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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

State of the Bucs: Outside Linebackers

Taking a position by position look at the Buccaneers heading into the 2021 season, continuing with outside linebackers.


Position Group: Outside linebackers

Players (as of Feb. 7): Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Anthony Nelson, Cam Gill, Quinton Bell

2020 Evaluation: The Buccaneers pass rush was formidable this season and the guys on the edge are a big reason for that. They took every opportunity the interior of their defensive line gave them, winning one-on-one matchups and getting to the quarterback at an aggressive pace. Tampa Bay finished the regular season with the second-most quarterback pressures per game with 10.9. The defense tied for fourth in the NFL when it came to getting home, registering 48.0 sacks in the regular season, which was the second-most in franchise history.

The two edge rushers that had the most impact on that were, of course, Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. Barrett ranked third in the NFC and seventh in NFL in quarterback pressures in the regular season with 40. He had 16 quarterback hits, which ranked third behind Will Gholston and Ndamukong Suh as we covered earlier this week. But where the interior may have them on hits, both Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul combined for 17.5 sacks and then another six in the postseason, giving them the edge in actually getting home. Against Green Bay in the NFC Championship, all five of the Bucs' takedowns of quarterback Aaron Rodgers came from either Barrett or Pierre-Paul and the five total sacks are tied for the most ever in a Buccaneers playoff game. To start the season, Pierre-Paul had a sack in five straight games going back to 2019, which is the third-longest streak in franchise history.

They also managed to help the Bucs to a No. 2 ranking in tackles for loss in 2020. Barrett had 11 and JPP had seven – leaving most of that work to the inside linebackers, rather. But in a year where Tampa Bay had 28 takeaways, continuing a hot streak since Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles took over, Barrett and JPP were helpful there, too. Pierre-Paul tied for second in the NFL in strip sacks with four, tied for third in forced fumbles with four, tied for the third-most fumble recoveries with three and had the second-most interceptions on the team with a career-high of two on the season. As an outside linebacker. He also ended up being the Bucs' lone Pro Bowl selection… on a defense that held the Kansas City Chiefs to nine points… in the Super Bowl. Yeah.

Barrett had two forced fumbles of his own and recovered a safety, too, proving that the edge rushers weren't just good for getting after opposing quarterbacks.

Pierre-Paul and Barrett dominate the stats because they simply hate coming off of the field, as much as the Bucs like to get a rotation of edge rushers in there to keep fresh legs. Barrett never played less than 68% of the defensive snaps in a game and played as many as 95%. Pierre-Paul never played less than 78% and played as many as 97%. But that doesn't mean there wasn't contributions from other outside linebackers, namely Anthony Nelson who was solidly in the rotation – especially when Barrett missed the last game of the season. Nelson played 96% of the defensive snaps against Atlanta a week after registering his first career sack in Detroit. Nelson nabbed his first career postseason sack in the Wild Card round in Washington, too. He was also a significant role player on special teams, averaging about a half of the teams special teams snaps throughout the course of 2020. Cam Gill was another that played primarily on special teams, playing in 12 games for the Buccaneers in the regular season. He was active for Super Bowl LV, where he ended up splitting his first career sack while playing 67% of special teams snaps. Not a bad way to end your rookie season.

2021 Outlook: Last offseason Pierre-Paul inked a two-year deal that has him still under contract for 2021. Nelson is still on his rookie deal after being drafted last year in the fourth round. Gill is on a three-year contract he inked as an undrafted free agent and Quinton Bell is signed through 2022.

That, of course, leaves Barrett. Now that the Bucs have locked up wide receiver Chris Godwin on the franchise tag, Barrett is the Bucs' next highest-profile free agent. He may be one of their biggest challenges to retain, too. Edge rushers routinely command the highest salaries on defense. Barrett played on the franchise tag this past year but is looking to get a long-term deal done. If they Bucs can do that and mitigate the cap hit, they could hang onto one of the league's leading sack artists since the beginning of 2019. It would complete the outside linebacker room and keep it completely intact from 2020.

Even if the Bucs do hang onto Barrett, it wouldn't preclude them from looking to bolster the position in the draft. Guys like Washington's Joe Tryon and Miami's Jaelen Phillips have been mocked to the Bucs recently at No. 32 overall. You simply cannot have too many pass rushers and the Bucs have set a high bar for getting after the quarterback in Bowles' aggressive defense. They are thin at outside linebacker no matter which way you slice it so it could be a major point of emphasis for the team as they head into the 2021 NFL Draft.

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