One of the most important depth pieces on any roster in the NFL is the No. 3 edge rusher spot. With the departure of Carl Nassib in free agency and the inexperience of second-year outside linebacker Anthony Nelson, it also happens to be one of the weakest spots on the Bucs roster heading into 2020.
Nelson was drafted for at least such a time as this, to replace the departed Nassib and provide the Bucs with 15-25 quality snaps a game at minimum, more if the oft-injured Jason Pierre-Paul gets hurt again. After playing just 152 snaps last season, Nelson is still a relative unknown, but I took what we know of him from college and what we saw in his brief NFL action to make a semi-educated guess on the type of contributor he can be moving forward.
I won’t revisit Nelson’s college tape, but he was a fourth round pick for a reason – the athleticism he showed at the NFL Scouting Combine simply didn’t show up in games enough. Nelson won with length, solid hand usage and effort more than he did the pass rush athleticism you’ve often heard me refer to (burst, speed, bend and change-of-direction).
Unfortunately, in the NFL physical traits are neutralized a lot easier than athletic ones, especially in the trenches. Nelson has now met his match in terms of length and strength, and his hands, while still showing a lot of variance in the moves he deploys, simply don’t have the suddenness or power behind them that can challenge NFL tackles.
Nelson is so long that his pass rush game should be built off the bull rush, but he doesn’t really have the burst or power to build off that move right now. Bull rushing rarely gets you all the way to the pocket, and right now Nelson doesn’t have any move to work to when the tackle drops anchor on him.
Those almost 35-inch arms are so enticing, but Nelson has to get stronger if he wants to hump move tackles, cross their face and use inside moves to get to the quarterback. He tries unsuccessfully to toss Panthers left tackle Daryl Williams on a counter move as the right defensive end up above.
As I mentioned before, Nelson has moves already, which is what makes his lack of pass rush impact so much more frustrating. He tries double swipes, cross chops, long arms, bull rushes, hump moves, etc., but even against lower level tackles, they haven’t gotten him anywhere so far.
Nelson lands the cross chop and gets Williams slightly off balance, but lacks the power to finish the rep and corner successfully. It’s a great move that is well-deployed here, but Nelson’s lack of power and bend show up as well.
Rushing as a 3-technique here, Nelson tries the double-swipe on Trai Turner and it doesn’t land. Good stuff from Turner who anticipates the move. I still like that Nelson is trying different moves, especially as an interior rusher, where he’ll need to pick up some long/late down reps this season.
Below is another interior pass rush rep, where Nelson attempts to hit a cross-chop into a rip move and work through the A-gap. You can see the stiffness and the lack of twitch in his movements, but his absurd length still gives him a chance to rake at the ball. Decent enough for a guy still learning to rush inside.
Nelson’s length expands his room for error so much, because even while he is still blocked, he has a chance to threaten the quarterback’s throwing space if he can lean through blocks just a little bit. In addition to getting stronger however, he’ll need to clean up his timing on some of these moves or he’ll just end up getting pushed by the pocket all the time.
Tries and fails to snatch the right tackle’s outside arm. No counter move and gets pushed up the arc.
Again, this pass rush combination is a terrific idea by Nelson. Long arm, cross chop, rip move. But no burst off the ball means no momentum behind the long arm, and missing the cross chop means the right tackle can comfortably catch his rip move and push him several yards past the pocket.
Nelson rushed the quarterback 85 times during his rookie year, per Pro Football Focus, and the results were not promising. Pro Football Reference credited him with zero pressures last season. That’s zero sacks, quarterback hits and hurries combined, albeit in a fairly small sample size.
Conceptually Nelson clearly knows how to rush the passer and even deployed an excellent variety of moves for a rookie, but he is so lacking in pass rush athleticism and power that it is going to be hard to rely on him for production if a starter goes down. Because Nelson is already so developed in terms of technique and pass rush plan, his only real shot at hitting on upside in year two is by getting stronger. His athletic traits aren’t likely to change much at this point in his career.
The Bucs roster is pretty loaded across the starting lineup on offense and defense, but the depth is lacking in several areas, and having a quality pass-rushing No. 3 edge defender is one of them. Nelson may be competent enough to hold up in the run game (he was fine there last season), but I have doubts about him providing adequate pass rush reps on long-and-late downs as a rotational or spot-starter edge defender. Tampa Bay doesn’t have a ton of money left to make moves, but they should be on the lookout for potential upgrades behind Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett in case an injury leaves them high and dry at an important position.