The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could return, in essence, 80% of a starting offensive line and still have a very different look up front in 2018.
That's an easier claim to make if we're allowed a generous definition of "starter." Demar Dotson, Ali Marpet and J.R. Sweezy were all on injured reserve by the end of the 2017 campaign, but all three also started at least 11 games before they were sidelined. Caleb Benenoch was the starting right tackle to close out the season and now he's in the mix to start at right guard. Evan Smith has started 28 games over three positions in four years as a Buccaneer and was manning the center spot down the stretch last season.
Donovan Smith was the only Buccaneer offensive lineman to start all 16 games last year, and in fact he returns for his fourth season after opening all 48 games of the past three years at left tackle. Kevin Pamphile was the starting left guard for almost all of 2017 but is now a Tennessee Titan. Even without Pamphile, the Buccaneers are returning six players who could reasonably be expected to start in 2018.
And yet the team definitely did not sit pat with that group this offseason. Free agency brought one key addition and prompted a position change for one of the incumbents. The draft yielded an exciting young talent who could compete for a starting job right away or who could also develop into a super-utility player. The Buccaneers have done a good job of developing experienced, veteran depth on their offensive line over the past couple seasons – that allowed them to weather all those late-season injuries up front – but they still have not drawn their desired level of play out of that group as a whole.
That made the O-Line a priority this spring. Not the priority – that was clearly the defensive line, and one could argue that the draft brought about more potential change for the secondary than any other position – but still an area that needed attention. Below we'll look at why that attention was needed, and what the Bucs did about it.
As Tampa Bay's offseason workout program nears its completion, we are taking a new position-by-position look at how the 90-man roster will stack up for the start of training camp in late July. With free agency essentially over and the draft in the rear-view mirror, that roster is essentially set, though there could be a few changes on the back end before camp opens. Last week we broke down the quarterbacks and running backs, and this week began with assessments of the wide receiver and tight end spots. Now we turn our attention to the big men.
Photos from the Buccaneers' OTA practice on June 5
Today's position: Offensive Line
Addition(s): Cole Boozer (undrafted free agent), Alex Cappa (third-round draft pick), Ruben Holcomb (undrafted free agent), Ryan Jensen (unrestricted free agent)
Subtraction(s): Joe Hawley, Kevin Pamphile, Avery Young
Returning Players: Caleb Benenoch, Demar Dotson, Cole Gardner, Adam Gettis, Michael Liedtke, Ali Marpet, Givens Price, Brad Seaton, Donovan Smith, Evan Smith, J.R. Sweezy, Leonard Wester
The big free agency addition alluded to above was that of former Baltimore center Ryan Jensen. Arguably one of the most coveted blockers available on the market this year, Jensen got a lucrative four-year deal from the Buccaneers, who valued both his talents and his play-to-the-whistle attitude on the field. Jensen steps right into the starting lineup in the middle of Tampa Bay's line.
"What I've seen so far is he's really smart, he's tough, he's played," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken after a recent OTA practice at One Buccaneer Place. "He brings a confidence to that position even though really he had one year as a starter there in [Baltimore], but he's been around, been in the league for a number of years. So, I feel really good about the way he's been approaching it. When we've been on the field it's been seamless. You haven't seen a lot of issues in terms of terminology and snaps and those kind of things. I think we got a really good one."
The addition of Jensen meant another position change for rising star Ali Marpet, who played center last year after spending his first two years at right guard. Marpet will now play left guard – according to the current plan, with the obvious caveat that things can change between now and September – where he will line up next to his fellow 2015 second-round draft pick, Donovan Smith. The Bucs don't expect Marpet to have any trouble with his latest move.
"No, because when you play center, you've got to play both right and left guard," said Offensive Line Coach George Warhop. "If I'm a center and I have to shift on my right, I'm a right guard. If I have to shift on my left, I'm a left guard. So, really the transition for him to go from center to left guard is really easy versus flipping from right guard to left guard and Ali is smart. It's really important for him and he takes it personally to do well. Of all the guys no matter where I'm moving them from, he would be the one I'd have the least concerns about."
The Bucs' coaching staff was not displeased with Marpet's play at the pivot; in fact, he showed steady improvement throughout the season before missing the last five games due to injury. But Jensen was too good to pass up and the Bucs think they improved two out of five spots in the process.
"We felt like Ryan was one of the better guys we could add," said Warhop. "We weren't looking to move Ali from center, but because of the fit and with Ali's flexibility, it allowed us to do that. So, I think we've improved ourselves, we've added another good football player and we've had a good football player that plays center and right guard who's flexible enough for us to play him at left guard. So, I think it helps us add a good player and gives us flexibility with the guys up front."
The right side of the line is a little less settled, if only due to some lingering injury issues from last season. As noted, right guard J.R. Sweezy and right tackle Demar Dotson finished the year on injured reserve. Sweezy has still not returned to field work and it's fair to say the team is uncertain about his timetable. Dotson required a second surgery on his knee this spring and that took him out of OTAs. It is hoped that he will return for training camp and be ready for the start of the season.
Assuming Dotson, who had a strong season in 2017, is in the lineup to start the season, that leaves right guard as the primary point of contention. As noted, Benenoch would be a top candidate to start there, particularly if Sweezy is not an option. Cappa played his college ball at Division II Humboldt State and thus would face a difficult and rapid transition to win a starting spot this early in his career, but he's now teammates with a player who pulled off something like that three years ago in Ali Marpet. Cappa has also been receiving tutelage from former Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley.
"Alex is fortunate in one regard - he's been working out with LeCharles Bentley, so his foundation is a little bit better than most, but other than that, he's a rookie," said Warhop. "He's a young guy that played at a Division II school. He's got a long way to go. He was a tackle in college, we are moving him to guard, teaching him how to play center. So, we will see how he rolls. Like I've said before, we added him, he checks most of the boxes, he's got to learn how to play and learn how to compete with the rest of the guys and we will see how it goes from there."
The only newcomer in the Bucs' offensive line room is rookie Ruben Holcomb, another small-school prospect (Indianapolis) who was impressive in a tryout during rookie mini-camp. However, there are some other relatively unknown young players in the mix, including tackles Brad Seaton, Cole Gardner and Givens Price. Seaton and Price were both on the Bucs' practice squad when the 2017 season ended, while Gardner was a 2017 undrafted rookie signee who spent last year on injured reserve but is now back on the field. Veteran guard Adam Gettis, who has a small amount of NFL starting experience, was also re-signed in March; he spent the last few weeks of last season on the active roster after the Bucs' rash of injuries thinned the line.
Notable 2017 Numbers: The Buccaneers' per-game rushing target under Dirk Koetter is 125 yards, and they fell well short of that in 2017. Tampa Bay's 90.6 yards per outing ranked 27th in the league, as did it's average of 3.73 yards per carry. Individually, the Buccaneers didn't have a player reach 500 rushing yards, though leader Peyton Barber did get most of his 423 yards in a promising December finish to the season.
One thing the Buccaneers rushing attack didn't struggle with was negative carries. Not counting kneel-downs, the Bucs' 33 runs that lost yards were the fourth-lowest total in the league. Of course, some of that had to do with a lower-than-average number of total carries, but even in terms of percentage of their runs that lost yards (8.6), the Bucs were eighth-best in the NFL.
The problem, of course, was on the flip side of that coin: Big plays. The Bucs finished 31st in carries of 10+ yards (30) and tied for 20th in carries of 20+ yards (five), and for the second year in a row they did not crack a plus-50 run. That does not all fall on the offensive line, of course, as running backs have to make some plays for themselves and the tight ends and wide receivers are involved in the blocking. And the lack of negative plays is an indication that the Bucs' line wasn't consistently being driven back.
Still, there is clear room for improvement, and an obvious desire on Koetter's part to establish a consistent rushing attack at the center of his offense. Tampa Bay ran on only 37.6% of their plays last year, which was the third-lowest percentage in the NFL. That was a steep drop from Koetter's first two years calling plays, however, as the Bucs ranked ninth in that category in both 2015 and 2016.
Another thing worth noting: Ryan Jensen played 99.9% of Baltimore's offensive snaps in his first year as a full-time starter. He's joining a line that also includes Donovan Smith, who hadn't missed a single offensive play in his three years as a Buc until he sat out 30 of them at New Orleans in the middle of last season. He started up a new streak after that, not missing another play over the final eight weeks. Ali Marpet missed a few games as a rookie and was on I.R. for the last five of last year, but he's similarly been an ironman for most of his young career. Other than Demar Dotson, who has fresh legs for a 32-year-old, the Bucs presumed starting line is relatively young and should be less susceptible to time missed due to injury.
The Bucs' pass protection was adequate last year, though it saw a downturn at the end when three starters were on injured reserve. Tampa Bay ranked 15th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play, though some of that credit goes to Jameis Winston, who is good at extending plays (sometimes extending them a bit too long).
Key Question: Will Donovan Smith rise to the ranks of the NFL's elite left tackles, as his coaches believe he can?
The Buccaneers have had Smith manning Winston's blind side ever since they were the team's first two picks in the 2015 draft. Tampa Bay coaches have consistently sung Smith's praises and spoken of his elite potential. Indeed, the Buccaneers' internal opinion of Smith – and, indeed, their O-Line as a whole – is higher than that of outside analysts. Warhop said he would not "trade out" Smith for another left tackle.
"You guys got something here that's special and in terms of his mentality and what he wants to be and how he goes about his business, I would be in no hurry to try to find somebody else to replace him," Warhop emphasized.
"First of all, you evaluate him compared to his draft class, I don't think I would take anybody in his draft class over him, nobody, in terms of a tackle. Then you start evaluating him with other left tackles in the league. I have to really think about it, but I can count on one hand how many guys I would like to have to replace him. The next thing, he is a young player who has never missed a start. I think he's missed 25 or 28 snaps when he was out the second half of the New Orleans game. The next game, they didn't think he was going to play. After Tuesday he said, 'There is no way I am missing that game.' How are you going to trade out that kind of mentality? Now, can he play better? Yeah. Does he have elite ability? Yeah. Has he played to that on a consistent basis? No, so that's my job to get him to that level consistently."
Marpet's career trajectory has been a pretty steady uphill climb. The Bucs believe they've added a sure-fire difference-maker to the line in Jensen, whose attitude they believe will be infectious. Dotson is extremely reliable on the right side, presuming he returns to full health in time to start the season, and there are some good options at right tackle. It's at left tackle where the line has the possibility to take the biggest step forward. The Bucs are already pleased with Smith's body of work but believe he can improve and emerge as one of the league's best at one of the three or four most important positions in the game. That would be very good news for the Bucs' offense.