FAB 3. Bucs’ Critical Camp Questions: Defense
We are 12 questions into this year’s Bucs’ Critical Camp Questions and now it’s time to ask – and answer – six questions about Tampa Bay’s defense. Then we’ll do the same for the special teams in Fab 4.
13. Who Will Replace Nassib As The No. 3 Outside Linebacker?
Anthony Nelson is the next in line after starting outside linebackers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett, but don’t count me as being sold on him. PewterReport.com’s Jon Ledyard did an analysis of Nelson’s abbreviated play during an injury-riddled rookie season and didn’t come away impressed.
Nelson looks like Carl Nassib in that he’s similarly built at 6-foot-7, 271 pounds, but doesn’t have Nassib’s experience nor does he have his sack production. Nassib had 12.5 sacks over the past two years in addition to numerous pressures. Nelson posted just eight tackles, one forced fumble and one pass defensed in limited action last year. Yet he was the team’s fourth-round draft pick and has the upper hand in a battle over holdovers Quinton Bell and Kahzin Daniels.
It’s a scary thought thinking about the Bucs’ pass rush if an injury happens to Pierre-Paul or Barrett, as Tampa Bay doesn’t have another outside linebacker with any NFL sacks.
“I’m very comfortable with the pass-rush,” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said. “I think Anthony Nelson was slowed down a little bit last year with his knee, but he showed a lot of good stuff in practice and then when he was in the games, he was very solid. “We’ve got some young kids I’m really anxious to see. Kazhin Daniels, Quinton Bell, some guys who got a lot of speed off the edge – [Michael] Divinity, some of these young guys coming in. I’m anxious to get them out there and see what they can do. We need Lavonte [David] and Devin [White] to continue to grow as pass-rushers. I think that part of it is fine.”
14. Is Evans Done As A Buccaneer?
Yes, free safety Justin Evans won’t make the 53-man roster. Tampa Bay’s second-round pick in 2017 hasn’t played since November of 2018 due to toe and foot injuries. Evans missed all of last year after getting surgery on both of his heels. It was the third straight year Evans saw his season end on injured reserve.
Evans is a talented player when healthy, but the Bucs have serious doubts as to whether he will be able to see the field again, which is one of the reasons why Tampa Bay spent a second-round pick on free safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. in April.
“Justin will probably be on PUP (physically unable to perform),” Arians said. “We’ll see how the right foot reacts. He doesn’t have a lot of time, but he needs to get out there. He’s the only one right now that I think will be on PUP.”
The Bucs did place Evans on the PUP list to start training camp, but it’s doubtful that Tampa Bay will put him on injured reserve again. Instead, the Bucs will move on from him unless he gets back on the field quickly and shakes off the rust in a timely fashion.
15. Is This The Year Vea Really Breaks Out?
Yes. Tampa Bay nose tackle Vita Vea is entering his third year in the league after being the team’s first-round pick in 2018. The 6-foot-4, 347-pound Vea has yet to emerge as a pass rushing threat, totaling 2.5 sacks last year after notching three as a rookie. Vea does push the pocket well from the interior, which helps his teammates get the quarterback on the ground, but he’s capable of posting a few more sacks.
Yet Vea’s main value was as a vital cog in Tampa Bay’s No. 1-ranked run defense. He showed he was capable of taking games over at time with his power and suddenness. Vea should be able to produce more sacks in his second year in Todd Bowles’ 3-4 scheme if he works on his ability to redirect and improves his change of direction laterally in training camp. The guess here is that he finishes with five sacks in 2020 and gets Pro Bowl consideration due to Tampa Bay’s five prime time television games that will get Vea plenty of exposure.
“He’s still a raw talent and has a lot to learn, but Vita is a beast,” said Bucs defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches. “Once he realizes how big he is and that nobody can stop him – sometimes when you are young you don’t realize that you can dominate at this level. Once he realizes that, look out. It’s going to be a night and day difference.
“Without question he can be a Pro Bowler – without a doubt. But he has to want to do it. It can’t just be a game here or there. It has to be the whole season. If he decides he wants to dominate he could get 10 sacks – easy. And that’s at the nose position.”
16. What Are The Strengths And Weaknesses On Defense?
Tampa Bay’s strength on defense is its linebacker corps. No team, especially one that runs a 3-4 scheme, has the talent that the Bucs have at the linebacker position. Inside linebacker Lavonte David is one of the best – and most underappreciated – playmakers and tacklers in the NFL. Fellow inside linebacker Devin White, the No. 5 overall pick in the draft last year, is an emerging star and finished his rookie season with four fumble recoveries, including two for touchdowns, in addition to 2.5 sacks and an interception. Both David and White have rare sideline-to-sideline speed and are good blitzers.
As good as Tampa Bay’s inside linebackers are, the team’s outside linebackers, Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, are just as deadly. Barrett led the NFL with 19.5 sacks, which set a new Bucs record, while Pierre-Paul had 8.5 sacks in 10 games after returning from a broken vertebrae in his neck stemming from an offseason car crash. Barrett and Pierre-Paul form one of the best bookend pass rushing duos in the NFL.
The weakness on defense is at the safety position where the team has several young talented players, but not much experience. Tampa Bay played four players at safety last year, including Jordan Whitehead, Andrew Adams, Mike Edwards and seldom-used veteran Darian Stewart. That quartet only produced two interceptions in 2019, and more turnovers will be needed from the safety position.
With Evans’ injury all but counting him out, the Bucs may get even younger at the safety position with the team spending its second-round pick on Winfield, who is expected to compete for the starting free safety spot once he learns the defense. D’Cota Dixon is also a talented player that might have made the 53-man roster had he not suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in camp, but even if he makes the team this year he doesn’t have any NFL experience.
17. What Is The Training Camp Battle To Watch?
Both starting safety positions are up for grabs, so that’s where all eyes will be in camp. Tampa Bay’s starting three cornerbacks appear to be set with Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean on the outside and Sean Murphy-Bunting inside at nickel. But which two safeties will line up next to that young, talented trio?
The next month will determine that, but given the fact that there will be no preseason games and only 14 padded practices, that all but takes Winfield, Jr., the team’s second-round pick, out of the mix to be a Week 1 starter at New Orleans. The Bucs can’t afford to have a rookie make a coverage mistake against future Hall of Famer Drew Brees in a critical NFC South showdown to start the 2020 campaign.
Fifth-year veteran Andrew Adams is the most experienced member of Tampa Bay’s secondary and started 11 games last year at free safety. He’ll likely start against the Saints for that reason. Jordan Whitehead started 14 games last year at strong safety and was pretty steady. He has the inside track on starting at strong safety.
Mike Edwards, last year’s third-round pick, started seven games as a rookie, including the team’s home game against New Orleans at nickel cornerback. He’s the biggest contender to start at either strong or free safety, and will join Whitehead and Adams on the field when Bowles goes with a three safety look in dime defense.
Winfield, Jr. will likely see some playing time against the Saints in Week 1 as the team wants to get him some game experience, but it may be a month or two into the season before the rookie unseats Adams at free safety.
18. Who Is The Training Camp Sleeper On Defense?
While it’s tempting to say former LSU linebacker Michael Divinity, whom I mentioned in question No. 4, keep an eye on Bell, the first-year outside linebacker, who spent last preseason with the Oakland Raiders and notched five tackles. He was signed to Tampa Bay’s practice squad in November and impressed in practice behind the scenes.
The 6-foot-4, 253-pound Bell was a wide receiver for three years at Prairie View A&M where he caught 19 passes for 259 yards (13.6 avg.) and one touchdown before switching to defensive end during his senior season. As an edge rusher, Bell recorded 46 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks due to his 4.38 speed and freakish athleticism. Bell posted a 41.5-inch vertical leap at his pro day last year.
Bell is in the mix with Daniels and undrafted free agents Divinity, Cam Gill and Nasir Player, in addition to seventh-round draft pick Chapelle Russell for a roster spot and the No. 4 outside linebacker role behind Barrett, Pierre-Paul and Nelson.
We’re almost done with this year’s Bucs’ Critical Camp Questions. Let’s conclude with a pair of questions – and answers – about Tampa Bay’s special teams.