In my experience covering football, rookie offensive tackles face one of the toughest transitions to the NFL of any first-year player, largely due to the fact that opposing pass rushers are so much more formidable at the pro level. Whether it is the emphasis on pass rush in practices and offseason development, or that fact that more liberties can be taken with get-off and rush moves because of the pass-heavy nature of the NFL, college offensive tackles tend to have their hands full in one-on-one match-ups early in their career.
That’ll certainly be the case this season for Bucs’ rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs, who faces a brutal array of pass rushers during his first season in the NFL. Looking primarily at rushers who tend to align on the left side of the defense, Wirfs will face a handful of the best rushers in the league within the six weeks of his career – assuming he beats out the newly signed Joe Haeg and comes out of camp as the starter in New Orleans.
Week 1: Cam Jordan, New Orleans Saints
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Jordan, a five-time Pro Bowler, including the last three seasons, spends the vast majority of his snaps on the defensive left side, where he has abused rookie right tackles for years now. Last year’s biggest victim was the Falcons’ Kaleb McGary, who was shredded by Jordan in four-sack, 10-pressure game for the Saints defensive end.
Jordan has long been one of the league’s dominant defensive linemen, tallying three sacks against the Bucs last season en route to a career-high 15.5 sacks. While Jordan, who has 40.5 sacks combined over the last three years, offers a lot of unstoppable traits, his biggest strength is just that: his absurd raw power. He can bully offensive tackles into submission like few other edge rushers in the NFL.
The 16th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Burns split his rookie season between the right and left side of the defense, but will likely align a little more heavily over right tackles in year two, where he dominated in college. Burns collected 7.5 sacks as a rookie with two coming against Tampa Bay, including his first NFL sack in Week 2.
Burns is completely different type of pass rusher than Jordan, which will be an interesting test for Wirfs in back-to-back weeks. Where Jordan is almost all power and inside moves, Burns is almost exclusively speed and bend to win the edge as a pass rusher. His all-around rush game still needs to grow, but Wirfs’ athletic ability and footwork will be tested in Week 2. He can’t afford to be late out of his stance against Burns.
Week 3: Von Miller, Denver Broncos
The NFL’s 25th all-time leading sack artist, Miller is coming off his first non-double digit sack season in six years, recording eight QB captures in 2019. He was still a pressure machine off the edge, relying on one of the most well-rounded pass rush skill sets of any edge defender in the NFL. Miller still has elite speed and bend to win outside the tackle, but he’s also aware enough to hit inside moves if tackle’s overset to stop his burst up the arc.
It’ll be imperative for the Bucs to help Wirfs out on Miller, as the face of the Broncos’ franchise is primed for a career year with defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and outside linebacker Bradley Chubb in the fold for 2020. Wirfs, who will have to adjust to the mile high air in Denver stamina-wise, has the rare tools to hang with a freak like Miller, but his technique – and his conditioning – will be tested in a huge way in Week 3.
Week 4: Joey Bosa & Melvin Ingram, Los Angeles Chargers
Bosa and Ingram each split time between the right and left side, which means that Wirfs will get a healthy dose of both dynamic edge rushers in Week 4. Bosa is the better of the two, with arguably the best technique and plan of attack of any rusher in the NFL. The Ohio State product may not be quite as twitchy as his brother Nick, but Joey will long arm and cross chop Wirfs to death if he catches the rookie tackle’s hands lingering. He had 11 sacks last year.
Ingram, who had seven sacks a year ago, is more of a wild card rusher, working chops and spins to beat offensive linemen from various alignments. The Chargers will likely move him around, and they’ll really test Wirfs and Alex Cappa by running games with Bosa and Ingram both aligning on the defensive left. Communication between the two new teammates will need to be polished enough to stay on the same level and seamlessly pass off twists to keep Tom Brady clean.
Okay, this is getting ridiculous. Over the first five weeks of his career, Wirfs will face six former first-round picks, as well as four of my Tier 1 edge rushers in the entire NFL (Jordan, Miller, Bosa, Mack). That’s tough sledding for any tackle in the NFL, let alone a rookie coming off a ridiculously modified offseason.
Like Miller, Mack didn’t produce sacks (8.5) at his normal level last season, but he was every bit the pressure monster he typically is. You have to be ready for everything when you face Mack, but he pulls off that hump move to get back inside of tackles all the time. Wirfs was guilty of oversets at times in college; if he does that against Mack in Week 5, it could be a long day for the rookie.
Week 6: Preston Smith & Za’Darius Smith, Green Bay Packers
The good news is Wirfs doesn’t face a former first-round player in Week 6, the first time that will be true in his career. The bad news is that the Smith brothers combined for 25.5 sacks last season, including 12 from Preston, who spent a little more time on the defensive left side than Za’Darius did in 2019.
This was a career statistical outlier season for Preston Smith however, who is a good player that hasn’t sniffed dominance during his five campaigns in the NFL. Watch out for the long arm with Preston Smith, but his counter game isn’t as sudden as some of the guys Wirfs will face earlier in the season.
If the Bucs rookie faces Za’Darius, however, the Kentucky product has some of the most deadly hands in the league. The Packers don’t use him in one conventional role however, so one-on-one match-ups should be scarce.
Week 7: Maxx Crosby & Carl Nassib, Las Vegas Raiders
Crosby looked like a Day 3 steal after a solid rookie performance a year ago, yet he’ll seem like child’s play compared to the ridiculous slate of pass rushers that Wirfs will face in Weeks 1-6. Crosby, who had 10 sacks as a rookie, is more motor and hustle like new Raiders teammate Carl Nassib, a former Buccaneer from 2018-19, than consistently attacking with refined rush plans, but his hands are developing quickly based on his tape last season. Nassib had six sacks last year in Tampa Bay.
Wirfs will have the strength advantage here against Crosby and Nassib, which will help. But at times last year Wirfs’ tenacity wasn’t where it needed to be on every snap. That won’t work against Crosby, who is one of the most fanatical players in the NFL. Gotta be ready to fight all day against a guy like him.
Week 8: Markus Golden, New York Giants
The Giants put an unrestricted free agent tender on Golden this offseason, and when no other team made an offer on the fifth-year pro, his rights reverted back to New York. Coming off a 10-sack season, Golden is far from a slouch, but he also doesn’t offer the same amount of pass rush athleticism as his colleagues on this list.
Golden has good hands and plays incredibly hard. He’ll be a good test for Wirfs, but nothing like those ahead of him on this list.
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Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft