Who is this guy?
Anthony Nelson provided the bookend on the University of Iowa defensive line, playing in all 39 of the Hawkeye’s games starting after his freshman redshirt season. The 6-7, 271-pound defensive end ranked second in the Big Ten for sacks during the 2018 season with 9.5 and had two sacks in the Hawkeyes’ appearance in the Pinstripe Bowl alone. He was also second on the team in tackles for loss, tallying a total of 13.5. Throughout his three-year Iowa career, he totaled 119 tackles, 31.0 for loss and 23 sacks along with six passes defensed and four forced fumbles.
He’s as impressive off the field as he is on it. He was named Academic All-Big Ten three consecutive years and earned Academic All-American honors his last two seasons. He was one of just four sophomores named to the Hawkeyes Leadership Group and one of five juniors selected for it the next year. He also won the team’s Hustle Award last season and was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week twice.
His roots in Iowa football go back to his father, who also played on the defensive line for the Hawkeyes. An Urbandale, Iowa native, Nelson was named Class 4A Defensive Player of the Year as a senior in high school and was a two-year starter at defensive end.
What are they saying about him?
Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht:
“With Anthony, we had him ranked pretty high on our board. We’ve liked him for a while. Big, six-foot-seven, 275-pound guy with long arms and all that stuff. I’ve seen the comparisons to Carl. No two players are exactly the same, so it’s unfair to do that, but he’s in his mold in terms of his body type. He plays very hard. He’s a good athlete. He bends very well. He had good speed-to-pass power. He’s got really good instincts. He’s a really smart guy and he’s been really well coached by Kirk Ferentz (sp?). One of the more productive guys in the draft. There’s some versatility to him. We’ll probably play him a little bit in the outside linebacker role, we’ll have him put a hand down in sub. We’ll see if he can rush inside. We’ll have plenty of 4-3 looks in our defense, it’s not just a base 3-4 all the time so we like the versatility and you have to be intelligent to do all those things with Todd [Bowles], so he fits that mold.”
“We know that he can rush the passer, we know that he can line up in a base 4-3. We think he’s certainly athletic to do some of the things we ask outside linebackers to do in a 3-4, so that’s the beauty of him. I think he’s got a lot of versatility like we keep saying.”
Defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers:
“People will go back and forth are you going to be a 4-3? Are you going to be a 3-4? You play base about 35 percent of the time in this league and then you’re really in a four-down front when you get to all of the 11-personnel you see. Guys like Anthony, who are long, Carl, JPP, we want as much length, speed and athleticism on the field as we can get. Those are the characteristics we’re looking for in those kind of guys.”
What can he do?
The first thing that jumps out to you about Nelson is, of course, his size. He’s 6-7 with long arms that he uses well to get leverage on offensive tackles. He even talked about that in a conference call with local media after he was drafted by the Bucs. He uses his length as a tool and he’s spent years now figuring out how to use it to his advantage.
His play recognition is the major thing that clues me in to his intelligence. He always knows where the ball is and seems to be looking at the bigger picture of what the offense is trying to do rather than just worrying about what’s in front of him. It’s probably why he’s batted down six passes from the defensive end position.
It’s also probably why he plays the run so well like you can see from those highlights in the tweet above. He can disengage pretty easily from his blocker and get to a running back trying to bounce outside quickly, preventing a big gain.
How can he fit in?
Nelson operated in a base 4-3 defense at Iowa where he was a true defensive end. He’ll have to adjust a little bit in the Bucs’ new defense but that would have had to happen anyway at the NFL level. NFL defenses are only in their base around a third of the time, depending who you ask. Sub packages, like the ever-present nickel package, will put four down linemen in a front that more closely resembles a 4-3 base defense. That will be where Nelson will look to fit in. He could fit easily as a rotational player sooner rather than later. The outside linebacker experience may be a little bit longer of a learning curve, but he gets to learn behind a guy like Carl Nassib, who Licht mentioned Nelson fits the mold of. Not only do the two look similar in size, they also seem to have similar IQs. Nelson has been touted as a very smart player himself and with his leadership experience can maybe step up in the future to be that kind of ‘quarterback’ of the front level.