TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' new-look 3-4 scheme under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will feature a new-look Vernon Hargreaves, too. The Bucs' 2016 first-round pick, taken 11th overall, will be playing press-man coverage significantly and lining up exclusively on the outside for the first time in his NFL career.
"It's everything that I do. It's kind of like taking me back to college," Hargreaves said of the new scheme, which is more aggressive than the read-and-react system favored by former defensive coordinator Mike Smith. "It's that same scheme [as the Florida Gators used] -- blitz the quarterback, man-to-man on the outside and let's get after it."
Under Smith, Hargreaves rarely got a chance to showcase those skills. Hargreaves was mostly playing off-man coverage, where receivers are given up to 10 yards of cushion and cornerbacks must react to the route versus disrupting it one yard off the line of scrimmage with their hands. While the truly elite corners of the NFL can do both, many tend to excel in one style. "Off" coverage tends to favor players with exceptional catch-up speed whereas "press" highlights corners with a more physical style.
"It [was] difficult, difficult ... more difficult than I thought," Hargreaves said of the transition. "When I got drafted and came in and saw the defense and saw how Coach Smith wanted to do things, I didn't really think too much of it. I was like, 'All right. I'm gonna go play corner.' But until you actually go out there and try to cover guys that you're really not all that used to -- [it was hard].
"I'm not an off corner. I'm press corner. I need to get up in your face. That's just what it is. It was a little bit of an adjustment period for me, obviously. It wasn't bad [but] it wasn't great, but it needed to be better. But it just really didn't fit what I did best."
Under Smith, the Bucs also liked to use Hargreaves at the nickelback position. He would start on the outside opposite veteran Brent Grimes and move inside when they lined up with five defensive backs (three corners specifically) on the field, something he'd never done before.
Hargreaves would go from defending vertical routes on the outside and using the sideline to his advantage, to moving inside where he had to cover a larger area of the field and defend shorter routes against players who would have a "two-way go" and release inside or outside. It was a lot to handle for a player in his first two seasons at arguably one of the most difficult positions in the NFL.
In his rookie season, Hargreaves gave up 1,065 passing yards -- more passing yards in coverage than any other defender in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. The previous staff wound up moving him exclusively inside midway through the 2017 season, in hopes of it bolstering his confidence and allowing him to play more aggressively, although Hargreaves is adamant those struggles didn't rattle him.
"If that type of stuff eats at your confidence, then you probably won't be in the league long," he said. "It's never a confidence thing with me. Never. Nobody can bother me, nobody can say anything to me except my mom that will make me question what I'm doing or whatever it is. I struggled. That's life. I'm not running from it. It's not anything that I'm scared of or didn't want to happen, or whatever. It is what it is. But it actually helped me. It actually made me better."
Hargreaves was again given a shot to play both roles in 2018 and things looked as if they were finally starting to click in training camp and the preseason. But then he suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder in the season opener against the New Orleans Saints defending Michael Thomas. He underwent surgery on Sept. 21 and was just fully cleared to resume football last month.
While he had to start at square one in his rehabilitation, he won't be with this new coaching staff. They've already given him rave reviews, even though NFL rules have them relegated to mere conditioning so far this offseason.
"I'm gonna go back to the draft," coach Bruce Arians said at the NFL owners meetings. "We really liked him. We had him really high on our board. We thought he could do what we do.
"I think Vernon has all the talent in the world, he works hard, is smart," Arians said, pointing to injuries as a culprit for some of Hargreaves' stumbles. "Why can't he be successful? He's just gotta stay healthy."
In addition to the shoulder injury, Hargreaves also battled a hamstring injury in 2017.
"I struggled. That's life. I'm not running from it. ... But it actually helped me. It actually made me better." Vernon Hargreaves
Hargreaves, who said he's still willing to play both inside and outside, was elated when he heard Arians' comments, sending a link of the video to friends and family members.
He has watched fellow 2016 draftees Jalen Ramsey and Xavien Howard reach Pro Bowls. James Bradberry has also established himself as one of the better shutdown corners in the league. Hargreaves is still trying to realize his own potential.
"I don't know why Coach Arians feels that way about me, but I love it," Hargreaves said. "He doesn't know me. He doesn't have to say anything about me. But I love it. That's that confidence that I need. That's that confidence that we need as a secondary."
Not only should the move benefit Hargreaves, but also Carlton Davis, one of the Bucs' second-round draft picks last year who went on to start 12 games. At 6-foot-1 and 2016 pounds, Davis primarily played press coverage at Auburn and like Hargreaves, faced a tall task adjusting.
"It just makes me happy to know that the coaches here now, they understand," Hargreaves said. "They know what's going on. They understand us, they understand us as players and where guys should be. I'm happy for that."