Two springs ago, Iowa edge rusher Anthony Nelson was awaiting a call during the 2019 NFL Draft. He didn't get one on either of the first two days but didn't have to wait long on Day Three as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected him with the fifth pick of the fourth round.
This spring, Nelson was among millions viewing the draft from the outside and, like all Buccaneers fans, he had to wait the entire evening to find out what his team was going to do in the opening round. As defending Super Bowl champions the Bucs had the last pick and didn't turn it in until right around midnight on that Thursday evening.
The selection was Washington edge rusher Joe Tryon. So that means Nelson waited until midnight to hear…bad news? Not in his mind. Nelson was actually happy about the pick and how it will make his position group stronger and deeper for their upcoming efforts to defend the Super Bowl title.
"It's the business of the NFL – there's always going to be competition," he said. "If you're scared of competition you're in the wrong business. Let's just say that. I was actually excited, just getting to meet him. He's a great guy. I'm excited to be able to work with him, practice with him and be able to play with him. You don't get here by shying away from competition. It's just something we're built to deal with. I'm excited. We're adding depth, we're getting the team better and we're trying to repeat – that's the main goal. So I was really excited to see that pick."
There are, of course, first-round picks that are legitimate bad news for certain players. Jimmy Garoppolo has to wonder how long he'll maintain his grip on the starting quarterback job in San Francisco after the 49ers took Trey Lance third overall. Halapoulivaati Vaitai probably isn't holding on to his right tackle job in Detroit after Penei Sewell came aboard with the seventh pick. And young Dolphins receiver Preston Williams should have a harder time seeing 35% of the offensive snaps, as he did his first two years, after the team drafted Jaylen Waddle sixth-overall to go with free agency acquisition Will Fuller.
But Nelson knows that there is still room for contributions from him, Tryon and the starting duo of Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul in the Buccaneers' edge rush rotation. He also has a coach who makes it clear that the players who produce will be on the field.
"The unique thing about being a pass rusher and outside linebacker is that there's not that much politics in it," said Outside Linebackers Coach Larry Foote. "If you can get after the passer, there's a spot for you. I'm excited to see those guys compete."
Nelson didn't get to play in the preseason as a rookie due to a training camp knee injury and he also spent most of the second half of that regular-season on the shelf due to a persistent hamstring strain. In between he got 155 snaps on defense, much of it coming early in the season while Pierre-Paul was out with a neck injury. Carl Nassib started in Pierre-Paul's absence and then became the third man in the edge rotation in the second half. When Nassib left via free agency after that season, it opened the door for Nelson to be the third man in, and indeed he saw action on 32% of the team's defensive snaps, staying healthy for all 16 games.
Pierre-Paul and Barrett still accounted for more than 2,200 snaps between them but Nelson was able to contribute 18 tackles, one sack, seven quarterback hits and a pass defensed. And beyond the numbers, when Foote went through the post-season evaluation process of his players after the Super Bowl he saw a young defender who made definite strides in his second season.
"He's getting better and better," said Foote. "In the offseason when you start breaking down the cut-ups and watching, you really see how guys develop, or if they get better or just stay the same. And he's getting better. The problem is, he's got two alpha males in front of him, so the snap count is limited for him, but I'm definitely pleased with his progress. He did a good job for us on special teams, but he is growing. He's another big, long guy that is a good athlete and he brings a lot to the table for us."
Nelson didn't get a preseason in Year Two, either – nobody did due to the pandemic – but he's seen enough playing time over 25 games in Todd Bowles' defense to begin to settle in. He'll get a preseason to show what he can do this summer but he's also using the offseason to hone his game, particularly in terms of footwork.
"Year Three, [I'm] a lot more comfortable, a lot more experienced," he said after participating in an OTA practice with mostly young players on Tuesday. "I touched on it a little earlier … just getting better in practice and knowing what things to look for and how to improve with every rep. I feel like I'm getting more out of every snap because I understand the defense better. As far as pass rush, like I said, it's getting your feet more efficient – not wasting steps, being more direct and then just studying the game. Studying what I did last year and studying what other guys had success with."
The Buccaneers ran with just four outside linebackers for the majority of the 2020 season but Foote has said he's hoping to convince the decision-makers to keep five in his room this season. The fourth man last year was undrafted rookie Cam Gill, who topped out at 35 defensive snaps, including the postseason. That would seem to make the available snap count to be split by Tryon and Nelson a little light, but the Buccaneers could choose to ease the load somewhat on Barrett and Pierre-Paul in the hopes of making them even more efficient as pass-rushers.
That's not something that Nelson can control, other than by performing at a level that forces the coaches to put him on the field more often. As long as the end result is the same as last season, he's not going to be counting snaps anyway.
"I don't like to put a ceiling on myself," he said. "Really I'm just trying to work and do the best for this team. Winning the Super Bowl was unbelievable. Whatever it takes to get another one of those is what I'm signing up to do. I'm just going to grade myself, no matter how many snaps I get, on how well the snaps go and the production will be what it is."