TAMPA, Fla. -- When Tampa Bay Buccaneers star pass-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul suffered a fractured vertebrae in a car accident this offseason, it seemed as if the Bucs’ defense was doomed before the 2019 season even began. The first Bucs player to reach double-digit sacks since 2005, Pierre-Paul (12.5 sacks) accounted for nearly 33% of the team's total sacks last season.
Who will replace Pierre-Paul's production? The answer might be no one player. In a new 3-4 defense under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, finding that one dominant pass-rusher to replace Pierre-Paul, who is still in a neck brace, might not be as important. It might wind up being a collaborative effort -- not just from the players at the line of scrimmage but also from the entire defense.
"I think here in Tampa, you traditionally only think of four-man-line pass rush," head coach Bruce Arians said. "That’s not who we are. It’s been here for a long time, but it’s not that way anymore.”
After a week of training camp practices and multiple days in pads, here's a look at who's contributing across the defense:
DL Ndamukong Suh: Seeing Suh going up against Ali Marpet daily has been one of the joys of camp, despite an early scuffle that saw Marpet's helmet come off (sources told ESPN that both worked it out after, and they're fine). Early on, Suh dropped into coverage and batted down a pass intended for Chris Godwin. He has also been very disruptive, making it difficult at times for Jameis Winston to step into his throws.
DL Vita Vea: He looks leaner and more athletic than when he came into camp last year. Being paired with Suh, who will likely be double-teamed, might create more opportunities for Vea. But it's the linebackers who stand to benefit the most by getting to the quarterback.
OLB Noah Spence: Arians said Spence, who had been a defensive end, has "flourished" in his new role and has been getting first- and second-team reps on the right side as a rush linebacker. He looks very athletic and quick, which you can see when he has lined up on the edge but burst inside on one of Bowles' triple-A-gap pressures. His suddenness works well when Bowles incorporates stunts. He was routinely beating backup Caleb Benenoch when starting left tackle Donovan Smith sat out. The real test will be if he can consistently show his physicality with the pads on and be an asset in the run game.
OLB Shaquil Barrett: Arians believes Barrett "will be outstanding" in Bowles' defense. He has been getting first- and second-team reps on the right side. He stormed into the backfield and had his way with tight end Tanner Hudson in what would have been a tackle for loss of running back Dare Ogunbowale. He also had what would have been a sack of Blaine Gabbert while working against Cole Boozer. He doesn't have Spence's get-off but wins by physically overpowering offensive linemen and with effort.
OLB Carl Nassib: He is getting the majority of reps on the left side (he has come off the right too) and is typically coming out of a three-point stance. He doesn't look as natural dropping into coverage as Spence does, but on the flip side, he has used his length to get his hands on a couple of passes in camp. "He's a tireless worker. He’s one of my favorite guys right now just because of his personality," Bowles said.
OLB Anthony Nelson: He has mostly been working with the second-team offense, backing up Nassib. Like Nassib, he isn't a natural dropping into coverage. He looks stiffer in the hips than Nassib rushing the passer, and he isn't as quick off the ball as Spence, but he's physical. Like Nassib, at 6-foot-7, he has long arms, which can help him get his hands on the ball.
ILB Devin White: White might be an inside linebacker, but he has been very active in front, frequently rushing the A-gap. At LSU, he recorded 25 pressures, the second-best pressure percentage (24.5%) among FBS players with at least 100 pass rushes in 2018, according to ESPN Stats & Information. There have been multiple instances when White would have registered a sack or tackle for loss in camp, had they been full-contact practices.
ILB Lavonte David: His quickness off the ball was under-utilized under former defensive coordinator Mike Smith, but under former head coach Greg Schiano, he registered 7.0 sacks in 2013 (he did, however, have 5.0 sacks in 2016). While White looks to be a bit more active up front with David covering the shorter routes, both players are highly versatile and capable of doing both.
DB M.J. Stewart: Stewart is coming off the edge a lot as a hybrid safety/nickelback, something he did not do last year as a cornerback under Smith. Being more active up front instead of in coverage could be exactly what he needs to blossom.