The Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded for edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul in the spring of 2018, bringing the former USF star back from New York to his college town. Pierre-Paul immediately rewarded his new team with a 12.5-sack season, becoming the first Buccaneer to hit double-digits in that category since Simeon Rice in 2005.
Pierre-Paul suffered a neck injury in an offseason car accident the following spring, but despite missing six games and taking some time to get back into the flow he still finished the 2019 campaign with 8.5 sacks. Last year, he played in all 20 games, including the playoffs, but had to carefully manage an aching knee, often practicing only once a week. Nevertheless, he led the team with 9.5 sacks in the regular season and had two more in the playoffs.
Needless to say, the Buccaneers have been happy with the results of that trade and have appreciated the production Pierre-Paul has managed to provide even when not at full strength. Of course, they would love to have the healthier 2018 version of their star pass-rusher, all things considered.
Pierre-Paul thinks he can do that one better.
"This is the healthiest I've felt," he said on Monday, with a wide grin. "I feel like JPP from 2010."
That would be the rookie version of JPP, the 15th-overall draft pick who had 4.5 sacks for the Giants while learning the ropes. He then exploded directly to first-team Associated Press All-Pro status the next season with 16.5 sacks for a team that would go on to win Super Bowl XLVI.
Pierre-Paul was the lone Pro Bowl selection on the Bucs' 2020 Super Bowl team, marking his first all-star selection since 2012. It's not exactly a late-career renaissance because Pierre-Paul has been steadily productive throughout his career, racking up 89.0 sacks and 159 quarterbach hits in 153 career games. He suffered a severe injury to his right hand in a fireworks accident in the summer of 2015 and played only eight games that season, but has put up at least 7.0 sacks in every season since.
It might become a career renaissance, however, if the work he has put in this offseason pays dividends. After getting surgery on his ailing knee – he says it was an arthroscopic procedure to deal with cartilage damage – he spent time expanding his pass-rushing toolbox. That's not exactly what one expects from a 12th-year veteran who clearly knows how to get to the passer already.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 1 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
"The knee feels good, man," said Pierre-Paul. "I think this is going to be one of my healthiest years ever. I'm excited. Wait until y'all see what I've got in store. I've got some extra moves. You're going to see even more. I'm just waiting to throw them out there."
Pierre-Paul insists that he has just this year come up with some new pass-rushing moves that he has never used before. It was the healthy knee that prompted him to expand his game even further.
"I trust myself," he said. "This is all about trusting yourself. I didn't trust myself last year. I've been through a lot with my knee. But I trust it now, I'm healthy and I'm ready to go. I'm just ready to go and pumped up. It feels good. I've been going extra hard."
Like Pierre-Paul, inside linebacker Lavonte David is a player who continues to perform at a very high level even when some might expect a dropoff more than a decade into his NFL career. But David can only shake his head with the idea of his pass-rushing teammate being even better now that he's fully healthy.
"Every day it's something new with JPP," said David of practicing behind Pierre-Paul. "You never know what he's got going on because his whole mind[set], the way he prepares himself, the way he trains himself throughout the week, it's somehting I've never seen before. I definitely trust that he's going to be the JPP that we all love to see. If he wasn't healthy all last year and the numbers that he put up, just imagine how he is when he is healthy."
Given the knee procedure, the subsequent recovery time and the work he put in to expand his game, Pierre-Paul chose to remain in Tampa through the offseason. It was an abbreviated offseason, of course, given the Bucs run to the Super Bowl, but obviously a very satisfying one. Now he's ready to feel the excitement again – and perhaps to play at a level he hasn't matched in a decade – as the Buccaneers move back into the NFL spotlight. Tampa Bay and Dallas kick off the 2021 season on Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium, which will feature a sold-out crowd.
"I think we're all excited," said Pierre-Paul. "Just to come back and get our stadium back with our fans. The fans are going to be excited. I'm ready to get them pumped up. We're pumped up and we're ready to go. We had crowd noise today, very loud, [and] we had to be extra loud with our calls. I think we're ready to go."