How releasing Vernon Hargreaves keyed the Bucs’ turnaround

Tampa Bay has thrived on defense since placing its 2016 first-round pick on waivers. Hargreaves returns Saturday with Houston
Vernon III Hargreaves, left, returns to Tampa Saturday as a member of the Houston Texans to face his former team in a 1 p.m. game against the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium.
Vernon III Hargreaves, left, returns to Tampa Saturday as a member of the Houston Texans to face his former team in a 1 p.m. game against the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium. [ MARK ZALESKI | AP ]
Published Dec. 18, 2019|Updated Dec. 18, 2019

TAMPA — The Bucs not only said goodbye to Vernon Hargreaves, but good riddance.

Truth is, they are better off without him.

“I think the young guys were earning the right to be on the field,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said.

That may be the biggest reason why the Bucs put the 11th pick in the 2016 draft on waivers Nov. 12, two days after Hargreaves was benched for not hustling on a play in the Bucs’ 30-27 win over the Cardinals.

Hargreaves was claimed by Houston Texans and will return to Raymond James Stadium with the Texans for a 1 p.m. game Saturday.

“It wasn’t a big controversy,'' Hargreaves told reporters in Houston Tuesday. "Things happen and it’s nothing I’m harping on. I don’t have (any) ill-will toward anybody over there. But I’m excited to go play against my former teammates and it’s going to be fun to compete against them. ...

“It’s not (a) revenge game or none of that. That doesn’t exist. It’s just football."

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Every metric and the eyeball test indicate that the Bucs defense — including their young secondary — has played better without Hargreaves, the former Wharton High School star.

From rookie Jamel Dean’s game-changing interception to set up the winning drive against the Cardinals to fellow rookie Sean Murphy-Bunting’s 70-yard interception return for a touchdown in Detroit to Carlton Davis’ pass breakups, there’s so much evidence the kids are growing up.

Since Week 10 when Hargreaves was released, Dean and Davis have been one of the best coverage tandems in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, they have the No. 2 coverage grade (91.0), allowing completions on only 33 percent of targets.

Davis’ 11 forced incompletions during that stretch are the most in the league.

Without Hargreaves, the Bucs have improved in nearly every statistical category (see chart at the bottom of the story).

Hargreaves, who was the NFL’s only player to yield 1,000 yards receiving as a rookie, was expected to be a ball hawk when the Bucs drafted him out of Florida. He had only two career interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown in this season’s opener against San Francisco.

Injuries also set Hargreaves back. He missed all or part of two seasons before the Bucs decided to pick up his $9-million contract for 2020, which was guaranteed only against injury.

With the Texans, Hargreaves has played mostly slot cornerback and has done pretty well with 18 tackles and one pass defensed.

“He’s come in here and done a good job,’’ Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “He’s practiced well and he’s played well in these games. He’s playing a few different positions for us. You know, he’s only been here a few weeks but he’s come in here and helped us.’’

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Hargreaves was expected to thrive in new Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ defense. Aside from his clinching fourth-and-1 stop of Christian McCaffrey in Bucs’ 20-14 win at Carolina on Sept. 12, he didn’t do much.

Part of it has to do with his size. Hargreaves is generously listed at 5-foot-11, 204 pounds. But the rules have changed with respect to how much contact a defensive back can have with a receiver. Now it’s about eating up space.

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In fact, it’s unlikely Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht will draft another cornerback under 6-foot.

“There’s no doubt, you’ve got to have length now,’’ Arians said. “With what used to be the small forwards and stuff now playing football in high school and college, all playing receiver, some of the best athletes ever that don’t play basketball anymore, the corners have to adapt. You used to have the 5-9, 5-10 physical guy (at defensive back). They just eat off his head now. It’s a different game.’’

The 6-foot-1, 206-pound Dean was a teammate of Davis at Auburn. After Hargreaves’ exit, both players began the routine of extra film study in Bowles’ office. It’s paid off. Dean has 16 tackles and 16 passes defensed, which ranks fifth in the league.

Murphy Bunting, who has moved into the slot corner position, is smart, athletic and great ball skills.

Understandably, Hargreaves will be motivated to play his former team that gave up on him. But who knows? Maybe he is in a better place, too. The Texans can clinch the AFC South title with a win Saturday. He’s also aware that quarterback Jameis Winston is red hot with back-to-back 450-yard passing games.

"He can light it up,'' Hargreaves said. "I’ve always known that playing with him. He’s dynamic. He can throw the ball all over the field. We got to do a good job in the secondary to slow him down.

"He turns the ball over. It’s no secret, so if we can get our hands on some balls, hopefully we can come down with some balls.''

Contact Rick Stroud at Follow @NFLStroud

Life after Vernon

Here’s a statistical look at the difference in the Bucs’ pass defense since the release of Vernon Hargreaves.

Category Before After
Passing yards per game 299 237
Passing yards rank 32 19
Quarterback rating 100.3 77.6
Quarterback rating rank 24 9
Completion percentage 63.9 58.1
Completion percentage rank 15 5
TD passes allowed per game 2.4 1.4
TD passes allowed rank 30 10
Interceptions per game 0.7 1
Interceptions per game rank 19 12