TAMPA, Fla. -- During Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians’ first sit-down with the local media in January -- on his first day on the job -- he was asked how he handles players who take plays off.
With zero hesitation, he responded, “You can't play hard, you can't play here. That's unacceptable."
On Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, when cornerback Vernon Hargreaves “didn’t hustle enough” while attempting to tackle Andy Isabella on a 55-yard reception at the beginning of the third quarter, Arians believed Hargreaves had committed a cardinal sin.
“Two things: You control your attitude and your effort," Arians said. "You don’t control a lot of things, but you can control those two. And they better be good.”
Two days later, after Arians met with Hargreaves and GM Jason Licht, the Bucs' 2016 first-round pick (11th overall) was cut.
Arians made this move to send a clear message -- everyone must be held accountable -- just as he did when he called the secondary “disappointing” after the Bucs lost to the Seahawks in overtime in Week 9. That prompted rookie Jamel Dean to spend an extra hour each day with defensive coordinator Todd Bowles going over film and rookie Sean Murphy-Bunting to meet with him each day. The secondary also began incorporating an additional meeting each day outside of the team’s regular schedule to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Teammates were shocked by Hargreaves' release.
“It hurts,” said cornerback Ryan Smith, whom Hargreaves texted right after it happened. “I ran out of the hot tub and came in here [the locker room]. I didn’t expect that. … I didn’t think he was joking, but it was, like, a surreal feeling, like, ‘What? No, he didn’t.’ Coming in here, it was like, ‘Dang, you’re really leaving.’”
When Arians was hired, he expressed confidence that Hargreaves, who missed nearly all of the 2018 season because of a shoulder injury, could return to being the ball hawk he was at the University of Florida. Arians thought injuries held Hargreaves back from his full potential.
Arians and others in the organization thought the move to Bowles’ defense favored Hargreaves’ strengths because he was going from playing primarily off-man and zone coverage under Mike Smith to press-man, which is much closer to what he played in college. That’s what gave the Bucs the confidence to pick up Hargreaves’ fifth-year option in April, worth $9 million in 2020. (It was guaranteed for injury only, and the Bucs won’t owe him any of that now.) They thought he was their best cornerback on the roster and someone who could help lead the NFL’s youngest group of cornerbacks.
Things didn’t work out, though. Despite multiple interceptions in training camp, a pick-six in Week 1 against the San Francisco 49ers and a game-winning tackle of Christian McCaffrey against the Carolina Panthers in Week 2, the Bucs decided to part ways with Hargreaves, who wanted to play for his hometown Bucs so badly that he had the words “Tampa” etched on the cleats he wore at both the NFL combine and his pro day. (Hargreaves was born in Manchester, Connecticut, but has long considered Tampa “home.”) One day after he was selected in the draft, a billboard was erected welcoming him back to Tampa.
But Hargreaves’ perceived lack of effort was not received well by the coaching staff.
“Every coach, every member of the staff, every member of the team, they’re held to the same standard,” Murphy-Bunting said. “I’m not sure [of] the situation of what was going on or what made anything happen -- I don’t know any of that -- but I do know you’re accountable for what you do, and they hold every person to the highest standard possible.”
“We’ve seen this throughout the history of the league: If a team’s not happy with you, they can let you go,” wide receiver Mike Evans said. “If you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, then the team will let you go -- end of story.”
Sunday's play wasn’t an isolated incident. There were signs of trouble this spring, when on the first day of OTAs, Arians sat Hargreaves because he “wasn’t mentally prepared to practice.” When Hargreaves was approached about it afterward, he denied that there was any issue and said it was due to some “lingering injuries.” He still started.
The fact that Arians waived Hargreaves at a time when his cornerbacks group has been ravished by injuries -- and the week they face the New Orleans Saints -- shouldn’t be overlooked. Carlton Davis, who has started 19 games at outside cornerback, has missed the past two weeks because of a hip injury. M.J. Stewart, who started at nickelback on Sunday, is expected to miss three to four weeks because of a knee injury. Ryan Smith has played only five snaps on defense all season after starting the season with a four-game suspension; his role is primarily in coverage on special teams. The Bucs had to call up rookie Mazzi Wilkins from the practice squad.
“I think all those guys, I’ve got confidence in that they’ll do a heckuva job,” Arians said. “They’ve got a heckuva task in front of them.”
This move by Arians stands in stark contrast to what happened previously under head coach Dirk Koetter, a first-time NFL head coach who took a more "laissez faire" approach to the locker room and deferred personnel decisions to GM Jason Licht. After DeSean Jackson requested a trade and expressed his frustrations over playing with Jameis Winston instead of Ryan Fitzpatrick last year, in addition to drawing extensive fines for being late to meetings and even falling asleep in them, Koetter not only kept him on the roster but made him a team captain.
There are mixed feelings about Hargreaves from inside the Bucs’ building. Those who spoke highly of him praised his knowledge, ability and instincts. Those who spoke less favorably expressed concerns about his lack of focus, commitment and leadership. Some also believed he needed to get out of Tampa.
Cutting a player who was drafted this high and is still on his rookie contract isn’t unprecedented. Last year, the New York Giants cut Ereck Flowers, who was selected ninth overall in the 2015 NFL draft. Dion Jordan, the third overall draft pick in 2013, was waived by the Miami Dolphins during the offseason in 2017. Aaron Maybin, the 11th overall draft pick in 2009, was waived by the Buffalo Bills right before the start of the 2011 season. JaMarcus Russell, the first overall draft pick in 2007, was waived in the 2010 offseason.
Still, it's a bad look for a Bucs' 2016 draft class that has just one remaining player on the roster: Ryan Smith. It's also a bad look for a team that has given up more passing yards the past 10 seasons than any other team in the league, one that has drafted six defensive backs the past two years but still seems to be searching for answers in what has become a predominantly vertical-passing league.