As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles works with a large group of position coaches and assistants, all of whom say the same thing about his greatest strength as a coach: He puts players in a position to succeed.
After close to three decades in a 4-3 defense, the Buccaneers will transition to a 3-4 base under Bowles, but in reality the scheme will have elements of both. The true shape of the defense will be determined by the talent on hand; it will be molded around that talent in order to make the most out of the players' strengths and minimize their weaknesses. It will be "multiple," it will be complex and most of all it will be aggressive.
How Anthony Nelson, the Buccaneers' fourth-round pick out of Iowa, will fit into that defense is still far from being determined. Bowles and company first have to determine what it is that Nelson does best. And if that happens to be a long list, then the rookie defender could end up with an enjoyably diverse role in the defense. He could be a stand-up outside linebacker, rushing the passer and occasionally dropping into coverage. He could slide a bit farther inside and put his hand on the ground. He might do both.
"It's open," said Nelson on Friday during the Buccaneers' rookie mini-camp. "They've said I'll probably be doing both of those things. But how much of each or what I end up doing primarily is going to be determined in the next couple months. Nothing's set. I've got to come out here and prove myself and then I'll find a fit. Whatever way I can help the defense is where I'm going to end up."
At 6-7 and 271 pounds, Nelson is nearly the exact same size as veteran Buc defender Carl Nassib, who is listed at 6-7, 275. Nassib is expected to be an outside linebacker in Bowles' defense. Another veteran lineman, Will Gholston, is listed at 6-6 and 281 pounds but is currently working to add weight to fit better as a 3-4 defensive end. Nelson could choose to – or be asked to – shift up or down the scale a bit if his role is going to be more like Nassib's or more like Gholston's. Again, however, he won't know that for some time. After all, he's had exactly one practice as a Buccaneer, and it wasn't alongside veterans like Nassib and Gholston.
"It's all up in the air," said Nelson. "I'm going to come in, learn the defense – I mean, that's priority number one, what I'm doing now. Once I do that, once they find a spot for me, then it will be easier to say, 'Go up weight, go down weight, stay the same.' Whatever they decide."
After using their first-round pick on do-everything linebacker Devin White and focusing entirely on a needy secondary on Day Two of the draft, the Bucs were thrilled to be able to land Nelson at the top of the fourth round. He's got well-developed pass-rushing skills, he's relentless, and most importantly he's been productive. He record 6.0 sacks and 8.0 tackles for loss for the Hawkeyes in 2016, upped that to 7.5 and 9.5 in 2017 and then topped himself again last year with 9.5 and 13.5. He expects his ascension to continue as the result of continued hard work.
"That's just the mindset we have at Iowa…just improving every year, said Nelson. "Every year I got stronger, every year I got faster, every year I improved my technique as a pass-rusher. Then just staying relentless in the pass-rush. It's not always clean, but a lot of those sacks come from just grit and staying with it."
Nelson mostly rushed off the left end for the Hawkeyes last year but in previous seasons he came from both sides. He doesn't expect to be constrained to one end or the other, and if he ends up as a rotational player than there's a good chance he'll get reps in both spots. He also doesn't think the adjustment from Iowa's defense to the one he's currently learning will be too demanding.
"The first thing [is] it's a 3-4 base defense," he said. "Iowa played a 4-3 but at the end of the day it's a lot of the same elements. A lot of the same techniques, a lot of the same position – just different ways of getting into it. So there will be adjustments with that, and then just terminology is going to be different. There may be some complex schemes, but other than that football's football. I'm just going to learn and do my best to be a part of the defense.
"I'm just trying to get ahold of the system. I need to understand the terminology, understand what I'm going to be doing on defense and come out here. I haven't played football since the Senior Bowl so it's been months. I've got to sharpen up, work on my skills, so right now that's just been the focus."
Next week, Nelson and his fellow rookies will finally take the field with their new veteran teammates, as the Buccaneers begin their three weeks of OTA practices. The Bucs won't have edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul on the field, and his eventual status could impact the size and shape of Nelson's role, as well. However, the Bucs should have most of their defensive pieces in place – more so when they hit mandatory mini-camp and then training camp – and that will allow Bowles and the coaches a chance to figure out who fits where. That process has just begun for Nelson.