TAMPA — Anthony Nelson spent most of last season learning, watching the veterans ahead of him on the outside linebacker depth chart while realizing the physical demands of the NFL game.
The Bucs’ fourth-round pick out of Iowa sustained an ill-timed knee injury just before the first preseason game. He recovered in time for the regular-season opener, but his trial-by-fire introduction had its growing pains. He apprenticed under Carl Nassib, but a hamstring injury cost him most of the second half of the season.
Now Nassib is gone, after signing a three-year, $25.25 million deal with the Raiders. And Nelson has to step into his spot as the first outside linebacker off the bench behind pass-rush supreme starters Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul.
When the Bucs drafted Nelson last season, they saw a lot of similarities between him and Nassib. They’re both tall — both are 6-7 — with long arms that allow them to gain leverage and shed blockers.
“We’ve got some big holes to fill as far as losing Carl through free agency, but Nelson is the guy,” Bucs outside linebackers coach Larry Foote said. “I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on him. We were very good last year in that room particularly, and definitely against the run, so we’re going to need Nelson to fill those shoes that Carl left. I’m looking forward to it. Hopefully he can stay healthy, but I’m expecting big things for him.”
Nelson said he gleaned a lot from playing alongside Nassib, who started the first eight games while Pierre-Paul was working his way back from a neck injury.
“He’s got a lot of good moves, a lot of aggressive moves,” Nelson said of Nassib. “And the way he uses his hands is really impressive. Just being another long, 6-7 guy, it was really nice to be able to see how he used his tools, how he used his long arms, how he used his feet to defeat blocks, get around blocks, get to the quarterback and make plays. I just want to replicate some of those things and then put my own personal touch on that.”
When Pierre-Paul returned, Nassib still played about 50 percent of the defensive snaps, so Nelson’s playing time will increase. Last year, he didn’t play more than 25 snaps in any of his eight games.
“This camp he’s been very studious,” Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “He’s been very tough at the point of attack. I like the things I’m seeing from him. We have to get better all the way around from a schematic standpoint, but he’s a smart player, he’s a very heady player, he doesn’t get fooled more than one time and he plays strong. I just look to keep him healthy.”
Nelson said he is much more comfortable now than this time last season. And that’s understandable because he has a year of Bowles’ defense under his belt and is entering the season healthy. He doesn’t have to wear the bulky knee brace for the MCL injury that cut his preseason short in 2019.
“It feels like night and day, really,” Nelson said. “I feel comfortable, I feel more at home. Still a lot to get better at, but you can see the strides, you can see the development and you can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel. ... It’s awesome to be in a room with JPP and Shaq, too, and learn a lot from them. It’s been good so far.”
In Bowles system, outside linebackers have a lot of duties, and Arians lauded Nelson’s improvement in dropping back into pass coverage for a player his size. And he fits in well with the Bucs’ vaunted rush defense, which ranked No. 1 in the league last season.
“He’s getting better every day,” Arians said.
Still, Nelson will be judged by his ability to get to the quarterback. He is still searching for his first NFL sack, a glaring stat when replacing Nassib, who had 12 ½ sacks over the past two seasons. Nelson said picking up pointers from Barrett and Pierre-Paul has helped him develop a better pass-rusher mindset and technique.
“At the end of the day as pass rushers, you’ve just got to be relentless,” Nelson said. “You’ve got to be bringing it on every down, staying aggressive and using your hands. They have different styles of pass rush, but they both use their hands extremely well. ... At the end of the day they say, ‘Man, it doesn’t always have to be pretty. You just have to be relentless and keep working your stuff.’ That’s one thing I’ve definitely been working on and I’m excited to show it off this year.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
at Saints, 4:25 p.m. Sunday
Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans
TV/radio: Fox, 97.9-FM