The pre-draft scouting reports on defensive end Noah Spence were littered with terms like "big motor" and "persistent." There were things NFL teams had to sort out when ranking Spence on their draft boards, but effort was not among them.
It was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who moved first on the Eastern Kentucky pass-rusher, grabbing him early in the second round, with the 39th overall selection. In his first discussion with the Bay area media, Spence made it clear he would bring hustle to the football field, saying, "You just have to keep going at it one hundred percent every play like you want to win every rep."
The Buccaneers believed they got the best pure pass-rusher in the 2016 draft, and just over halfway into his debut season, Spence is delivering on that promise. His 4.0 sacks are second on the team and tied for second among NFL rookies. What's particularly encouraging for the Buccaneers is that their young pass-rusher has been steadily getting better. Over his last four outings, Spence has compiled three sacks, five quarterback pressures, two forced fumbles and a pass defensed.
The key, according to both Spence and his teammates, is that he has taken that natural on-field hustle and applied it to his off-the-field work, as well.
"He's just preparing better," said Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who has naturally been a mentor to Spence. "Before it was just, 'I'll go to meetings when I have to go to meetings and practice when I have to practice,' but now he's watching film on his own, studying his opponent more and knowing what to expect and how to prepare. All the vets in the room are helping him out. He's asking more questions and he's more focused in practice. He's just becoming an NFL football player."
Like many still-developing defenders, Spence watches the moves of standout pass-rushers around the league, looking for ones he can incorporate into his own game. Now the 22-year-old NFL newcomer is doing the same thing when it comes to how he approaches his craft off the field.
"I've seen a lot of the guys watching a lot of film, so I got into it," said Spence. "It's making me see more things on the field. It's a blessing that I was able to hear it from them, that that's what they do. So I [thought], maybe I should put that in my game, start watching a lot more film and stuff like that. It's definitely helping the game slow down [so I can] see stuff before it happens."
When the Bucs used their second overall draft pick on Spence in April, they thought he could make an immediate impact as a designated pass-rusher but figured it would take him some time to develop into an all-around starter at defensive end. However, a seemingly endless string of injuries to the defensive line in the first half of the season forced the coaching staff to accelerate that schedule, and the results have been encouraging. Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith can see that all the extra work, on and off the field, is paying off quickly for Spence.
"A lot of our young players are still trying to figure out the nuances, based on where the backs align, what the down-and-distance is, and those are things that you learn as a professional football player through repetition," said Smith. "It's something that doesn't happen overnight, they're all learning experiences.
"Noah is not going to be just a DPR, a designated pass rusher. I have no doubt in my mind that he's going to be a guy that's going to be in the rotation and be able to play on first and second down."
Spence has had to deal with a shoulder injury that requires him to wear a harness during games, but even that has led to adjustments that will improve his overall game in the long run. He says he has been "grinding a lot more" since the injury and, overall feels very good, which may help him avoid the fabled "rookie wall." The Bucs hope he can, because they continue to increase his workload as he continues to make big plays.
"It's definitely giving me a lot of confidence," said Spence. "Every play that you make you're going to get more confident, being a rookie. That's been big for me. I feel like that's definitely the biggest thing, the game's starting to slow down a little bit more."
Said McCoy: "He's getting it, he's understanding it and I think he's going to do nothing but get better."
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If Martin was being eased back into the offensive mix, that process is not going to be a slow one. Head Coach Dirk Koetter has liked what he's seen from his lead tailback on the practice field this week.
"Really good – he looks really fine," said Koetter. "You wouldn't even know he'd been out, this week. He just didn't get much last week. We didn't really know until the end of the week [that he was going to play against Chicago], so we didn't give him very much."
After ranking fifth in the NFL in rushing yards last season, the Bucs have struggled with injuries to the backfield and are 17th this year, with an average of 104.9 per game. Tampa Bay's rushing attack compiled a team-record 4.9 yards-per-carry mark in 2015 but that's down significantly to 3.7 this year. The Chiefs' defense has shown some susceptibility to the run, especially on first down, but the Bucs also know they have to deal with the challenges of the overbearing crowd noise at Arrowhead Stadium. Getting Martin going early would help a lot, both this Sunday and down the playoff-race stretch.
"It's going to be a great challenge for us, but we know [that]," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "We've got to be able to run the football better for us to continue to improve as a team moving forward."
On Friday, after Ward had cleared waivers, the Buccaneers brought him back to the practice squad. To make room, the team released defensive tackle Rodney Coe from that same 10-man group. Ward, who was signed as an undrafted rookie out of Ole Miss in the spring, made the active roster to start the season and appeared in five of the first nine games, with one start.
The series of moves leaves the Buccaneers with the same number of down linemen on the combined active roster and practice squad but does give that unit a somewhat different look on game days.
"We were trying to get a little bit more size in the interior and Sealver played a lot of ball," said Koetter of the fourth-year veteran who was most recently with Seattle. "We actually had him in for a workout a few weeks ago. He's been back and forth with Seattle then with a couple of other teams and I think [General Manager] Jason [Licht] has been following him for a while and we kind of let it slip away last time, so when we got the opportunity this time, we jumped on it."
Tampa Bay beat Chicago in Week 10 despite having to replace two starters on the offensive line, as left guard Kevin Pamphile and center Joe Hawley were unable to play. In addition, Hawley's replacement, veteran center Evan Smith suffered his own knee injury six plays into the Bears game, giving way to Ben Gottschalk, who saw his first NFL regular-season action just a day after being promoted from the practice squad.
Pamphile has been in the concussion protocol since getting hurt against Atlanta in Week Nine. He returned to practice to star this week, raising hopes that he would return against the Chiefs. However, Pamphile did not practice on Friday and he has already been ruled on the official injury report for Sunday's game in Kansas City.
Hawley is attempting to return from a knee injury; he was limited in practice on Wednesday but full-go the past two days. Wide receiver Russell Shepard is also hoping to return after missing two games with a hip injury. Those two plus Luke Stocker (ankle) are all considered questionable for Sunday's game.