TAMPA — If anyone knows appearances can be deceiving, it is Anthony Nelson.
That may be why the Bucs outside linebacker holds the rare distinction of never having fallen for one of the oldest plays in football.
“He’s the only player that I’ve seen coming out of college and watching his tape in college and as a pro that’s never fell for a bootleg, and that says a lot about the guy,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said. “He has great vision, great intelligence. He doesn’t look muscular and everything, but he’s very strong.”
Subterfuge may not be successful against Nelson, but it certainly works for him. At 6-foot-7, 271 pounds, the former Iowa star looks more like a basketball player than a guy who chases NFL quarterbacks for a living.
But don’t let him fool you.
After an injury-plagued rookie season as a fourth-round pick in 2019, Nelson was used primarily on special teams during the Bucs’ run to the Super Bowl 55 championship. But with outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul limited by a torn rotator cuff last season, Nelson recorded five sacks over his final eight games, including one in each of the last three.
“It was a lot of things,” Nelson said of his improvement. “Obviously, we’ve got a great defense. We were holding up on the back end and that kind of stuff. It’s just doing the little things every day, getting better every day. I owe a lot of the guys I was in the room with.
“(Co-defensive coordinator and then-outside linebackers) Coach (Larry) Foote during those years. (Outside linebacker) Shaq (Barrett) and all those guys that were helping me and teaching me, mentoring me. It’s one of those things where you get one percent better every day, and a couple years later you’re a lot better because you worked.”
If there’s a player Nelson can take inspiration from, it’s Barrett. He spent his first four seasons in Denver playing behind elite pass rushers such as Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Bradley Chubb. He produced 14 sacks during that time but received only a couple of free-agent offers — one from the Bengals and the other from the Bucs.
Barrett signed a one-year, $4 million contract with Tampa Bay in 2019 and cemented himself as arguably the biggest bargain in club history. Playing opposite Pierre-Paul, he led the NFL with 19-1/2 sacks and had 37 quarterback hits.
That earned him the $15.8 million franchise tag in 2020, and then he signed a four-year, $68 million deal before the start of 2021.
Nelson’s strength and long arms are his biggest assets, but he’s also added an array of pass-rush moves and counter moves.
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“I feel like I was a power guy when I first came in,” Nelson said. “I still rely on that fundamental, and that’s still kind of my identity. But I’ve been able to add some stuff that I’ve learned from Shaq, and then really just refine what I have and been able to play aggressive.”
Pierre-Paul was not re-signed in the offseason, and second-year pro Joe Tryon-Shoyinka will take his starting role opposite Barrett. But Nelson and Cam Gill, who suffered a Lisfranc injury during Saturday’s preseason loss to Miami, will be a big part of the rotation.
“Everybody in our room is ready to step up, take on a little more, do more for this defense,” Nelson said. “We want to be the most dominant room in the whole defense, so we all got to do a little more. ... I’m excited to see what Joe and Shaq and me and Cam and all the young guys can do. We’re going to have a good group.”
Helping the outside pass rush will be defensive tackles Vita Vea and Akiem Hicks, who combine for more than 675 pounds of push in the middle of the defense. What does that do for outside pass rushers such as Nelson?
“What don’t they do for us? They pack our lunch and pick out clothes and all that stuff. I mean, everything,” Nelson said. “They close down the middle. It’s important for us to set an edge, because we know they’ve got it on lockdown in the middle. They’re pushing the pocket, and they’re eating up everything in the run. They make playing outside linebacker in this defense really fun, and I’m excited to see what they’ve got this year.”
Because of his height, Nelson has a reach advantage that helps him get off blocks. But the low man wins at the line of scrimmage, and he constantly works on how he fires off the football.
“That’s a challenge,” Nelson said. “You’ve got good things and bad things. The length really helps, but I’ve got to be extra careful with my pad level coming inside. It’s a double-edged sword, and it makes it fun. There’s things I’ve picked up from Shaq. He uses such great leverage, so if I’m able to apply those things to me, I’ve got longer arms, I should be successful. It’s a race to the quarterback, and I’m using what I’ve got.”
Now, it’s Nelson who is fooling opponents with his technique and his tenacity.
“That’s a lot of time at Iowa, man,” he said. “It’s a pro-style offense where they hand it off or bootleg, so I got a lot of practice.”
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