In the spring, Jason Licht and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were rightfully lauded for keeping together a defensive front that could have been scattered like dandelion fluff by the free agency winds. (Licht and the Buccaneers also might have gotten a bit of applause for signing Tom Brady, too, but that's a different story.) NFL sack king Shaquil Barrett was retained via the franchise tag, veteran pass-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul got a multi-year extension and Ndamukong Suh, a rock in the middle of the league's best run defense, came back on a second straight one-year deal.
There were a few other defensive re-signings along the way – Andrew Adams, Kevin Minter, Rakeem Nunez-Roches – and based on the depth chart at the end of the 2019 season the Buccaneers didn't lose a single starter from a Todd Bowles-led defense that was among the league's best down the stretch.
However, the Buccaneers did lose one front-seven defender who played significant snaps in 2019, as outside linebacker Carl Nassib signed with the Las Vegas Raiders as an unrestricted free agent. Nassib was the starter opposite Barrett and then the third-man in after Pierre-Paul's return from a neck injury, and all told he played 656 snaps. No other outside linebacker besides those three played more than 155 snaps and over the last nine games that three-man rotation soaked up all but 65 of the possible OLB snaps.
Obviously, with so many other successful re-signings on defense and dramatic additions on offense, and with so much of the team's salary cap cushion siphoned off for those deals, any criticism of allowing Nassib to leave would be silly. Still, he's gone, and now the Buccaneers will be looking for a new third man in the Shaq/JPP merry-go-round. The favorite at this point is the man who did get those 155 OLB snaps last year as a rookie, 2019 fourth-round pick Anthony Nelson.
"So far we've got some big holes to fill as far as losing Carl through free agency, but Nelson is the guy," said Buccaneers Outside Linebackers Coach Larry Foote. "I've been putting a lot of pressure on him. We were very good last year in that room, definitely against the run, and we're going to need Nelson to pick up those shoes that Carl left. I'm looking forward to it. Hopefully he can stay healthy. I'm expecting big things from him."
Nelson did not record any sacks as a rookie, though he did force one fumble and defend a pass. That's largely because he did not have good injury fortune in 2019. A knee injury slowed him in August and he didn't play in a single preseason game, though he was active for Week One of the regular season. Then he ran into hamstring problems in the second half of the season, missing seven games before returning for 16 snaps in Week 17. Nelson never got to build up any momentum, but he still managed to show the coaching staff some glimpses of what he might be able to contribute.
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
"The MCL [injury] really slowed him down last year," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "Just like Devin [White], when you get one of those things, all of a sudden you're wearing a brace for the first time – you don't have your same quickness and speed. I think we loved his length, he was having a heck of a camp last year. He's right where he was last year and getting better. He has a better understanding – he's done a hell of a drop in his pass drops for an outside linebacker with how tall he is. He's just improving every single day."
Nelson is facing no such limitations at the moment. The Buccaneers held their first padded practice of 2020 on Monday after ramping up with some OTA-style sessions on Friday and Sunday. In just that short period of time, Nelson has already stood out, to the point that Arians brought him up without prompting on Monday and then said the former Iowa standout is, "having a heck of a camp."
It could be the start of a much larger role in 2020. Things already feel drastically different to Nelson than they did a year ago.
"It feels like night and day, really," he said. "I feel comfortable, I feel more at home. Still a lot to get better at, but you can see the strides, you can see the development and you can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel. You can see the strides you've made and you can see how you'll eventually get to where you want to be and keep working at it. That's just extra motivation for me. It's awesome to be in a room with JPP and Shaq [Barrett], too, and learn a lot from them. It's been good so far."
Nelson has actually been compared to Nassib, who had six sacks in 14 games last year after logging 6.5 in his first season as a Buccaneer. That's partly because they have very similar physical profiles. Nassib is 6-7 and 275; Nelson is also 6-7 and said he would play this season somewhere between 265 and 270 pounds. Both have a long wingspan that helps them get off blocks and both play with a motor that's always revving.
In fact, Nelson spent a lot of his rookie season studying Nassib's approach, hoping to mimic some of the veteran rusher's strengths.
"He's a really good player, really aggressive, really physical guy," said Nelson of Nassib. "He's got a lot of good moves, a lot of aggressive moves, and the way he uses his hands is really impressive. Just being another long, 6-7 guy, it was really nice to be able to see how he used his tools, how he used his long arms, how he used his feet to defeat blocks, get around blocks, get to the quarterback and make plays. I just want to replicate some of those things and then put my own personal toucho on that."
The Buccaneers allowed a league-low 73.8 yards per carry last year and while the Suh-Vita Vea combination in the middle had a lot to do with that the outside linebackers were also strong against the run. On the pass rush, Tampa Bay tied for seventh in the NFL with 47 sacks, of which 34 were provided by the Barrett/Pierre-Paul/Nassib trio. You only have to change a few letters to make that Barrett/Pierre-Paul/Nelson in 2020, and if the transition really does got that smoothly than Nelson will have helped the Bucs overcome their one big loss from 2019.
"That's going to be a big responsibility and one I'm looking forward to, for sure. It's a confidence-booster, but at the end of the day it's about performance. It's a performance league, a production league, so I'm going to have to take advantage of these three weeks and when it comes time for the season I need to produce.
"That is a big gap to fill. Carl was a great player for us and I know he's going to do well in Vegas this year. It's a lot of production to make up for and I'm looking forward to the challenge. At the end of the day I've just got to produce when it comes time for it."