On a normal NFL calendar, training camp would be right around the corner…and hopefully that will be the case in 2011, as well, even though this year has been anything but normal.
More than ever given this strange offseason, training camp will be a period for teams to sort out the roster, identify strengths and weaknesses and address any obvious shortcomings. Obviously, each team in the league has had plenty of time this offseason to evaluate how the depth chart stands heading into training camp…and that's exactly what Buccaneers.com is doing in this series of articles entitled "Camp Check."
Between now and the start of training camp, we will be taking a position-by-position look at the team's roster in regard to where it stands now and how it might change before or during camp. We will compare the current depth chart to how it appeared heading into last year's camp and take a look at the position's overall performance during the 2010 season. We'll also examine the potential of free agency impact, including the players that could potentially be available, and how commonly the Buccaneers have addressed the position on the open market in the past.
The fifth position to get a Camp Check is the offensive line, which helped the Bucs establish a powerful running game in 2010 despite rather significant changes in the starting lineup along the way. Our previous Check focused on the wide receivers.
[Note: Analysis in the "Camp Check" series is not meant to reflect the opinions, intentions or strategies of the Buccaneers' actual player personnel decision-makers.]
Offensive Linemen Currently on the Buccaneers' Roster:
Though there obviously has been no free agency period yet, the Buccaneers were able to re-sign their practice squad players in January, and those who finished the 2010 campaign on injured reserve can also be counted. Thus, while Tampa Bay's depth chart at the end of last season featured only eight players, there are 13 players to include at this point. On the other hand, that number could be affected when free agency does begin; more on that below.
Those 13 include the five players who finished the season as starters, none of whom are pending free agents: LT Donald Penn, LG Ted Larsen, C Jeremy Zuttah, RG Derek Hardman and RT James Lee. The three men who came off injured reserve are guard Davin Joseph, center Jeff Faine and tackle Demar Dotson. Joseph and Faine are veteran, established starters who would presumably go back to the front of the depth chart. C/G John Malecki and OL Marc Dile re-upped with the Bucs after finishing the season on the practice squad.
The additional reserves from the end of the season were veteran Jeremy Trueblood and newcomers Will Barker and Brandon Carter. Trueblood started the first six games of 2010 but only one of the last 10; he was first sidelined by injury and then he ended up in a reserve role behind Lee at right tackle. Barker and Carter saw only a small amount of action – four games and zero starts combined – but the Buccaneers believe both have potential to stick in the NFL.
Offensive Linemen Taken to Training Camp by Tampa Bay in 2010:
Like the receivers from our last Camp Check, this is generally a big group in camp, and it needs to be. Teams want to have at least two full five-man lines to rotate in and out on hot afternoons, and it's not uncommon for a few of the big fellows on this unit to incur minor injuries that keep them out of a practice or two. Last year, the Buccaneers camp with 13 offensive linemen, with a versatile enough crew that the players could be arranged in a variety of ways to keep the rotations fresh.
The starting five from the previous year came back intact – Penn, Zuttah, Faine, Joseph and Trueblood. However, the team had also added former Carolina Panther veteran Keydrick Vincent just three weeks earlier, and he was earmarked for a competition with Zuttah to start at left guard.
As is often the case with this group, there was little experienced depth behind the returning starters; that's a commodity that is not in thick supply in the NFL in most years. Tampa Bay's host of O-Line reserves did include several players who already had some time in the system, such as Jonathan Compas, Lee and Dotson, but none who had any logged any regular-season starting time. There was also, as is usually the case, several rookie or first-year players signed after the draft, in this case most prominently Hardman.
The Buccaneers didn't make any roster moves at the offensive line position during camp or the four preseason game weeks. However, they clearly had their eyes on several young players toiling elsewhere in the league, because they were active following the league-wide cuts on September 4. The moves of Compas and Dotson to injured reserve on that day also created some need. Tampa Bay brass snapped Ted Larsen off waivers from the Patriots on September 5 and thus moved Hardman, who had originally made the 53-man roster, to the practice squad. The team also signed rookie linemen Barker and Carter and both, along with Hardman, would be on the active roster before the season was over. Larsen and Hardman would end up in the starting lineup, as a matter of fact.
The Buccaneers generally trim their number of offensive linemen from 12 or 13 down to eight or nine for the start of the regular season. The final number often depends on how many positions the reserves are capable of playing. When Vincent won the starting left guard job to start the season last fall, the presence of Zuttah, who is seen as capable of holding down any spot on the line, allowed the team some leeway in forming the roster. Zuttah, in fact, would end up starting roughly half the season at center due to injuries to Faine, plus one at right guard.
Impact of the 2011 NFL Draft on the Bucs' Offensive Line:
If there was an impact from this year's draft on the Bucs' linemen, it was probably to the confidence and hopes of the team's young reserves. Tampa Bay did not use any of its eight selections in April on offensive linemen, which was also the case in 2010. That's unusual, as the Buccaneers hadn't gone two straight years without drafting a front-line blocker since 1992-93. In fact, before 2009, 1993 was the last Tampa Bay draft that didn't include at least one offensive linemen.
Much of that has to do with the team's success in finding valuable linemen after the draft. Penn, the Pro Bowl left tackle, was an undrafted free agent the Bucs slipped off Minnesota's practice squad in 2006. Larsen was a fifth-round pick by New England in 2010 who didn't quite make the cut to the 53-man roster but the Buccaneers saw quite a bit of potential when he hit the waiver wire. Hardman, Barker and Carter may still prove to be long-term assets in Tampa.
In addition, three of the last four offensive linemen the Buccaneers have selected in the early rounds – Joseph and Trueblood in 2006, Arron Sears in 2007 and Zuttah in 2008 – have stepped into starting roles for the majority of their Tampa Bay careers so far. Sears, too, was a starter before his career was cut short by personal issues. The signing of Jeff Faine as a high-priced unrestricted free agent in 2008 shored up the center position.
Still, the Buccaneers are always looking for developmental possibilities along the offensive line, and the fact that the team saw fit to use its later-round picks on such positions as safety, running back, cornerback and tight end indicates that they are fond of the young reserves they already have. Whenever the pool of undrafted rookies is available to be tapped, the Buccaneers may once again look for prospects, but the 2011 draft bodes well for the likes of Barker and Carter.
Buccaneers' Offensive Line Performance in 2010:
The Buccaneers' offensive line should be lauded for merely surviving the 2010 season; that the team was able to put together a thriving running back and allow its young quarterback to thrive in his first full season as a starter makes it a very successful campaign for the front five.
Of the five starters who populated Tampa Bay's offensive line on opening day last fall, only Penn, the dominant left tackle, was still in his spot for the season finale. Vincent lasted only five games and was released, leading to a trial by fire for Larsen, who responded magnificently at left tackle. Faine suffered two significant injuries and it was Zuttah snapping the ball during the playoff stretch drive. Joseph was performing well before he went down with his own injury in November, clearing the way for Hardman to make a strong impression. And Lee, as mentioned above, took advantage of his first chance to start to pass Trueblood on the depth chart.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers constructed the league's eighth-best rushing attack despite a very slow start in September and running back LeGarrette Blount was one of the league's most prominent rookie sensations. Blount cracked the 1,000-yard mark despite not signing with the Buccaneers until September 6 and not starting until the seventh game of the season. Tampa Bay finished the year with 2,001 rushing yards, its best total since 2000 and the fifth-best mark in franchise history. The team's 4.6 yards-per-carry average shattered the former franchise mark of 4.2.
At the same time, second-year QB Josh Freeman got the protection he needed to post a stellar 95.6 passer rating, sixth-best in the NFL. Freeman tossed 25 touchdowns against just six interceptions, as he was rarely forced into the sorts of errant throws that are often result in turnovers. The Buccaneers' passing attack ranked in the middle of the NFL pack (17th), but Tampa Bay was 13th in sacks allowed per pass play and second in interception percentage.
After the season, Penn became the first offensive tackle in franchise history to be selected for the Pro Bowl. That gives Tampa Bay two all-stars on its offensive line, as Joseph made his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2008.
Potential Impact of Veteran Free Agency on Tampa Bay's Offensive Line:
There is, potentially, work to be done here, or decision-making at the very least.
Unless the NFL's eventual collective bargaining agreement retains the 2010 rule that required players to have six years of accrued service to become unrestricted free agents, Joseph and Trueblood will get the opportunity to test the market.
Though Joseph has lost parts of several seasons to injuries and Trueblood was supplanted by Lee last season, the two have been the team's primary starters on the right side of the line since they were drafted in 2006. Joseph, the team's first-round pick that year, has started 67 games; Trueblood, who followed in the second round, has started 68.
Given the fact that he has played at a Pro Bowl level, that he was still entrenched at right guard before his late-season injury and that the Bucs are very young at his position behind him, Joseph's status certainly appears to be one of the team's key issues upon resolution of the CBA.
As for the possibility of incoming players, the team's current management is not rushing to sign older players at any position. G.M. Mark Dominik and his crew are fully dedicated to building the team through the draft and other means of acquiring young players, and at most positions will probably only use veteran free agency for complementary pieces. As the Bucs showed with the addition of Faine in 2008, signing a highly-regarded starting-caliber offensive lineman is definitely a big-ticket and long-term decision.
On the other hand, there are occasionally experienced linemen of a different sort available, former starters who offer a team depth and the possibility of competing for a starting spot. As noted below, the Buccaneers have signed this sort of player on occasion in the past. Because rosters and the free agency process have been frozen since March, it's still unclear what linemen might be on the market, but the Bucs haven't been hesitant about addressing that position with veterans.
Buccaneers' Free Agency History at Offensive Line:
The Buccaneers have certainly not been shy about plunging into the veteran free agency market to pick up a starting offensive lineman. The center position, for instance, has almost exclusively been the province of incoming free agents since 2000, when the Bucs signed Jeff Christy, the former Viking. Christy's three seasons were followed by five for former Jaguar John Wade and now the last three for Faine.
The 2002 Super Bowl team, in fact, had three recent free agent signees on the starting offensive line. Christie and left tackle Roman Oben were both veterans signed after they were released by their former teams, while left guard Kerry Jenkins was an unrestricted free agent.
A few other veteran pickups in the years that followed the Super Bowl didn't pan out as well, most notably Derrick Deese, Matt Stinchcomb and Luke Petitgout. None stayed long in Tampa and none played a single game elsewhere after leaving the Buccaneers. There have been a few other attempts along the way – Torrin Tucker, Toniu Fonoti, Matt O'Dwyer – but none that made much of an impact until the signing of Faine in '08.
Final Offensive Line Analysis:
The Buccaneers have not yet made any additions to this unit in 2011, but they certainly feel as if they are getting stronger coming into the year with the return of Faine and Joseph from injured reserve…though there is the potential free agency issue regarding the latter of those two.
The line has the potential to be one of the Bucs' least worrisome positions, depending upon the opening-day lineup. Penn is a Pro Bowler at the most important spot on the front, left tackle, and Larsen established himself very impressively at left guard as a rookie last year. Faine and Joseph are known commodities who, at their peaks, have been among the best players in the NFL at their positions. Jeremy Zuttah re-established himself last year as a player the team can build around and could also find his way into the starting lineup.
The depth is intriguing, too, with promising players such as Lee, Hardman, Barker and Carter trying to establish themselves. The Bucs will probably find a way to add a few more young players to the mix, but there is enough talent already on hand to make this a very competitive unit in training camp.