As promising as first-round pick Joe Tryon looked in a brief offseason run of practices and the first week of training camp, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians didn't want to get to effusive in his praise for the rookie until the pads went on. It only took two practices in those pads for Arians to refine his assessment.
"Oh, more than [met expectations]," said Arians of Tryon's early work in drills that featured full-speed live contact with blockers. "He hasn't been in pads in, what, two years? He's whipping a lot of guys' asses. That says a lot about him. He's carving out a real, real nice role for himself."
As the Bucs wind down their second week of camp and a full week of something more closely resembling real football – especially in the trenches – the praise for Tryon has not slowed down. And that has everyone from Arians to Outside Linebackers Coach Larry Foote to the Bucs' incumbent edge rushers dreaming of a deeper and more effective pass-rushing rotation in 2021.
"Adding a guy like that, it keeps us fresh," said Jason Pierre-Paul, one of those incumbents and the team's sack leader in 2020 with 9.5. "The rotation is going to be good. Anthony Nelson, he's having a great training camp as well. They're picking up. That's the whole game of training camp throwing your brothers in and getting to know them and teach them what I know. I want to teach them what I know."
If Pierre-Paul is talking about a deeper rotation, you can bet it's got a chance to be a reality. The veteran defender is well known for rarely wanting to come off the field and his snap counts are usually among the highest in the league among outside linebackers and defensive ends. He led all the players on the Bucs' defensive front last year with an 89% snap share. It was only 52% in 2019 but that's because he missed roughly half of it with a neck injury. It was 89% in his first season with the Buccaneers in 2018 after a trade from the New York Giants and it was 92% in his last year in New York.
In addition, fellow starter Shaquil Barrett has played roughly 80% of the defensive snaps in his first two seasons as a Buccaneer, in the process racking up 27.5 sacks and another four in the 2020 postseason. He and Pierre-Paul combined for 2,252 defensive snaps last year; beyond that the only outside linebackers to see the field for Tampa Bay were Nelson (386 snaps) and undrafted rookie Cam Gill (35 snaps).
The team remains high on Nelson, a 2019 fourth-round pick out of Iowa, so he's likely to remain in that rotation. But if Tryon really does end up with a "nice, nice role," his snaps are going to have to come from somewhere. Theoretically, the Buccaneers could get more rest along the way to Barrett and Pierre-Paul – and even more attractive concept with the season now 17 games long – but still have dangerous edge rushers on the field at all times. Those two veterans could be more effective on a per-snap basis, and Tryon could keep the team from losing anything while they were on the sideline.
"Being able to stay fresh would help us a lot, with little to no dropoff at all," said Barrett. "That's like every coach's dream and every player's dream to know that if somebody goes down – which we hope never happens – the next guy will be ready to step up and do as good of a job. We can be out of the game and our position group will still be out there making plays. That's what we want. So whenever we're out of the game – you might be tired but it's good when you can be out of the game and we're still having sacks from our group and we're still getting TFLs, still having tackles."
Obviously, Tryon still has to prove that his training camp hype is warranted for this deeper rotation to become a reality, but he's got his veteran teammates more than convinced.
"Joe is going to be amazing," said Pierre-Paul. "He's doing stuff that I'm looking at and thinking, 'Man, I wish I would of knew that when I was a rookie.' He's doing amazing stuff out there. Me and [Barrett] were just talking about him on the sideline while watching him go at it with the tools. I told Shaq, 'He's going to be the difference-maker for us.'"
Barrett was going into his last season with the Broncos when Denver drafted North Carolina State edge rusher Bradley Chubb with the fifth-overall selection in 2018. Chubb already has 20.5 sacks in his first 34 NFL games so it's a promising comparison when Barrett is reminded of his former teammate when watching Tryon.
"He reminds me a lot of Chubb when Chubb came out," said Barrett. "I can see a lot of similarities in him. I think he's going to [have a] bright future. We just try to coach him up in the meeting room."
So are the veteran starters willing to ease back on the snaps a bit to give their rookie teammate room to shine. It sounds like it. Pierre-Paul, in particular, just gritted his way through a season in which he routinely sat out practices to manage a troublesome knee. He has since had a procedure on the knee and is feeling fully healthy, but he's also four months away from turning 33.
"In this game, as a veteran, you have to listen to your body," said Pierre-Paul. "I always want to do more and do more but I have to listen to my body as well. But I'm always going. If the coach is going to take me out, if I'm not feeling right, my body's not feeling right, I'm going to let him know. But other than that I'm always going and you have to listen to your body."
Barrett has been healthy throughout his career and had several years in Denver that didn't put a lot of wear and tear on his legs, making him a rather fresh 28-year-old. But he acknowledges that a deeper rotation would be good for everyone involved.
"It would help us a lot," said Barrett. "I think we have pretty good depth in our room and should be anchors of the team. I would love for my group to be anchors of the team. We've got to bring it home in the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter and fourth quarter. We've got a lot of guys that can get after the passer."
Of course, it's ultimately the coaches who decide who's on the field and when. And if Tryon is as good as his camp suggests he can be, he won't be spending long stretches on the sideline.
"We'd still like to see him in preseason but he's got some tools," said Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. "He's got a toolkit, he showed that in college. Love the build and the size; he's very intelligent. He's tough, he's smart. He just has to learn the scheme, and if you can play in this scheme we'll find a place for you."