Leaner, healthier Noah Spence is primed to be the NFL's next great pass rusher

TAMPA, Fla. -- The story is already legendary around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers complex, especially since it involved a rookie.

Pain is part of the job in the NFL, but pain and rookies sometimes don't go together that well. Many check out for a trip to the sideline for a bit because they don't understand the difference between pain and injury. That is something players come to grasp better as they grow older in the league, but not something you would expect from a rookie.

That's what makes defensive end Noah Spence's story from his rookie season one that those around the Bucs love to tell.

It goes like this: Spence popped out his shoulder in a game last season against the Broncos, popped it back in himself, went to the sideline, his helmet was taken away for precautionary reasons, and yet he fought with everything in his power to get it back on the field and return to the game. He didn't that day, but he did the next week.

"It's hard to keep him off the field," Bucs general manager Jason Licht said.

Spence suffered a partially torn labrum and a dislocation of his shoulder in the Week 4 game, a 27-7 loss, but he was back playing the next week at Carolina, which told the Bucs brass plenty about their young pass rusher.

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Noah Spence racked up 5 1/2 sacks as a rookie while playing hurt.  USATSI

"When he dinged his shoulder, they said the next step was to play with a harness, which he did," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "A lot of guys don't like that. You're out for the year after that. That injury happened to him in game four. A lot of guys don't make it much longer. He played 12 more games with his shoulder in a harness and played the run better. He was playing hurt. You could tell how much he wanted to play. He could have easily opted out and said I will have surgery and play the next year."

Picking himself back up

Spence wasn't about to let that happen. Not after what he battled through to get to the NFL, even if most of the hurdles were self-inflicted wounds. He was banned from playing at Ohio State after his sophomore season when he failed two drugs test for Molly, the powder version of Ecstasy.

Football was taken away from him for a while, which is why a shoulder injury wasn't about to do that to him again.

"Being away from it makes you want it even more," Spence said last week during a break at Bucs OTAs. "When I didn't have football, it really bothered me. I made mistakes to put me in that position, but that's why I wanted to keep playing last season. I wanted to be out there on the field with my teammates."

Spence turned things around after the Ohio State debacle. He came to the Buckeyes as a major recruit, lived up to it as a sophomore with eight sacks, and appeared on his way to being a high first-round pick. But the night life caught up to him, and he ended up at Eastern Kentucky in 2015. He spent one year there, got 11½ sacks, and ended up being a second-round pick by the Bucs.

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Urban Meyer kicked Spence off the team at Ohio State after two failed drug tests. USATSI

His life and his football life were back on track.

"That feeling of having it taken away is something I don't want to deal with again," Spence said. "That's why I work as hard as I do now. That's why I didn't want to come off the field when I hurt my shoulder. I don't do anything anymore. I don't drink. I learned from my mistakes. If I want to be a great football player, I can't let anything get in the way."

See that word great. Get used to it next to his name.

This is the player who has a real chance to be the next great pass rusher in the NFL -- a 15-sack player who disrupts the game in so many ways.

A talent worth the risk

Licht says taking a chance on Spence was a second act of sorts for him. When he was in Arizona working under general manager Steve Keim, the Cardinals drafted versatile DB Tyrann Mathieu in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Like Spence, Mathieu came with a ton of baggage, including being kicked out of LSU for drug issues. The Cardinals took a chance, and Mathieu has been a model player and hasn't had one issue off the field. The Arizona staff loves him, and he has become one of the fan favorites.

"He [Spence] got in a little bit of trouble, the same with Tyrann," Licht said. "But like when we drafted Tyrann in Arizona, I was willing to take a chance on a guy who really didn't do anything malicious. But he knew he had to clean things up to keep playing football. There are certain guys when you are around them you can tell they love football. Tyrann was one of those guys, and Noah is, too. If they don't have football, it kills them. You can sense that from him. It means everything to him."

So much so that Spence popped his own shoulder back into place.

"He is way tougher than I personally thought when he came out," Koetter said. "And he loves football. That matters with a player."

Spence had the shoulder fixed after the season, which is why he's not taking part in the OTA workouts this spring. The plan is to get him back for training camp. Sitting and watching is eating him up.

"I want to be out there," he said. "It's hard to sit out."

"He's going through a difficult time because he wants to be out there," Licht said. "He's an animal."

Chasing greatness

Spence has used the time away from the field to change his body. He's noticeably leaner and pictures of his new body next to the old one have circulated on the internet. It's a major transformation, with his body fat now down below 10 percent.

"I eat clean now," he said. "I wanted to be faster. I cut out a lot of stuff. I eat prepared meals and go to Whole Foods and stuff like that. I feel a lot better."

Koetter's office overlooks the team's practice fields. It gave him a chance to watch injured players rehab during the offseason. He said he would watch in amazement at how hard Spence worked in his rehab.

"He just gets after it," Koetter said. "You can tell he just wants to get back onto the field. It's important to him."

As a rookie, Spence had 5½ sacks. That's a nice start, but his skill set gives Tampa Bay hope he can double that this season -- at the least. He spends his off time working with pass-rush guru Chuck Smith in Atlanta, which helps with his technique and get off.

His hard work is why teammate Robert Ayers already predicted Spence could get 15 sacks this season. Last season, Atlanta's Vic Beasley went from four sacks as a rookie to 15½ in 2016 to lead the NFL. That jump is possible for Spence.

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After overhauling his diet, Spence feels better and expects to be quicker in 2017. USATSI

Spence didn't want to pinpoint a number, or really talk about how he's being mentioned as a breakout star this season.

"I just have to keep working," Spence said. "I don't care what everybody else is saying."

But when I mentioned 15 sacks, he smiled.

"Sounds good," he said.

Tampa Bay went 9-7 last season and just missed out on the playoffs. With more help added on both sides of the ball, expectations are high. But if the defense is to take the next step, Spence has to become a game wrecker off the edge.

I say he does that, and the league's next big-time pass rusher will become a heck of a redemption story in the process.

"From what your worries are when you draft a guy with his background and see how he really is, you root for the kid," Koetter said. "We haven't had any issues with him. He's bought in. You always ask when you draft a guy like that if he's the right kind of kid. Now you go through a season with him and you realize he is that guy. We thought we got the best pass rusher in that draft, and we still think he has chance to be that guy."

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an... Full Bio

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