs receiver Mike Evans wasn’t exactly surprised.

“We’ve seen this throughout the history of the league,’’ Evans said. “If a team is not happy with you, they can let you go. If you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing, they can let you go. End of story.’’

The Saints have one of the more explosive receiving combinations in Michael Thomas, who leads the NFL with 86 catches for 1,027 yards, and Ted Ginn, Jr. Running back Alvin Kamara also is a frequent passing target for Brees.

“I feel like that’s something we should’ve been doing a long time ago, everybody just stepping up as a whole,’’ said rookie cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting. “You can be young, you can be old, you can always lead by example. We all have to mature, we all have to step up and just keep going.

“I mean, it’s part of the game. You can’t really dwell on it. That’s my brother now and forever. So he’s always got a friend in me. That’s a decision the GM felt he needed to make.’’

Smith is now the last member of the Bucs’ 2016 draft class that is still on the team. Running back Peyton Barber arrived the same season, but was undrafted out of Auburn.

A few lockers down, Hargreaves’ nameplate had already been removed.

“We were just talking about that last week, actually, how it was me, him and Vern,’’ Smith said. “And then this happens.

“Vern is like my best friend. That’s my guy…I try not to get that deep into it because if I try to think about it, I’m going to go crazy.’’

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud.

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