FAB 2. Nelson Impressing After Missing Camp
Part of the reason why the Bucs are in position to move on so quickly from Jason Pierre-Paul if his neck injury hinders his production when he returns to action for the final 10 games of the season is not just the steady production of outside linebacker Carl Nassib and the emergence of pass rusher Shaquil Barrett, who signed a one-year deal in free agency.
It’s also the presence of rookie outside linebacker Anthony Nelson, the team’s fourth-round pick this year, who appears to have a bright future in Tampa Bay.
The Bucs believe they have three really good edge rushers in Barrett, Nassib and Nelson – and will have a fourth this year if and when Pierre-Paul can make it back from his neck injury.
Although Nelson missed the entire preseason and most of training camp due to a sprained MCL, he made a near instant impact on defense in just his second NFL game. On a third down play in the first half of the team’s upset win in Carolina, the 6-foot-7 Nelson used his near 35-inch long arms to swat down Cam Newton’s screen pass attempt and force a punt. Later, Nelson created the game’s only turnover when he hit Newton and forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
“It was huge – two big plays,” said Bucs head coach Bruce Arians. “It was a shame he got that MCL [injury] on the last play of practice, but he’s got a bright future.”
While Nelson was out of action he was able to make the most of his mental reps in practice while watching from the sidelines. That visualization through the month of August paid dividends in the month of September where he recorded four tackles, including three in last week’s 32-31 loss to the New York Giants.
“I think mentally the game is starting to slow down for me,” Nelson said. “Then being able to recognize the guys around me and work within the defense to do my moves and all of the things I’ve done. Being able to fit in and think faster is where I have improved the most.”
Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles recognizes how cerebral of a player Nelson is and how that has quickly enabled to him to earn playing time right away despite missing most of training camp.
“He’s smart,” Bowles said. “He came into the game smart. He rarely makes mental mistakes. He’s just got to keep getting better at the little things. We like what we see in him thus far – it’s early in the season, but he just has to keep grinding. We have a lot of confidence in him.”
One thing that has helped Nelson is having a pair of veteran edge rushers to learn from in Barrett and Nassib.
“I’m in a good situation for sure because those guys are great players,” Nelson said. “I’m just happy – blessed – to be here, and I don’t know if there is a better situation for me to be in.”
With Nassib also being 6-foot-7 and similarly built, Nelson has a player on the team he can model his game after.
“It’s a huge advantage for me to watch him use his hands and the way he works,” Nelson said. “Literally having a guy with a very similar body type and be able to prototype run this defense for you and you can watch him on film and then try to apply that for yourself is a huge help.”
Bucs outside linebacker Devante Bond agrees.
“When Anthony is in the meeting room he’s listening and absorbing everything,” Bond said. “He’s young, but he’s picking up everything well from watching Carl. Shaq and I are kind of in the same mold, and Anthony and Carl are in the same mold. It’s definitely a good thing to have a similar guy that you can watch and learn from.”
Bucs nose tackle Beau Allen has been impressed with Nelson’s cerebral approach to the game.
“He does have good vets in his room like Carl and Shaq to help him along, and he’s a versatile player that can do a lot of different things,” Allen said. “I like what I’ve seen from him so far. I’ve been impressed with as a rookie so far with his demeanor and how much time he’s missed. The thing that I always notice about rookies when you get into the regular season is how they kind of get lost in the grind of how much there is to do off the field in terms of film study and learning the playbook and knowing the defense in and out. He’s got a really good feel for the defense and I attribute that to being a student of the game and learning how to be a pro. It was really good to see that out of a rookie. It’s really good to see that if you’re young and you have that mindset it can set you for long-term success down the road and create some good habits.”
While Allen likes Nelson’s mental make-up, defensive end Will Gholston likes his increasing physical nature.
“He’s becoming more vicious and he’s beginning to play more violently,” Gholston said.
Bucs tight end Antony Auclair has to block Nelson in practice and has been awed how quickly he’s gotten up to speed after missing almost all of training camp with his knee injury.
“He didn’t play in a single preseason game, but he’s getting better and better every day,” Auclair said. “I get to go against him on the scout team and that guy is long and he’s got long arms. For me those guys are hard to block for sure. I have long arms myself, but his are longer. The more experience he gets the better he’ll be. “He looks like Carl, but I think he can be his own player. I think Carl is getting so much better, too – It’s scary.”
While both Nelson and Nassib are both 6-foot-7 and weigh over 270 pounds, Nelson is slightly faster – running a 4.82 to Nassib’s 4.84 in the 40-yard dash – and more athletic. Nelson had a 118-inch broad jump, a 4.23 time in the 20-yard shuttle, and a 6.95 time in the three-cone drill. Nassib had a 114-inch broad jump, a 4.37 time in the 20-yard shuttle, a 7.27 time in the three-cone drill
Nelson has slightly longer arms that measure nearly 35 inches, and an 83-inch wingspan, whereas Nassib has 34 1/2-inch arms and an 82-inch wingspan. Nelson – and the Bucs – hopes he can follow in Nassib’s footsteps.
“He’s relentless every day,” Nelson said of Nassib. “He’s the guy that comes in every day and gets us fired up for practice and let’s everybody know that this is an advantage to get better and try to win every day. He’s consistently been high-effort and high-energy. He’s been a great leader for us through the whole spring and all of training camp and he hasn’t stopped. Nobody was surprised when he was named a team captain.”
Nassib has taken Nelson under his wing and helped fast track the rookie’s start to the season after he missed the month of August with his knee injury.
“Nelson is doing a lot of good things,” Nassib said. “He’s going to continue to get better. I really like the way he comes to work. He’s not one of those talkative rookies that I was. He shuts his mouth and works. I like him.”
Arians feels like the sky is the limit for the team’s rookie linebacker and has been impressed with his production thus far.
“He’s just starting,” Arians said. “What he showed in OTAs with his length and his athletic ability – I started making him a tight end, but we’ve already got tight ends. He’s that type of athlete. He’s learning this game as he’s playing it, and he’s doing a pretty good job.”