Outside linebacker Shaq Barrett signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an unrestricted free agent in March after five years with the Denver Broncos, including a first season spent mostly on the practice squad. From 2015 through 2018, Barrett was a productive member of an often deep Broncos pass-rush rotation, averaging 3.5 sacks, six tackles for loss and nine quarterback pressures per season while only starting 15 games.
Before moving on to a second NFL team, Barrett saw his statistics drop across the board from the previous campaign. His sacks went from 4.0 to 3.0, his tackles from 36 to 28, his tackles for loss from seven to six and his QB hits from 12 to seven. So did the Buccaneers get a player on decline?
Far from it. In fact, Barrett's production in 2018, looked at in a different light, actually suggest it was his most efficient season yet.
The difference for Barrett last year was simply playing time. In 2017, he was on the field for 664 snaps, or 67.2% of the team's defensive plays. His share of playing time on special teams meanwhile, was the lowest in his four seasons of play, suggesting that the coaching staff considered him more important than ever on defense. Last year, Barrett logged just 275 snaps, or 25.5% of the total, in part because he missed three late-season games with a hip ailment. Meanwhile, his special teams activity spiked again, as that was apparently where the Broncos needed his efforts the most. The big change: Denver drafted edge rusher Bradley Chubb with the fifth-overall pick in the 2018 draft, and Chubb immediately soaked up 844 snaps on defense on his way to a 12-sack rookie campaign.
So, in less than 40% of the amount of snaps that he had been given the previous year, Barrett got pretty close to duplicating his production. What that told the Buccaneers is that there was a good chance Barrett's numbers would spike in their defense if he simply got to be on the field more often. And the possibility of getting that added time on the field was a major draw for Barrett in coming to Tampa.
That doesn't mean he's had to change his approach to the game, however.
"I always, no matter what [or] who was in front of me, whenever I get on the field, I’m ready to play," said Barrett on the second day of his first Buccaneer training camp. "I’m always ready to make an impact on the game and try to make an impact on the game."
As it turned out, Barrett's situation in 2019 is a complete reversal from the year before. His 2018 Broncos added a dynamic edge rusher who needed to be on the field. Meanwhile, his new Buccaneers team could be without its top pass rusher for a good chunk of the season. When Barrett signed with Tampa Bay in March, he joined an edge rotation that was led by Jason Pierre-Paul, the team's sack leader in 2018 with 12.5. Two months later, Pierre-Paul sustained a neck injury in a car accident which could keep him sidelined into October, at least.
So when Barrett talks about "doubters" he means the observers who wonder if Tampa Bay can consistently get pressure on the quarterback with a defensive front that is without its top threat off the edge. There are definitely intriguing options in that group – Barrett himself, Noah Spence, Carl Nassib, Anthony Nelson plus a couple of undrafted rookies with potential – but none that has ever had more than 6.5 sacks in a season.
"Our outside linebacker, group we [are] taking the challenge we [are] ready to show the people that believed in us that they believed in us for the right reason and to prove the doubters wrong. So, we’re just ready to make our impact on the team."
The Bucs will be sorting through that group over the next month to determine the most effective rotation and the players who should be on the field the most. Barrett definitely saw some first-team action at outside linebacker in the Bucs' base 3-4 defense in Friday's camp-opening practice. He was also the first player that Head Coach Bruce Arians mentioned on camp reporting day when asked about his comfort level with the team's edge-rushing talent in the absence of Pierre-Paul.
"I think Shaq Barrett is going to be outstanding," said Arians. "I think all those guys, Carl [Nassib], Noah [Spence] – he has flourished in what his role is now. I’m anxious to see him rush the passer in pads, because he was very effective in shorts. I think the interior guys are excellent blitzers. I think here in Tampa, you traditionally only think of a four-man line pass rush. That’s not who we are. It’s been here for a long time, but it’s not that way anymore."
Indeed, the Buccaneers have a radically new look on defense in 2019, and a lot to sort out on the edges of their front line before the start of the regular season. There is a good chance that Barrett will be a key part of that rotation, and if so he should see his snap count rebound to its 2017 levels or beyond. And that could produce very good results for the Buccaneers indeed.