There is a lot that's new about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' outside linebacker position in 2019, including, technically, the position itself.
The Buccaneers' switch from the 4-3 alignment they've considered their base defense for about 30 years to Todd Bowles' 3-4 means some players have been reclassified. The front-seven assets have been divided into three groups: defensive linemen, outside linebackers and inside linebackers. Outside linebackers, made up largely of players the Bucs would have previously called defensive ends, would stand up on the edges of the line in the 3-4 base alignment and rush the passer, though they will have some coverage responsibilities as well. Some of those outside linebackers will also operate more like 4-3 ends in certain sub packages.
This group includes the returning players who provided the majority of the team's sacks and quarterback pressures last year, plus one highly-regarded veteran free agent, one potential draft steal and some intriguing undrafted rookies. It also includes one major question mark, as Jason Pierre-Paul – the team's sack leader in 2018 with 12.5 – recently suffered a neck injury in a car accident. His status for the upcoming season has not yet been determined.
Bowles favors aggression on defense, but that doesn't always mean extra blitzers. Some plays may look like a blitz but still only involve four defenders going after the quarterback, hopefully from directions the offense wasn't expecting. That would seem to indicate very creative roles for whomever is filling the OLB spots on any given play. Let's take a look at what the Bucs have to work with to get that creativity. As we've done with all the positions, we'll provide an overview of the assets at the position, discuss what some of the numbers from last season indicate about its strengths and weaknesses and then finish with one burning question for 2019.
We started this series on the offensive side of the ball and examined, in order, quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive tackles and interior linemen. This week has brought the switch to defense, beginning on Tuesday with defensive linemen and now moving on to: Outside Linebackers.
Addition(s): Shaq Barrett (unrestricted free agent), Kahzin Daniels (undrafted free agent), David Kenney (undrafted free agent), Anthony Nelson (fourth-round draft pick)
Returning Players: Demone Harris, Farrington Huguenin, Carl Nassib, Patrick O'Connor*, Jason Pierre-Paul, Noah Spence
(* Harris, Huguenin and O'Connor were on the practice squad at the end of the 2018 season.)
The listing of "none" by subtractions above is based a bit on how last year's defensive linemen are now being classified. We included 2018 defensive end Vinny Curry as a subtraction in our linemen edition; it's possible he would have been lumped in with the outside linebackers had he been retained. Curry is the only defensive end from last year's roster to no longer be with the team, though.
Pierre-Paul and Nassib were responsible for 19 of the team's 38 sacks last year, but obviously the former could miss time in 2019. That would be a big loss, as Pierre-Paul was the first Buccaneer to hit double digits in sacks in a season since the days of Simeon Rice. Nassib, meanwhile, was a revelation after getting picked off the waiver wires following his post-camp release by the Cleveland Browns.
If Pierre-Paul is able to play a good amount of the season, he would still have to hit the ground running after missing a bunch of preparation time, particularly since the Bucs are switching to a new scheme. Larry Foote, the Bucs' new outside linebackers coach, isn't worried about that with Pierre-Paul, who in fact was a very quick learner when he arrived last year via trade.
"Ten years in, he's not going to have a problem," said Foote. "We're going to ask him to do a lot of stuff, but he'll have no problem. He's a true vet, he's a pro. You watch him on film – he knows how to play the game. He'll have no problem picking it up."
Nassib's 6.5 sacks for the Bucs last year was one more than he'd had in his first two seasons in Cleveland combined. Kacy Rodgers is the Buccaneers' defensive line coach and thus isn't working with Nassib or the other OLBs throughout practice, but their drills do intersect and Rodgers also studied tape on the all the front-line defenders. He thinks a move towards the perimeter is what unlocked Nassib's pass-rushing potential. Now the Bucs will see what he can do as a stand-up rusher, at least on some snaps.
"When he came out of college he was a 3-4 4-technique end," said Rodgers. "Now you move him out to 6-technique in a 4-3 and it's like a whole different animal. It's a lot easier to move guys out than it is to move him in, so when you take a guy that's in and you move him out, good things usually happen."
The new defense may be an even bigger boon to Noah Spence, who was a forgotten man in last year's scheme, getting just 45 snaps on defense all season. Even though Spence was clearly a more direct fit in a 3-4 defense coming out in the 2016 draft, the Buccaneers believed they could get good production out of him as a designated pass-rusher, and indeed he had 5.5 sacks as a rookie.
Now he gets a fresh start as a standup rusher off the edge when the team is in base.
"I went back to study him early in his career; he's got juice, he can get after it. The slate is clean and I'm just trying to encourage him: 'It's your time, it's your time.' He's got a lot of potential. We will do more. We'll have a bigger package so he'll have more of an opportunity. They didn't do a lot of stuff [in 2018]. They were just pegged as 4-3 defensive ends. Spence is not really a true defensive end."
Shaq Barrett comes to the Bucs from a 3-4 defense in Denver, where he saw his playing time fluctuate over five seasons based on the team's overall talent level. His opportunity shrunk a bit last year after the Broncos landed Bradley Chubb in the first round, and he thought joining the Buccaneers could lead to more snaps and perhaps a starting job. Barrett had 14.0 sacks and 35 QB hits over the last four years.
The draft brought Iowa's Anthony Nelson, a very productive player at Iowa whom the Bucs were thrilled to land in the fourth round. Nelson is a relentless rusher with strength and reach and he shares some positive qualities with Nassib. After the draft, the Bucs landed undrafted edge rusher Kahzin Daniels, who put up good numbers at Charlotte despite being blind in his right eye. The Bucs also signed David Kenney, who had a very limited college career and has been out of football for several years, after he was very impressive as a tryout player in rookie mini-camp. The rest of the depth chart is currently made up of three players who ended last year on the team's practice squad: Demone Harris, Farrington Huguenin and Patrick O'Connor.
How many spots will all of those players be fighting for? The last time Bruce Arians was an NFL head coach, with Arizona in 2017, his opening-day roster included four players listed at the two OLB spots on the depth chart. That number almost surely isn't strict, as it's hard to imagine any NFL team willingly letting go of a talented pass-rusher, even if it means going over the target a bit. Still, it does suggest there will be some intense competition at this position in training camp.
Notable 2018 Numbers: As we noted in the Roster Reset on defensive linemen, the Buccaneers ranked 19th in both raw sacks and sacks per pass play in 2019. Tampa Bay's 93 quarterback hits were right about league average, tying for 15th-most.
Part of that was situational. The Buccaneers were more frequently down by large margins than up by a significant amount, and that affects how often a defense can simply pin its ears back and rush the passer. Tampa Bay's defense recorded 12 sacks when they were up in a game by seven or more points in 2018, as compared to 35 by the Bears and 34 by the Chiefs. Of course, the Buccaneers had only 3,652 player-snaps while up by that margin, almost exactly half as many as Chicago and about 45% of Kansas City's total. Closer games and more early leads would probably help the Bucs' pass-rush numbers in 2019 as much as any change in personnel.
The same effect can be seen in the Bucs' fourth-quarter sack numbers. Tampa Bay had seven sacks in the fourth quarter all season (amazingly, the Oakland Raiders had one), which is a third of what the Chiefs produced and was tied for 27th in the NFL.
Key Question: Who will provide the edge pressure if Jason Pierre-Paul is out for a significant period with his injury?
On one hand, the Buccaneers got 21.5 of their 38 sacks in 2019 from edge rushers. On the other hand, 12.5 of those belonged to Pierre-Paul, whose availability is in question, and 2.5 belonged to Curry, whose availability is now a factor in Philadelphia, not Tampa. After Nassib's 6.0 sacks, the rest of the group currently vying for OLB spots combined for 3.0 sacks in 2018, all of them produced by Barrett.
Not only did JPP lead the 2018 team in sacks, he also soaked up nearly 1,000 defensive snaps, as he was on the field for 89.1% of the Bucs' plays on that side of the ball. That's coming off a final season in New York in which he led all NFL defensive linemen in reps. Pierre-Paul's role likely would have changed in the Bucs' new defense, but he probably would have been just as hard to keep off the field as ever.
In other words, whatever amount of time Pierre-Paul ends up missing due to his neck injury, assuming he does, there will be some slack to pick up. Who will do it?
The Buccaneers would likely be thrilled if Nassib approximates his first season as a Buccaneer and gets into the six-10 sack range. But the defense will need more than that, and it will try to develop as many playmakers as possible to get them on the field at the same time.
"You play base about 35% of the time in this league and then you're really in a four-down front when you get to all the '11' personnel you see," said Rodgers. "But guys like Anthony [Nelson] are long – Carl, JPP – we want as much as length, speed and athleticism on the field as we can get. So those are the characteristics we're looking for in those guys."
Nelson and Spence are the two most obvious candidates to fill the sack void; Nelson is new to the team and Spence had no sacks last year. The latter has already shown he can rush the passer in the NFL and the new scheme will hopefully draw more production out of him.
"Just watching him run around on the field I see a guy that's kind of energized a little bit," said Rodgers. "[He's a] guy, based on our structure, especially in base, a guy that can play in a two-point stance. I remember when he came out he was a very explosive guy, especially out of a two-point stance, and our base defense will give him that opportunity to do some things. I'm interested to see how he takes to it."
Beyond those two, the Buccaneers will be hoping a less proven player steps up, and there are a lot of candidates for such an emergence. Daniels might be the most interesting one, given his size-speed combination and the seeming limitation that he has managed to overcome.
"That’s a credit to him and how he was brought up - and his perseverance and whoever mentored him," said Bowles. "It can’t be anything but a plus to help him in life and in football. He’s a good football player. Obviously, he’s aggressive up front. He can rush the passer. I look forward to getting him in and seeing what he can do."