Position Group: Outside Linebacker
Players: Shaquil Barrett, Cam Gill, Anthony Nelson, Jason Pierre-Paul, Elijah Ponder, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka
2021 Evaluation: The Buccaneers' defense finished seventh in the NFL in sacks during the 2021 regular season with 47, and 23 of those were provided by the outside linebackers. Pro Bowl selection Shaq Barrett led with way with 10.0 sacks, hitting double digits for the second time his three seasons as a Buccaneer. Until a knee injury cost him the last two weeks of the regular season and clearly slowed him down in the playoffs, Barrett was once again one of the most productive edge rushers in the NFL and was especially hot down the stretch with a pressure rate of 14.8% from Week 11 on. He also forced three fumbles (and recovered two), which has been one of his calling cards since joining the Bucs in 2019; since then he leads the NFL in turnovers caused by pressure.
It was actually Jason Pierre-Paul who led the Bucs in sacks and made the Pro Bowl during the 2020 Super Bowl season, and the pairing of him with Barrett was expected to be one of the team's defensive strengths again in 2021. However, Pierre-Paul suffered a shoulder injury early on and, even though he gritted through it impressively for most of the season, clearly was not able to reach quite the same levels of dominance that have marked his career. He finished with 2.5 sacks.
Trying to make up the difference was a trio of young players. First-round rookie Joe Tryon had flashes of production amid an up-and-down season and ended up with 4.0 sacks. Anthony Nelson, a 2019 fourth-round pick, came on strong in his third season, particularly down the stretch with Pierre-Paul and then Barrett on the shelf, and finished with a career-best 5.0 sacks. Former undrafted free agent Cam Gill continued to play primarily on special teams but saw occasional opportunities on defense and came up with 1.5 sacks.
The Buccaneers' pass defense finished 21st in the NFL in yards allowed per game, in large part due to the high volume of passing plays they faced. Opponents threw 680 passes against Tampa Bay during the regular season, the most against any defense. Tampa Bay's rush defense, which finished third in the NFL despite a second-half swoon, had a lot to do with this, as did the need to keep up with Tom Brady and a high-scoring Bucs offense. More telling is the 5.97 yards the Bucs allowed per pass play, which ranked fourth in the NFL and was definitely impacted by the often stifling pass-rush led by Barrett and the outside linebackers.
2022 Outlook: Barrett signed a long-term deal prior to the 2021 season so the Buccaneers have their best pass-rusher and one of their best all-around defenders locked in for the next few seasons. Nelson and Tryon-Shoyinka, both players who seem to be in position to take on larger roles in 2022, are under contract as well, though Nelson is reaching the end of his original rookie deal. Tryon-Shoyinka will be counted on to take a big step forward in his second NFL season.
That will be more important if Pierre-Paul does not return. The Buccaneers originally got the former New York Giant in a 2018 offseason trade and he has subsequently re-signed to one and two-year deals in 2019 and 2020. That makes him a pending free agent once again and the Buccaneers are facing a long list of those in which they have to prioritize the most important contributors to try to retain. The Buccaneers could also target another young pass rusher early in the 2022 draft, perhaps in the first round, and continue a youth movement at that spot.