There was only one pair of teammates in the NFL who combined to record at least 28.0 sacks in 2019. They were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, and they will be back in Tampa to chase quarterbacks together in 2020.
That's the single most important piece of information regarding the Buccaneers' outside linebacker position, which is the next one up in our six-week examination of where every corner of the team's depth chart stands after the draft and the bulk of free agency. It took a franchise tag and a new deal to keep Barrett and Pierre-Paul, respectively, in pewter and red, but that was one of the team's most pressing offseason priorities. If the Buccaneers were on the fence about that issue, that fence collapsed when Barrett and Pierre-Paul finished the 2019 season with a combined eight sacks in the last two games alone.
Can the Bucs get 25-plus sacks out of those two again in 2020? On the one hand, Barrett's 19.5-sack explosion was so radical – he had 14.0 sacks over the previous five seasons combined and no Buccaneer had ever had more than 16.5 before – that it seems foolish to expect him to reach that number again. On the other hand, Pierre-Paul missed the first six games of the season due to an offseason neck injury and was only hitting his stride in December. He has 21 sacks in 26 games as a Buccaneer, which strongly suggests he can jump up over double digits again. Perhaps the two will meet in the middle.
That's at least a reasonable expectation. The much murkier question is who else will be joining the Shaq-JPP quarterback pursuit. The Buccaneers have seven other players listed as outside linebackers on their current 2020 roster but none of them has even a single NFL sack. Last year, Barrett played in all 16 games and was on the field for 79% of the team's defensive snaps. Pierre-Paul played in the last 10 and was on the field for 83% of the defensive snaps in those contests. Pierre-Paul has always been a very high-volume player who doesn't want to leave the field, but the Buccaneers will still need some edge rushers to provide some relief. Last year, that was mostly Carl Nassib (656 snaps and six sacks), who is now a Las Vegas Raider.
As we noted on Monday, the Buccaneers could reasonably expect to get some more pressure from their interior linemen, a group they also were able to keep largely intact despite the call of free agency. Still, there's little doubt that the team would like to develop a few more dangerous edge rushers in order to keep the heat on opposing passers for four quarters and 16 games.
The Buccaneers have a couple extra spots on their 90-man roster in advance of training camp and still could make a veteran addition or two. Some positions needed more attention in the offseason than others after the 2019 season, but every spot on the depth chart has already seen some turnover. Today we move from the interior line out to the edges, where the Bucs produced most of their backfield pressure in 2019.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster as it currently stands.
Roster Review Schedule:
· Monday, May 18: Quarterbacks
· Wednesday, May 20: Running Backs
· Monday, May 25: Wide Receivers
· Wednesday, May 27: Tight Ends
· Monday, June 1: Offensive Tackles
· Wednesday, June 3: Guards & Centers
· Monday, June 8: Defensive Linemen
· Wednesday, June 10: Outside Linebackers
· Monday, June 15: Inside Linebackers
· Wednesday, June 17: Cornerbacks
· Monday, June 22: Safeties
· Wednesday, June 24: Specialists
At some point between the end of the 2019 season and the start of the new league calendar year in March, it became clear that the pursuit of legendary quarterback Tom Brady was more than just a pipe dream for the Buccaneers. At that point, it was fair to call landing Brady Plan A, Priority Number One, the Great Pursuit or something of that nature. What it really did was make the addition of Brady Plan 1A and the cementing of the defensive front seven Plan 1B.
"I think that was the number one goal for me coming out of last season to continue to build on defense," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "The only way to build is to keep everyone in place and grow. It's huge. They'll be so far ahead of our offense, if and when we get back out on the field. I think our offense will catch up pretty fast. We did some really nice things last year and we got better and better, especially those last six weeks of the season. I really liked the way we played against Houston [in Week 16]. If we were a playoff-caliber team, I think our defense played more than well enough for us to win that game."
The Buccaneers always had the franchise tag in hand to keep Barrett, who was perhaps the best value signing in all of free agency in 2019. Barrett had been a very useful rotational player in Denver's pass rush for five seasons but was often blocked by the likes of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. The Buccaneers bet that he could put up significant numbers of his own if given a bigger share of the snaps, and that bet hit like few others in team history.
After that, both the Buccaneers and Barrett were clear that they wanted to continue the relationship after his incredible breakout season, and the use of the tag was a pretty obvious move. The two sides can still negotiate on a long-term deal for Barrett, but if nothing is finalized by July 15 the only option will be for him to play on the tag's built-in one-year contract.
Pierre-Paul returned to his college roots when the Buccaneers acquired him in an offseason trade in 2018 and he promptly became the first Tampa Bay player since Simeon Rice in 2015 to post a double-digit sack season. An offseason car accident put his second season on hold but he was definitely an impact player upon his return. At 31, he's already overcome two major injuries and obviously still has the fire to produce at a high level; he's also one of the most outspoken emotional leaders on the field when he's in the game.
· Shaquil Barrett…Had franchise tag applied in March and can sign it for 2020 or work out a long-term deal; Led the NFL with 19.5 sacks, setting a new franchise single-season record
· Quinton Bell…Re-signed for 2020 after spending last eight games on practice squad; Originally a seventh-round draft pick by Raiders out of Prairie View A&M
· Kahzin Daniels…Contract signed in his return in November also covers 2020; Undrafted free agent out of Charleston saw action in two games after promotion to active roster
· Anthony Nelson…Entering second year of rookie contract after being selected in the fourth round of the 2019 draft; Limited by hamstring injury to nine games, eight tackles as a rookie
· Jason Pierre-Paul…Signed extension through 2021 season in March; Despite missing six games due to an offseason neck injury finished second on team with 8.5 sacks
· Carl Nassib…Signed with Las Vegas as an unrestricted free agent in March; Played in 14 games with eight starts and was third on the team with 6.0 sacks
· Michael Divinity…Signed as an undrafted rookie out of LSU; Recorded 104 tackles and nine sacks in 38 games for Tigers
· Cam Gill…Signed as an undrafted rookie out of Wagner College; Finished collegiate career with a conference-record 36.0 sacks
· Nasir Player…Signed as an undrafted rookie out of Middle Tennessee State; Registered 10 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks as a senior
· Chapelle Russell…First of two players drafted by Bucs in the seventh round in 2020; Played four seasons at Temple and recorded 237 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks
With Pierre-Paul sidelined to start the 2019 campaign, Nassib reprised his starting role from the second half of 2018, when he proved to be a very astute waiver claim from the Cleveland Browns. Nassib missed a few games to injury shortly after Pierre-Paul returned and was used as a reserve upon his return but was still a productive player. He was also selected as a team captain in 2019. The Buccaneers would have surely liked to have had him back but it's hard to be too upset with one loss in an offseason that saw the team retain Barrett, Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh.
The Buccaneers believed they got a steal with the 2019 fourth-round pick of Iowa edge rusher Anthony Nelson, but we'll have to wait to see if they were right. Nelson missed a long stretch of time with his hamstring injury and never really got a chance to figure in significantly in the offense. Interestingly, he has been described as a player in Nassib's ilk, so maybe the Buccaneers will be able to affect a simple one-for-one replacement.
Otherwise, the roster is full of rookies and first-year players who have not yet gotten their opportunities. Many of those are intriguing small-school prospects, from Kahzin Daniels (Charleston) to Quinton Bell (Prairie View A&M) to Cam Gill (Wagner) to Nasir Player (East Tennessee State). Few would expect all of those prospect to hit but if the Buccaneers can find one or two rotational players from the group the depth at the outside linebacker position would look a lot better.
There's also the outside possibility that the Buccaneers will add a veteran to the mix before the start of training camp. Arians mentioned in a recent videoconference that he and General Manager Jason Licht had purposely left several spots open on the 90-man camp roster in case they wanted to add an experienced veteran or two, figuring they could pick up the system without much practice time. If they target an edge rusher, some of the possibilities still on the market include Clay Matthews, Markus Golden and Terrell Suggs. Jadeveon Clowney remains the jewel of that market but might not be affordable for the cap-limited Buccaneers.
In addition to his league-leading 19.5 sacks, Barrett also tied for the NFL high with 37 quarterback hits while forcing six fumbles. He even intercepted a pass near the sideline in Los Angeles in Week Four, in one of the instances in which he dropped into coverage instead of going after the passer. Pierre-Paul memorably recorded a sack on his very first snap, in Tennessee, after returning from his neck injury. He recorded five more QB takedowns in the last two games, an indication that he was rounding back into top playing shape. The Bucs are counting on that being true from Week One on in 2020.
The Buccaneers' 47 sacks on the season were tied for seven with New England and Jacksonville, but because Tampa Bay's defense saw such a high number of passing plays (711), it only ranked 18th in sacks per pass attempt, at 7.08.% Outside linebackers Barrett, Pierre-Paul and Nassib accounted for 34 of the team's 47 sacks.
Good run defense on early downs and pressure on third downs helped Tampa Bay hold opposing offenses to a 34.40% conversion rate on third downs, which was the fifth-best mark in the league. The outside linebackers also got in on the turnover game, with three players noted above combining for nine forced fumbles.
Three Key Questions:
· Who else will be in the OLB rotation with Barrett and Pierre-Paul?
Last season, Carl Nassib was the only linebacker outside Barrett and Pierre-Paul who played more than 200 defensive snaps, as he had 656. Then-rookie Anthony Nelson logged 155, but most of those were early in the season before he suffered his persistent hamstring injury. Nelson would be the obvious choice to soak up the snaps left by the departed Nassib, and the team was excited to get him where they did in the '19 draft, but it's fair to say he's an unproven option. In contrast, Nassib had proven himself with 6.5 sacks in 2018. The Buccaneers have a long list of young potential edge rushers who haven't established themselves as NFL players yet, and it's certainly possible one of them could emerge as an option. The Buccaneers would probably like to go four deep at the position on most Sundays in order to keep the legs of their top guys fresh, though Pierre-Paul has a history of gobbling up as much playing time as he can get.
· Will improvements in a young secondary lead to more sack opportunities for the edge rushers?
The Buccaneers' extremely young secondary made great strides in terms of coverage in the second half of the season, particularly in the play of cornerbacks Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting. Over the last eight weeks of the campaign, the Buccaneers' defense led the NFL with 57 passes defensed, seven more than the team in second (New Orleans) and 13 more than the team in third (Pittsburgh). Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles said recently that his young defenders clearly grew into their roles physically over the season but they need to continue to do so mentally, that they need to graduate from knowing what their jobs are to understanding what opposing offenses are trying to do to them. If the Buccaneers' secondary as a whole can apply tighter coverage for longer, that would create some situations in which the quarterback holds onto the ball just long enough for an edge rusher to arrive.
· Just how much regression should we expect in Barrett's sack total?
No one expects Barrett to take a step back in his level of play; the franchise tag, which the Bucs have used relatively rarely, is an indication of the team's belief that he will remain one of the league's best pass-rushers. And Barrett will surely go into 2020 with the goal of duplicating or exceeding his league-leading sack total from last year, which is a worthy goal. Simply from a historical standpoint, though, it would be very aggressive optimism to believe he was going to approach 20 sacks again. After all, there have only been 22 instances of a player recording 19 or more sacks in a season since it became an official stat in 1982. Only three players – J.J. Watt, DeMarcus Ware and Mark Gastineau – have done it twice, and only Gastineau did it two years in a row. Hall of Famers Reggie White, Bruce Smith and Lawrence Taylor each did it just one time. Barrett took advantage of a big jump in playing time when he came to the Buccaneers, just as the team had hoped, and that definitely helps explain the spike in his sack numbers, but he also had a significantly higher rate of sacks per snaps played in 2019 than he had recorded in any other season. Perhaps that simply proves that he always had the ability to make a bigger per-snap impact if he was given more consistent playing time. Robert Quinn might be a good recent example; he jumped from 10.5 sacks in 2012 to 19.0 in 2013 and then in 2014 came back with another 10.5. Barrett should be considered a good bet to hit double digits again but he will probably need some good fortune in terms of QB hits becoming QB sacks in order to match his total from 2019. The Buccaneers would surely be pleased with anything from 10 on up.