TAMPA – The Buccaneers would have placated a lot of fans had they spent a mid- or late-round draft pick on a pass rusher this year. There really wasn’t a need to, though, and Ryan Russell is one of the reasons.
A third-year pro out of Purdue, Russell came to the Bucs a year ago after he was let go by the Cowboys in September, but before that he was one of the most intriguing pass rushers in the 2015 draft class.
At 6-foot-4, 269-pounds and with long 33 3/8-inch arms, the consensus among NFL scouts back then was that Russell “looked every bit the part’’ of the prototypical edge rusher.
But scouts were also in agreement that Russell was still quite raw and that his motor ran a bit too hot and cold, which is why he had to wait until the fifth round to hear the Cowboys call his name.
When the Cowboys moved on last year the Bucs moved in and quickly signed Russell, and while he did so rather quietly, he soon began to show off a lot the potential that made him so intriguing.
Though he only played 174 snaps across eight games, Russell actually pressured the quarterback with more regularity than Will Gholston and almost as regularly as Noah Spence did a year ago.
With four hits in 174 snaps, Russell got to the quarterback once every 43.5 snaps in 2016. Gholston, with seven hits in 585 snaps, got there once every 83.6 snaps while Spence got there an average of once every 40.8 snaps, recording 14 hits in 572 snaps.
“Ryan’s a good pass rusher, and in the second half of last year we got a good feel for how he could fit in with our group,’’ Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said this week.
“Nobody talks about him because he never talks. I mean, it’s hard to get that guy to say a word, but we’re excited about him. He’s looked really good. He’s long, deceivingly strong and very fast off the ball.’’
Russell isn’t likely to challenge Robert Ayers or Spence for a starter’s job off the right edge but he should earn a spot in the Bucs D-line rotation on Sundays and could prove to be a valuable member of that group.
In the wake of a draft in which the talent at D-end thinned out rather quickly after the first half-dozen players or so, he will likely prove to be as good or better than any rookie the Bucs might have brought in.
That, at least, is the Bucs hope, and there’s a good chance Russell can deliver on that hope. He proved a year ago he has the talent to do it, which is why he’ll be one of the more intriguing players to watch come the start of training camp.
The Bucs had an adequate pass rush last year and they need it to be much better this year. It would seem Russell can help in that regard but he’ll probably have to beat out veteran George Johnson to earn the opportunity.
That may not seem like that tall of a task, but the Bucs know what to expect out of Johnson while they’re still a little uncertain as to what to expect from Russell.
That means the battle between those two could be one of the more interesting camp battles of all and when you consider the Bucs need for more pressure off the edge, it will also prove to be one of the most important.