By all accounts, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a good season in 2016. The team finished with its first winning record (9-7) since 2010 and improved its win total by three games. Quarterback Jameis Winston threw for more than 4,000 yards for the second straight season, while receiver Mike Evans established himself as one of top pass catchers in the league in a Pro Bowl season.
Defensively, the Buccaneers saw the emergence of second-year linebacker Kwon Alexander and safety Keith Tandy, while defensive lineman Will Gholston showed he could help the team at end or inside at tackle.
Now as the Buccaneers start their preparation for the 2017 season, here are three players primed for breakout performances.
Noah Spence, DE
The Buccaneers had high hopes for Spence when they took him in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Though troubles in college led him to transfer from Ohio State to Eastern Kentucky for his final season, the Buccaneers took a chance on Spence and it paid off.
Despite playing just 54 percent of defensive snaps in 2016, Spence finished third on the team with 5.5 sacks to go with 22 overall tackles. He played mostly in nickel or passing downs and made plays despite playing most of the season with a torn labrum in his shoulder and using a shoulder brace.
Now, after offseason surgery, big things are expected from Spence this season. First, he will be in his second year in the system and will better understand not only his responsibilities but what offenses are trying to do.
Unlike last season, he will have both arms to be able to fight off tight ends and offensive tackles. He should also be able to play faster, which was one of his strong points last year. His speed rush took a lot of tackles by surprise. Now, he will be able to do other things that he is fully healthy.
This all adds up to potentially a big season for Spence. Teammate Robert Ayers Jr. said he believes Spence can get 15 sacks. While that seems like a hefty number, it will be interesting and fun to see how a healthy Spence develops in his second season.
Robert Aguayo, K
Most critics are still laughing at the Buccaneers for taking Aguayo in the second round of the draft last year. Aguayo didn’t do much to quell those snickers. Aguayo was 22-of-31 in field goal attempts his rookie season and his long was just 43 yards. This was from a guy who was the most accurate kicker in NCAA history (96.7 percent) at Florida State and never missed an extra point or a field goal under 40 yards in his college career. But from preseason, Aguayo struggled and missed four of his first eight kicks in the regular season. He showed flashes late in the season, making nine field goals in a row before missing his final two (one was blocked). After an offseason of fully concentrating on his craft, and with the Buccaneers bringing in veteran Nick Folk to challenge him, expect Aguayo to return to the form he had at FSU.
Vernon Hargreaves, CB
Rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves had a decent season starting the season as the nickelback before taking over at his natural outside position. Still, opponents didn’t respect the rookie, targeting him more than any defensive back in the NFL, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Teams threw at Hargreaves 113 times and completed 80 of those passes.
It wasn’t just because Brent Grimes was on the opposite side but also because Hargreaves, known for his playmaking ability in college at Florida, was not as aggressive in his rookie NFL campaign. He tied for third on the team in pass breakups (nine) and had just one interception, though the Buccaneers believe he played better as the season progressed.
Hargreaves is expected to come into the 2017 season more confident in his ability, which should translate on the field.