Editor's note: Welcome the latest addition to the Bucs Nation writing family in Jason Kanno!
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 2016 draft shopping list should be comprised chiefly of defensive players. Near the top of that list needs to be former Ohio State and Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence. Talent-wise, Spence belongs in the top ten picks. He’s the draft’s best speed-rusher. The Bucs just happen to need an elite pass-rusher. Bad. The math here is pretty simple.
There’s one major issue teams will have to reconcile before drafting him: Spence’s extracurricular activities. Spence ended his collegiate career with Eastern Kentucky after Ohio State indefinitely banned him in 2014 for multiple failed drug tests. Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman chronicled Spence’s journey from the Big Ten’s doghouse to rehab to the stewardship of Dean Hood at Eastern Kentucky. Since leaving OSU, Spence has been candid and willing to accept additional scrutiny including volunteering for every drug test administered by the team in 2015.
Drafting Spence will require the team to take a leap of faith that his drug issues are behind him. Indications are good, but his stock would be higher without the history. The team willing to overlook Spence’s past is getting the draft’s premiere speed rusher. There may not be a player in this draft better at bending the edge. The key is his atom bomb of a first step which launches him into top speed at the outset of his rush.
If there’s something familiar about this image, it’s because that is current Bucs left tackle Donovan Smith getting beat by Spence’s speed rush. This particular play falls more on Smith’s poor slide than Spence’s rush. It’s still a prime example of Spence’s speed.
Spence’s flexibility allows him to gain leverage without losing a step even when the tackle gets a strong kick slide.
Spence’s speed alone makes him a top pick. His endurance and stamina sweeten the deal. He loses little of his potency over the course of a game and translates into pursuit speed. With his perpetual closing speed, Spence can play sideline-to-sideline even after the ball leaves the quarterback’s hand.
He also possesses strong lateral quickness which comes in handy on inside moves. The stunts the Bucs have had so much trouble executing would no doubt benefit from Spence’s speed and agility. He would need work on his hand movement though.
While the Bucs’ pass rush was at best tenuous throughout games last season, the lack of pressure precipitated most of their late game defensive collapses. Spence’s ability to keep the dial at 11 could help the Bucs hold on late by keeping quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket until the final whistle blows.
Spence is not without weaknesses, even as a pass-rusher. His speed does not often translate to power. If he’s blocked head on, Spence isn’t likely to run through the blocker, making him overly reliant on his elusiveness.
Kentucky running back Mikel Horton comes into block Spence and succeeds completely. Spence should have mowed over Horton but runs into a wall.
The biggest issue with Spence’s game is his attention to the run. Yes, a pass-rusher should pursue the quarterback first and foremost, but a complete player makes an impact on the run too. Spence is too often hooked by play-action plays and reacts more than he anticipates run plays.
With the ninth overall pick, the Bucs need a game-changer. Anything providing a substantial upgrade to the pass rush qualifies, but at such a high pick, Jason Licht and company may want a player ready to play more than just obvious passing downs or otherwise jeopardize the run defense.
Spence’s incomplete profile might not necessarily scare off the Bucs. New defensive coordinator Mike Smith has a reputation for building defenses to fit the talents of his players and plans to run a "flexible" defense with multiple looks and schemes.
Spence could fit either as a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 outside linebacker. Varied fronts would give Spence more opportunities to rush without exposing his flaws as a run defender.
Versatility still takes a backseat to talent, which Spence has in spades but so do some of the other defenders likely to be available at the ninth pick. Spence’s fit in with the Bucs will depend on front office’s belief that he is over his checkered past and his ability to develop into a more complete player.
Even with his off-field issues, Spence should be taken in the first round, within the first 15 picks even. There isn't likely to be a better pass-rusher available at the ninth spot so Spence is a viable option for the Bucs' first pick.