Bucs Bargain Building: Edge Rushers

The Bucs are cap strapped for the 2023 season. It appears they are going to absorb the entirety of Tom Brady’s dead cap hit (among others), and rely on a young core, a new offensive system and a seemingly down NFC South to try to three-peat as division champions before placing themselves in a more advantageous cap position in 2024.

In order to accomplish this goal, the Bucs will need to fill out their roster with non-obvious free agent signings. Players who have shown in the past they can contribute to a viable roster, but due to age, injury, or recent performance history are available for a value. Considering Vita Vea led the Bucs’ defense in sacks last year, head coach Todd Bowles highlighted edge rusher as an area the team has to get more production from in 2023. With outside linebackers Carl Nassib and Anthony Nelson set to become free agents, it is a position Tampa Bay will undoubtedly look to help fill via free agency.

Here are a few names that stand out as potential “buy-low” candidates the Bucs could target.

Melvin Ingram III/Justin Houston

I am grouping these two together because they are in very similar situations. Both players will be 34 when the 2023 season opens in September. Both have a track record of success that includes recent seasons. Ingram logged 509 snaps as part of a pass rush rotation that included Jaelan Phillips, Bradley Chubb and Emmanuel Ogbah. Despite his advanced age, Ingram still showed he could be productive, logging a Pro Football Focus grade of 70.3 and a pass rush grade of 78.6. His six sacks weren’t a mirage either, as Ingram had an 11% pressure rate, notching 35 pressures on 311 pass rush snaps.

Bucs QB Tom Brady and LT Donovan Smith and Ravens OLB Justin Houston

Bucs QB Tom Brady and LT Donovan Smith and Ravens OLB Justin Houston – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Houston logged a little over 100 fewer snaps (397), but was arguably more productive. He created 39 pressures on just 285 pass rush snaps, good for a 14% pressure rate. He converted 9.5 of those pressures into sacks, which was his highest sack production since 2019. That conversion rate was unsustainably high, but the pressure rate is still impressive to say the least. Overall, Houston logged a 73.6 PFF grade and a 71.7 pass rush grade for the season.

If Bowles wants proven edge rushers to provide a high floor as rotational pass rushers, Ingram and Houston are probably at the high end of the Bucs’ price range. They also bring additional concerns. Ingram’s best coverage days are behind him, so he may prove to be a liability in Bowles’ scheme, as he is known to drop pass rushers at an above-average clip.

Houston has had three consecutive years with poor tackling grades. In 2022 alone, he missed seven of his 17 opportunities to make a tackle, per PFF. Tackling has been an issue for the Bucs under Bowles, so on one hand, you could say he would fit right in. More likely, the Bucs may look at him and say they don’t want to add a player who could exacerbate the problem.

Both players are likely going to cost their next team about $4 million on a one-year deal. The biggest question with both of these players is whether either would look at Tampa Bay as a desired destination. The Bucs could win a weak NFC South next year. But with no definitive answer at the ever-important quarterback position and a secondary set to lose the vast majority of its players to free agency, they could just as easily come in last place in the division.

For Ingram and Houston, who are nearing the end of their careers, I am assuming playing for a team that is a serious contender for the Super Bowl is probably high on their priority lists. That could mean the Bucs are low on their preferred destination lists.

Anthony Nelson (Returns)

Bucs OLB Anthony Nelson

Bucs OLB Anthony Nelson – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Nelson may be a candidate to return to the team in 2023. It would most likely be on a one-year pact, as his play over his rookie contract didn’t stand out as that of a player you make a multi-year commitment to.

Nelson became a fan favorite in 2022 by making some big plays in key moments down the stretch. And while his 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles outpaced former first-round draft pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, most would be hard pressed to pick out any plays outside of those sacks where he made a significant impact on the field. Still, Nelson’s PFF grade last year reflected his consistent but unremarkable play (63.6 overall, 61.0 pass rush grade).

Nelson provides a decent baseline as backup outside linebacker. He sets the edge and plays the run well. But Nelson is an extremely limited pass rusher. With just 14 pressures on 283 pass rush snaps, he cannot be counted on to reliably get into the backfield. Because of this, he will most likely have a limited market and could be brought back for cheap. A $1.3 million offer would represent a 30% raise over his 2022 salary and most likely secure his services for another year.

A Darkhorse Candidate

If the Bucs want to take a flier on a younger player who most likely won’t cost much, I might suggest that they kick the tires on Tyquan Lewis. The 6-foot-3, 277-pound Lewis is a former second-round pick for the Indianapolis Colts. He was never able to break out of a rotational role for the Colts, but enters free agency coming off of one of his best seasons as a pass rusher, having posted 17 pressures in 155 pass rush snaps.

His large frame allows him to move inside on pass rushing downs and would potentially give the Bucs more versatility in getting after the quarterback. The former Ohio State Buckeye was a very athletic prospect coming out of college, clocking a Relative Athletic Score of 9.54 with high marks in both speed and explosive drills.

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