The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected eight players in the 2019 NFL Draft, and six of them completed their entire four-year rookie contracts with the team. (As a first-round pick, Devin White had a fifth-year team option for 2023 on his deal, which was exercised.) Now that 2019 class is headed en masse to free agency, which presents the Buccaneers with some potentially difficult decisions in the weeks ahead.
Five of those six players were starters on the Bucs' defense for all or part of the 2022 season. The case for outside linebacker Anthony Nelson, a fourth-round pick in 2019, is a little different than the other four (White, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and Mike Edwards) in that eight of his 12 career starts came in the second half of last season after Pro Bowler Shaquil Barrett suffered a season-ending injury. At the end of the 2022 season, Head Coach Todd Bowles identified Nelson as one of the team's most improved players, which suggests that they may value him as a player on the rise. Still, his relative lack of playing time during his first four seasons, some of which was a function of injury in his rookie campaign, makes it a more difficult situation to evaluate than, say, that of Jamel Dean.
Those are the kinds of issues the Buccaneers' player personnel staff under General Manager Jason Licht will be mulling over between now and the start of free agency on March 15. The Buccaneers technically have 23 pending unrestricted free agents, though one of those, quarterback Tom Brady, has announced his retirement. That still leaves nearly two dozen players from the 2022 roster who will either be re-signed or looking for the next stop in their respective careers .
Roster turnover from season to season is a given in the NFL and it's certain that the Bucs won't be able to retain all of those potential free agents, but they will surely try to retain as much talent as possible, especially homegrown talent. And so, in the weeks leading up to the start of the new league year, we are going to look at 10 players who are currently poised to become unrestricted free agents in mid-March. This is the full schedule of our 2023 Free Agent Focus rundown:
February 15: WR Julio Jones
February 17: ILB Lavonte David
February 22: OLB Anthony Nelson
February 24: CB Jamel Dean
March 1: S Mike Edwards
March 3: DL Will Gholston
March 8: CB Sean Murphy-Bunting
March 10: DL Akiem Hicks
March 14: S Logan Ryan
March 15: OLB Carl Nassib
This list is subject to change based on potential roster moves in the coming weeks. However, we continue this week with a player who has already returned good value for a Day Three draft pick and could be on the ascension.
Player: Anthony Nelson
Position: Outside Linebacker/Edge Rusher
Age at the Start of the 2023 Season: 26
Experience: Entering fifth NFL season
How Acquired: Selected in the fourth round (107th overall) in the 2019 NFL Draft
Previous Contract(s): Played first four seasons on standard-length contract given to players drafted after the first round.
Rank in Pro Football Focus Top 100 NFL Free Agents for 2023: Not ranked.
2022 Performance: Nelson began the year as the third man in the team's edge rusher rotation behind Barrett and 2021 first-round pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. He played between 24 and 45% of the defensive snaps during the first seven games but saw his role increase significantly after Barrett went down with his Achilles tendon tear in Week Eight.
Nelson started eight of the last nine games and played 79% of the team's defensive snaps the rest of the way. That included a three-game stretch from Weeks 16-18 in which he was on the field for every single defensive play while rotational edge rusher Carl Nassib was out with an injury. Nelson finished the season tied for second on the team with 5.5 sacks while also recording 44 tackles, six quarterback hits and a team-leading three forced fumbles. Two of those forced fumbles came on critical strip-sacks in consecutive wins over Arizona and Carolina that allowed the Buccaneers to clinch the NFC South title.
Career Accomplishments: As a rookie, Nelson was hampered by a persistent hamstring injury and got into just nine games with one start, finishing the season without a sack. However, he has played in all 57 of the team's games over the last three campaigns, including the playoffs. He broke out at the end of the 2021 season after injuries sidelined Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul and ended up with 5.0 sacks, three of them in the last three games.
In all, the former Iowa standout has appeared in 59 games with 12 starts and has compiled 94 tackles, 11.05 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, 23 quarterback hits, three passes defensed, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He has added nine tackles, one sack and two quarterback hits in the playoffs.
Other Potential Free Agent Edge Rushers: Marcus Davenport (Saints), Yannick Ngakoue (Colts), Charles Omenihu (49ers), Samson Ebukam (49ers), Jadeveon Clowney (Browns), Brandon Graham (Eagles), Kyle Van Noy (Chargers), Arden Key (Jaguars), Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (Texans), Melvin Ingram (Dolphins), Justin Houston (Ravens), Lorenzo Carter (Falcons)
Top EDGE Prospects in 2023 NFL Draft: Will Anderson (Alabama), Tyree Wilson (Texas Tech), Myles Murphy (Clemson), Nolan Smith (Georgia), Lukas Van Ness (Iowa), Keion White (Georgia Tech), B.J. Ojulari (LSU), Will McDonald (Iowa State), Laiatu Latu (UCLA), Jared Verse (Florida State), Andre Carter (Army), Zach Harrison (Ohio State), Felix Anudike-Uzomah (Kansas State), Tuli Tuipulotu (USC)