The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, like every team in the NFL, will have about two weeks of full-speed workouts before they have to suit up for the regular season. That will obviously be a challenge for every player and coach, but it might be particularly difficult for the men in the trenches.
"I think [the issues are] both lines of scrimmage – the offensive line and defensive line not being able to work on pad level," said Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians on Tuesday. "We're going to have 14 days in pads; that is not a lot of time to get ready to play in a ballgame against really quality opponents, but we're going to have to get it done."
That reality complicates a couple of key issues facing the Buccaneers as they prepare to return to the field. By most accounts, Tampa Bay's 2020 depth chart is strong at most spots and absolutely loaded at some. If one is looking for potential concerns, however, there are two areas that appear to be top-heavy but lacking in experienced depth: edge rusher and interior offensive line.
At the former position, the Buccaneers could hardly be more set for the starting lineup. Outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett is the reigning NFL sack king and his counterpart, Jason Pierre-Paul was a pass-rushing monster down the stretch after returning from a neck injury. Those two combined for 28.0 sacks, more than any other pair of teammates in the NFL.
View photos of Bucs quarterbacks and rookies reporting to training camp.
Both Pierre-Paul and Barrett like to be on the field for as many snaps as possible, but the edge rush position is usually a rotation. Last year's primary third man in that rotation was Carl Nassib, who is now with the Oakland Raiders. Without him, the Buccaneers have seven other outside linebackers listed on their roster, and they have combined for 11 NFL games, one start and zero sacks. Three of them are undrafted rookies. None came into the league as a first or second-day draft pick.
Nevertheless, Arians thinks the Buccaneers have what they need to fill out the rotation alongside Barrett and Pierre-Paul. He's particularly eager to see what Anthony Nelson, a fourth-round draft pick out of Iowa a year ago, can do. Nelson was slowed for much of his rookie season with a significant hamstring injury. He is the leading candidate to step into Nassib's role.
"I'm very comfortable with the pass-rush," said Arians. "I think Anthony Nelson was slowed down a little bit last year with his knee, but he showed a lot of good stuff in practice and then when he was in the games, he was very solid. We've got some young kids I'm really anxious to see: Kazhin Daniels, Quinton Bell, some guys who have got a lot of speed off the edge – [Michael] Divinity, some of these young guys coming in. I'm anxious to get them out there and see what they can do. We need Lavonte [David] and Devin [White] to continue to grow as pass-rushers. I think that part of it is fine."
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 53-man roster.
Daniels was an undrafted free agent out of Charleston a year ago who got into two games but only saw a handful of snaps. Bell was a seventh-round pick of, coincidentally, the Raiders in 2019 whom the Bucs nabbed for their practice squad in November. Divinity, a standout on LSU's great defense, is an undrafted rookie along with Wagner's Cam Gill and East Tennessee State's Nasir Player. They'll all try to use the Bucs' abbreviated training camp to land on the active roster. However, Arians hints at another way to distribute some pass-rushing reps – use their starting inside linebackers.
David has shown the ability to get to the passer in the past, with 7.0 sacks in 2013 and another 5.0 in 2016. He has 22.5 sacks over eight years, which is quite good for an off-ball linebacker. Of course, those weren't necessarily edge-rushing snaps; David is a very good blitzer. White might be that, too, but Arians thinks he could also line up on the end of the line from time to time.
"Devin White, just continue to [grow]," said Arians. "Use his speed, maybe a counter move. I think he's working on some stuff for if we stick him out on the edge and let him come, he knows what he's doing."
On the other side of the trench, the Buccaneers have a promising starting five, including the presumptive right tackle, first-round draft pick Tristan Wirfs. There is depth at tackle, too, with former Colt Joe Haeg and one of last year's reserves, Josh Wells. Those two have 46 NFL starts between them. In contrast, the Buccaneers do not have much starting experience behind the interior-line trio of center Ryan Jensen and guards Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa.
The Buccaneers six reserve centers and guards have combined to play in 15 NFL games with two starts. Both of those starts belong to Anthony Fabiano, who saw a little action with Cleveland in 2016 and Indy in 2017. Fabiano spent the second half of last season on the Bucs' practice squad. The team's primary interior-line reserve from last year was veteran Earl Watford, who was not re-signed. Fabiano and Aaron Stinnie front a group that includes one undrafted free agent from last year (Zack Bailey) and three from this year (Zach Shackelford, John Molchon and Nick Leverett).
But, again, Arians has seen many of these players in action on the practice field and has reason to believe they can form the interior-line depth his team needs.
"Again, I'm anxious to see the guys that we're bringing in - Molchon Shackelford. Aaron Stinnie's a kid that really came on for us last year – I really liked him. [We're] working him as a snapper and a guard. We still have Ali, who could play center, Bailey, who was doing great until he broke his foot last year. He's a big strong kid. We've got some kids in there that I really like and am really anxious to see. Again, we need to get them in pads so they can do their thing."
That day is coming soon…and the start of the regular season will follow very soon after that. The Buccaneers have a lot to sort out at the edge rusher and interior offensive line positions, but at least they believe they have some promising candidates at both spots.