Strictly from a numbers standpoint, outside linebacker is not a terribly deep position on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp roster. The Buccaneers are currently running with seven outside linebackers as compared to say, 12 defensive linemen or nine cornerbacks or 13 wide receivers. And when the regular season arrives that group could be pared down to as few as four players, which is how many the Buccaneers carried for the majority of the 2020 campaign.
But make no mistake: The Buccaneers are as deep as they need to be at outside linebacker in 2021 thanks to two of the biggest moves the team has made this offseason.
The first move, and the one over which the Bucs had less control, was to re-sign Shaquil Barrett to a long-term deal after he played 2020 on the franchise tag. Barrett certainly could have chased even more dollars everywhere after the Bucs used their 2021 tag on Chris Godwin instead, but he stayed in Tampa with both the big contract he'd always wanted and a leading role in a Super Bowl title defense.
The Buccaneers had a bit more control about six weeks later when the 2021 NFL Draft rolled around. They couldn't guarantee that their eventual first-round pick, Washington's Joe Tryon, would still be on the board at the 32nd pick, but they could make a point of targeting a specific position with both 2021 and the future in mind. Tryon gives the Bucs' outside linebacker group a bolt of youth and potential to develop behind seasoned starters Barrett and Pierre-Paul.
"Well, he definitely passes the eye test," said Outside Linebackers Coach Larry Foote of the rookie pass rusher. "He's got all the height, weight measurements. Just watching him on film the guy is 6'5, he can bend, he can move. He's got a great motor, plays with high energy and just his DNA jumps off the tape. Loved the way he plays and he's going to fit in with what we're trying to build here [with] his mentality. He should have no problem fitting in. Just looking at his size, you can do a lot with him. He's agile, so [Defensive Coordinator] Todd Bowles is in the kitchen right now cooking up some stuff for him."
Tryon, who sat out the team's rookie mini-camp and OTA practices after having a minor scope on his knee, did get on the field for last week's mini-camp. That three-day run of practices was the end of the Bucs' abbreviated offseason program, however, and now players and coaches are enjoying their last five weeks before the start of training camp in July. The 90-man camp roster is essentially set, even if it could get a minor tweak or two before camp, and that makes this is a good time to do a position-by-position review of the Bucs' depth chart heading into camp. As we reach the halfway point of that exercise we get to the men who apply most of the pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Below is a full schedule of all the positional reviews, including the ones already completed:
- Tuesday, May 25: Quarterbacks
- Friday, May 28: Running Backs
- Tuesday, June 1: Wide Receivers
- Friday, June 4: Tight Ends
- Tuesday, June 8: Offensive Tackles
- Friday, June 11: Guards & Centers
- Tuesday, June 15: Defensive Linemen
- Friday, June 18: Outside Linebackers
- Tuesday, June 22: Inside Linebackers
- Friday, June 25: Cornerbacks
- Tuesday, June 29: Safeties
- Friday, July 2: Specialists
If the Buccaneers do choose to slim down to four outside linebackers on the active roster to start the 2021 season, there's a fairly obvious leading foursome in Barrett, Pierre-Paul, Tryon and third-year man Anthony Nelson. After an injury-dampened rookie season, Nelson was the third man in the OLB rotation for almost all of 2020 and he collected his first NFL sack in December followed by another one in the playoffs. Tryon isn't expected to unseat Barrett or Pierre-Paul as a starter in his rookie season but it will definitely be interesting to see who gets the larger share of the remaining snaps between him and Nelson.
"It's going to be competitive," said Bowles. "If you're in the NFL there's going to be a draft pick probably every year at your position, or a free agent or a high-priced free agent or somebody coming in. That's part of the business right there. We have a job to do and if you go out and do your job, like Nelson always does…he's a tough player. He's playing behind two great players but he's a tough player and he has a first-round pick coming in. But once you come in, the first-round pick and the free agents are out the window; it's what you do on the field. We know Nelson competes, we know he plays good football and I'm looking forward to seeing him."
Barrett and Pierre-Paul don't typically come off the field much; last season, the former played 84% of the Bucs' defensive snaps and the latter played 88%. That said, those numbers could come down a bit in search of more efficiency if both Tryon and Nelson prove capable of soaking up a decent amount of reps without a drop-off in production. Nelson, who was limited by injury in his rookie offseason and got no offseason at all in the 2020 COVID season, believes he's ready to produce more in his third NFL campaign.
"Year Three, [I'm] a lot more comfortable, a lot more experienced," said the former Iowa standout. "I feel like I'm getting more out of every snap because I understand the defense better. As far as pass rush, like I said, it's getting your feet more efficient – not wasting steps, being more direct and then just studying the game. [I'm] studying what I did last year and studying what other guys had success with."
- Shaquil Barrett…Signed a new four-year contract with the Buccaneers on March 17 after playing the 2020 season on the franchise tag; Recorded 57 tackles, 8.0 sacks, 16 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles during the 2020 regular season and added a team-high four sacks and eight QB hits in the playoffs.
- Quinton Bell…Signed a new one-year deal with the Buccaneers on February 10 after finishing the season on the practice squad; Made the 53-man roster to start the season and played in the first five games before moving to the practice squad.
- Cam Gill…Signed a three-year contract as an undrafted free agent in May of 2020; Made the active roster as a rookie and played in 12 games, recording three tackles on defense and two on special teams before recording his first career sack in Super Bowl LV.
- Anthony Nelson…Entering the third year of his original rookie contract as a fourth-round draft pick in 2019; Played in all 20 games of 2020, including the playoffs, with one start and contributed 17 tackles and one sack in the regular season plus three stops and another sack in the postseason.
- Jason Pierre-Paul…Entering the second season of the two-year deal he signed in March of 2020; Led the team during the regular season with 9.5 sacks and added 55 tackles, 14 QB hits, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries during the regular season followed 13 tackles and 2.0 sacks in the playoffs.
- Ladarius Hamilton…Claimed off waivers from the Dallas Cowboys on May 6; Signed with Dallas in May of 2020 as an undrafted free agent out of North Texas and spent all of last season on the Cowboys' practice squad.
- Joe Tryon…Selected with the 32nd and final pick of the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft out of the University of Washington; Opted out of the 2020 NCAA season but had 8.0 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore in 2019.
Tampa Bay actually started the 2020 season with five outside linebackers on the 53-man roster because both first-year man Quinton Bell and undrafted rookie Cam Gill made the cut. Both seemed to fit the ball of small-school developmental project – Bell was a late-round draft pick by the Raiders out of Prairie View A&M in 2019 and the Bucs found Gill at Wagner College in Staten Island – and the Bucs remain intrigued by both. In the hopes of continuing that development, Foote has already started lobbying for the team to go five-deep in his room in 2021.
Bell played in the first five games of last season but Gill passed him after that and Bell was moved to the practice squad. Gill still only saw very sparse time on defense but did combine with Ndamukong on a sack in Super Bowl LV, the first of Gill's career.
"In my room I'm loaded," said Foote. "I'm a blessed coach in that room because we have a lot of talented guys in there. Cam will be just fine. He just has to play. The unique thing about being a pass rusher and outside linebacker is that there's not that much politics in it. If you can get after the passer, there's a spot for you. He's going to make it very hard for them to get rid of him. He did well on special teams, but that's why we have training camp. Thank God we're going to have preseason games and the cream always rises to the top. I like his mentality. I'm excited to see those guys compete."
Finally, the Buccaneers did add one more man to the group while losing none from what they had at the end of 2020. The 6-3, 260-pound Hamilton played his college ball at North Texas and then made a small move, geographically, to get his foot in the door with the Cowboys last spring. After a full season on the Dallas practice squad he was waived in May after the Cowboys loaded up on new defenders during and after the draft. The Buccaneers moved quickly to scoop Hamilton up.
The relentless pressure that Buccaneer defenders put on opposing quarterbacks was one of the biggest stories of the playoffs, and in particular the Super Bowl. But Bowles' defense spent the entire season causing disruption in the backfield. Tampa Bay tied for fourth in the NFL with 48 sacks overall and ranked seventh in sacks per pass play.
The outside linebackers were not responsible for all of that, of course, as blitzing off-ball linebacker Devin White contributed 9.0 sacks and the down linemen were good for 13.0 sacks as a group. Still, Pierre-Paul led the team in that category with 9.5 and Barrett wasn't far behind at 8.0. The outside linebackers also did a good job on the edges against the run for the NFL's top-ranked rush defense.
Barrett and Pierre-Paul also contributed heavily to the team's takeaway totals, with the two combining for six forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries and Pierre-Paul adding a pair of interceptions. Barrett, Pierre-Paul and Nelson also combined for 37 quarterback hits and Barrett finished third in the NFL with 59 quarterback pressures, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
In the playoffs, Barrett, Pierre-Paul and Nelson combined to produce seven of the Bucs' 10 sacks, led by Barrett's three-sack outing in the NFC Championship in Green Bay. Barrett's fourth sack came in Super Bowl LV as part of an incredible performance that saw him generate eight pressures on Patrick Mahomes. Barrett didn't come particularly close to matching his NFL-leading and team-record 19.5 sacks from the 2019 season but he was a dominant force when it matter after he hit his stride in 2020.
"I think early in the year he was frustrated because he wasn't getting a lot of sacks, but you have to understand he was getting chipped," said Foote. "We had a lot of max [protection] – two-man and three-man routes. He has to figure out ways to stay after it. Sometimes pass rushers they get frustrated when the running back is over there chipping them or coming through and they're double teaming them. But they have to stay active, and he definitely played his better ball later in season and the playoffs than he did early. I'm quite sure the pandemic, while I would like to believe that might have played a part in it – he's making that big money now, so big money means big expectations. So he better bring it."
Three Key Questions:
· Will the Buccaneers keep more outside linebackers on the 53-man roster in 2021 and utilize a deeper rotation?
As noted above, the Bucs started the 2020 season with five outside linebackers on the roster but trimmed it down to four for most of the campaign, plus the playoffs. That was plenty given the number of snaps that the two starters soaked up, with Nelson taking almost all of the leftovers. The fourth man in the rotation, Gill, only had 35 defensive snaps by season's end, including the playoffs.
Can Barrett and Pierre-Paul continue to put in so much work, week after week, particularly with the schedule expanding to 17 games? And furthermore, is that what the Bucs really want? Barrett is 28 and wasn't a full-time starter before arriving in Tampa in 2019 so he's not likely to need more time off in 2021. Pierre-Paul is four years older but knows how to manage his body during a long season and currently looks as spry as ever, according to Head Coach Bruce Arians.
"Like he is 25," said Arians after one of last week's practices. "He looks really good and he's having a lot of fun out there also."
But the Buccaneers didn't draft Tryon in the first round in order to put him on the shelf for a season or two. If he looks like he can make an early impact and if Nelson does indeed take a significant step forward in his third season, the Bucs will probably try to get those two on the field enough to eat into the snap counts of the two starters a bit more than last year. The result could be a deeper rotation that can maintain top speed deeper into games. And if Gill or Bell (or both) also look more advanced than a year ago the team could go back to a five-man group on the active roster.
And, of course, that rotation could get more work as a group if one or more of them can show some versatility along the line. Pierre-Paul has taken snaps from the interior-line spots before and the Bucs thought Tryon could do the same when they drafted him. The rookie will definitely start out as an edge rusher but could see his role expand as time goes on.
"He'll line up outside first and as he gets into camp and gets in shape and everything we'll see what else he can do and we'll kind of take it from there," said Bowles.
· Can Shaq Barrett deliver on his lofty goals for 2021?
Barrett came to Tampa as a free agent two years ago on the proverbial "prove it" contract. He wanted a chance to start and show what he was capable of doing in a larger role after his playing time waxed and waned across four seasons in Denver. He had to take a one-year deal to get that shot, but he made the most of it – to put things mildly – with his 19.5-sack Pro Bowl explosion in 2019. He then played last year on the franchise tag before finally getting the more stable deal he had been hunting.
Now he is driven to prove that the Bucs made a wise choice with that long-term contract. He has set rather lofty goals for himself in 2021, up to and including Defensive Player of the Year honors. He clearly wants to return to double-digit sack totals after just missing last year and thinks he can do so by more consistently turning sack opportunities into actual sacks.
"There's just a mentality of wanting to do whatever you can to help the team win and put your team in position to win games," he said. "All of those combinations just lead up to being able to get after the passer. I do agree my sack numbers were down. My pressure rate was good but I think pressure only matters if you're getting sacks so I'm trying to get the sack numbers back up."
Barrett set the bar so high in 2019, demolishing Warren Sapp's old team record by a full three sacks, that it seems hard to imagine him getting to that number again in his third Buccaneer season. Don't tell that to Barrett, however, who definitely believes that mark is in reach. The key, he says, is more consistent play from game to game.
· Will the Buccaneers challenge their own team record for sacks in a single season?
Not only did the Bucs rank among the league's top five teams in sacks last year with 48 but they quietly put together the second-highest single-season total in franchise history. The only squad with more sacks in a season was the 2000 group with 55, led by 16.5 from Sapp and 13.0 from Marcus Jones.
The 2021 team seems primed to make a run at that 2000 crew. They have a very aggressive defensive play-caller in Bowles, who is never afraid to dial up a blitz. When back-seven defenders like Antoine Winfield, Jr. (3.0 sacks), Jordan Whitehead (2.0) and Lavonte David (1.5) get into the act it provides a boost to the sack totals being generated by the front line. That doesn't even include White, who might be more than just an occasional blitzer at this point.
It also doesn't hurt that the NFL becomes more and more pass-heavy ever season, which obviously provides more pass-rush opportunities, which potentially leads to more sacks. The average team threw about 306 passes in 2000; that number was close to 368 last year. Interestingly, the average sack total per team was higher in 2000, at 39.7, than last year, at 35.5. This may suggest that there is a lot more quick passing in the NFL now than there was two decades ago, which could mute the point above. However, again, there will be a 17th game in 2021, which will put a lot of team records in jeopardy across the league.
The Bucs need eight more sacks on top of last year's total to break their record in 2021. That could possibly be provided by the team's first-round draft pick. That may be a bit much to ask before we know how much playing time the rookie is going to get, but he certainly made a good first impression in the Bucs' mini-camp.
"I thought he got around the quarterback pretty good and he's just going to continue to get better and better as Todd finds roles for him in the defense," said Arians. "He's full-speed now and he looked really, really good. He's obviously everything we thought he was. Obviously we'll learn more in pads. But he's slippery in shorts and a lot of guys aren't. He showed some really good skillset."