The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' O-line had a hand in producing a mixed bag of offensive results in 2018. The pass protection was often quite good, considering how the Buccaneers' offense favored longer-developing plays, while the rushing attack wasn't nearly as effective. In one area, though, the Bucs' starting five up front were an unqualified success: Durability.
The starting five of Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Caleb Benenoch and Demar Dotson combined to make 79 of a possible 80 starts for that unit. Dotson missed one start at right tackle with a hamstring injury but otherwise fought through a litany of aches and pains to stay on the field. The last time the Buccaneers had five men account for at least 79 O-Line starts in one season was 2005, when the quintet of Anthony Davis, Dan Buenning, John Wade, Sean Mahan and Kenyatta Walker went 80-for-80.
From that group of five last year, Smith, Marpet and Benenoch are all still 25 or younger and Jensen was just signed to a lucrative long-term deal in free agency last March. Only Dotson is north of 30 and/or has been with the team since before 2015. The Buccaneers want better results from their offensive line in 2019, but they have devoted some sizeable assets to that unit in recent years – including a new deal for Marpet and potentially one coming up for Smith – and they clearly have some useful building blocks.
Still, like every player on the roster, the Buccaneers' offensive linemen have questions to answer in 2019, and that's why we've revived our "Burning Questions" series as we approach the beginning of the new league year in March. In the weeks ahead, we're going to pinpoint one burning questions for each player on the roster, going position by position. So far we've covered the offensive "skill" positions: tight ends, wide receiversand running backs. Now we look at the big men who create the opportunities for those players to move the offense.
As will be the case at every position, we are only including players who are currently under contract for 2019, or could have tender offers as restricted and exclusive rights free agents. For the pending unrestricted free agents, obviously, the burning question that must be answered first is, 'Will they be back?'
One Burning Question for Each Buccaneer: Offensive Line
Players under contract for 2019: 8 (Caleb Benenoch, Cole Boozer, Alex Cappa, Demar Dotson, Ruben Holcomb, Ryan Jensen, Ali Marpet, Evan Smith)
Potential unrestricted free agents: 1 (Donovan Smith)
Potential restricted free agents: 1 (Leonard Wester)
Potential Exclusive Rights Free Agents: 1 (Michael Liedtke)
Caleb Benenoch: How much competition will he face to retain his starting right guard spot?
Even though Benenoch started all 16 games for an offense that finished third in the final NFL yardage rankings, it's fair to expect him to face competition for his spot in 2019 for one reason: Right guard was the one position that the Bucs never completely settled in 2018.
Other than that aforementioned start that Dotson missed due to a hamstring injury, the Bucs had the same starting five up front for every game. Smith, Marpet and Jensen all played 100% of the team's offensive snaps and the only ones Dotson missed were when he sustained that injury in the middle of the Week 12 San Francisco game and then sat out the following contest.
In contrast, while he opened every contest, Benenoch only played 100% of the Bucs' offensive snaps in three of those 16 outings. He split time with veteran Evan Smith through the first seven games – usually at about a two-to-one ratio – then later with rookie Alex Cappa after Smith landed on injured reserve. All of that indicates that the Buccaneers spent the season trying to determine what their best option was at right guard, or at least they felt they had different choices for different situations.
Smith has a year left on his deal with the Bucs and Cappa is heading into his second season after being drafted in the third round in 2018. Tampa Bay took Cappa out of Division II Humboldt State, so there was some expected adjustment time for him making the leap to the NFL. He may prove to be tougher competition for Benenoch in Year Two. In addition, the team could add an interior linemen or two in free agency or the draft. While the Buccaneers had a prolific passing attack in 2018, the run game was ineffective and new Head Coach Bruce Arians will be looking to remedy that in 2019. That will involve scrutiny at every position on offense, and right guard figures to get a good amount of attention.
*Cole Boozer, Ruben Holcomb: *Will they crack the 53-man roster in 2019?
Occasionally during the Burning Questions series will group two or more young players together if they are essentially in the same situation. Boozer and Holcomb both came to the Buccaneers as undrafted free agents last spring, the former out of Temple and the latter out of Division II University of Indianapolis. Both went to camp in Tampa and ended up on the Buccaneers' practice squad, though Holcomb started the season on the practice squad in Buffalo before returning in October. Boozer stayed with Tampa Bay the entire season.
So both young linemen were on the Bucs' practice squad when the 2018 season ended,and both were regarded well enough to be immediately re-signed to reserve/futures contracts for 2019. Thus, should they maintain their spots on the roster into the summer, they will get another crack at training camp in Tampa.
What Boozer and Holcomb have done to this point is already a success for the pair of undrafted players. While they haven't yet received a promotion to an in-season active roster, like some of their young peers did, they continued to develop and are still considered prospects intriguing enough to get another long look. They could follow in the footsteps of teammate Mike Liedtke and potentially make the jump to active status next fall. That will be the goal.
Alex Cappa: Will the new coaching staff see Cappa as a versatile super-sub or have him focus on one position?
When the Buccaneers drafted Cappa last year, the Dirk Koetter-led coaching staff saw a couple different possibilities for how to put his talents to use. The most immediate plan was to train the rookie at several different positions in the thought that he could develop into an O-Line jack-of-all-trades who might be able to play any of the five positions. At the same time, they figured he would eventually settle into one spot as he hopefully began to ascend towards starter status.
Cappa is indeed versatile and still could end up inside or outside, but as a rookie all of his in-season action came at right guard. Had there been no coaching change, that might have been good evidence that this was the position he was considered most suited to play in the long run.
It's possible, on the other hand, that a new set of coaches will evaluate Cappa and see him as a better option at a different spot on the line. Or they might agree with the idea that Cappa could be a super-sub early in his career and continue to cross-train him at different positions. He's sure to get a very good shot at earning a starting spot somewhere, but we might not know where for a few months.
*Demar Dotson: *Will he experience some better fortune with injuries and thus be in a better position to play at his highest level?
Dotson was having a very good season in 2017, one of his best as a pro, and not coincidentally because he came into that year feeling good after dealing with a repaired knee that wasn't quite 100% in 2016. However, after 11 games of good health in '17, he was struck by another mishap, this time a PCL injury in his right knee, and that pushed him to injured reserve for the final five games. He didn't immediately have surgery at the beginning of the 2018 offseason but it was later deemed necessary in the spring, backing up the timetable for his return. The Buccaneers took it easy on him in training camp, working him slowly back into the rotation, and he was in his customary right tackle spot on opening day.
Still, the knee remained an issue he had to play through all season, and he also incurred a handful of other injuries, including the hamstring issue that sidelined him for a game. Dotson powered through it and was an important part of a fairly prolific offense, but he likely would have enjoyed that same 2017 form if he had been fully healthy.
So, with the possibility of some change coming to the offensive line under a new coaching staff, will Dotson at least have the advantage of good health as competition begins again in training camp? And if so, will we see that 2017 form again?
Ryan Jensen: Can he be the anchor of a more physical and productive rushing attack in 2019?
The Buccaneers did not run the ball very well (or particularly frequently) in 2018, ranking 29th in the league with 95.2 rushing yards per game and 31st with 3.92 yards per carry. Football Outsiders rankedthe Bucs' line as 31st in terms of run-blocking, rating them as producing 3.78 "Adjusted Line Yards" per carry (a statistic that attempts to separatethe ability of the running backs from that of his offensive line). However, the Buccaneers' offense did fare a little better when specifically running up the middle. On such carries, the team averaged 4.18 adjusted line yards per tote.
Tampa Bay signed Jensen at the very start of free agency last year. He was one of their primary targets after he had excelled in his first season as a starter at the pivot in Baltimore. The Buccaneers liked his talents, of course, but they were also enamored of Jensen's styleof play, using the word "nasty" to describe it, and meaning that as a compliment. The Buccaneers believed Jensen could help set the tone up front for a line that featured a lot of youthful players. And for the most part, he did exactly that.
That deal Jensen signed with the Bucs was for four years, and he is also only 27 years old, so the Bucs likely envisioned him anchoring their offensive line for a long while. As the team transitions to a new offense under Arians, hopefully one with better results on the ground, Jensen could prove to be a key figure in that succeeding.
Michael Liedtke: Will he follow up his first spot on an opening day roster with another season as a valuable and versatile reserve in Tampa?
As noted above, Liedtke is a good example for other young, undrafted linemen who are trying to work their way up to a more permanent spot in the NFL. Liedtke actually first came to the league as an undrafted free agent in 2015, with Miami, and was with four other clubs before he arrived in Tampa late in 2016. A month on the practice squad got him a contract and an invite to training camp in 2017, which led to nearly another whole season on the Bucs' practice squad. A late promotion got him into one game that year but it was this past summer that he finally broke camp with the active roster.
Liedtke earned his spot on the 53 by showing impressive versatility during the preseason, making a mid-camp switch from guard to left tackle and holding up quite well in that key spot. In the end, he only was on the field for three offensive snaps because the starting line remained so healthy throughout the year, but he was only a couple injuries away from meaningful action. Liedtke will look to put together another strong training camp performance and maintain his spot on the active roster, which could eventually lead to that first big dose of playing time.
Ali Marpet: Will he make the leap to Pro Bowl stats?
Marpet has been viewed as a rising star since not long after his arrival from Division III Hobart in 2015. The Buccaneers clearly agree with that assessment, as they have already taken care of the business of locking him in to a big second contract. Marpet signed a five-year deal last season that runs through 2023; he got his new contract before that of fellow 2015 second-rounder Donovan Smith, his good friend.
Marpet has already started at three different positions in four seasons, but it looks like left guard could be his permanent home for a long time. Big, strong and agile, Marpet is capable of providing strong pass protection and being a road-grader in the running game. He should be a cornerstone player for the Bucs' offense for years.
The question is, will he also be recognized as a Pro Bowler, and if so how soon? It may just be a matter of name recognition. There are plenty of NFC guards who have well-deserved reputations as Pro Bowl-caliber players, and that makes it difficult for others to leap over them. That group includes the Cowboys' Zack Martin, the Eagles' Brandon Brooks, the Panthers' Trai Turner and the Saints' duo of Andrus Peat and Larry Warford. Marpet's ability to break into that group may hinge on the Bucs' level of success as a team. A winning record would bring the team's top performers a lot more attention.
Evan Smith: How will the versatile blocker fit into the mix with a number of younger players looking to carve out bigger roles?
The Buccaneers signed 14 unrestricted free agents during the 2014 offseason; Smith was the only one of them still on the team's roster in 2018. Not only did the former Packer complete his original four-year deal but he signed another two-year pact that extends into 2019. That alone indicates that he has delivered value through his five years in Tampa.
Smith finished last year on injured reserve but before that was splitting time with Benenoch at right guard. In his time with the Bucs he has started 21 games at center, five at right guard and two at left guard. At times, he has played multiple interior-line positions in the same game. His versatility and steadiness at several positions was obviously appreciated by the Lovie Smith and Dirk Koetter coaching staffs.
Of course, a new coaching staff brings change, which can extend to all corners of the depth chart. Arians and his staff have finished their initial film-study evaluation of the entire existing roster, but we likely won't know how they feel about certain players until the roster moves surrounding free agency and the draft and then the first OTA practices in May. If the O-Line roster remains roughly the same in 2019, Smith would seem to be competing for roles along with a number of young hopefuls, such as Cappa and Liedtke. Will Smith's versatility and history of dependable play keep him entrenched in the Bucs' plans.
Leonard Wester: Will he get more exposure on offense prior to his opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent?
Wester is a former undrafted free agent who showed enough promise as a rookie to earn a roster spot in 2016, which in turn has allowed him to gradually build a bigger role on offense. He even made his first regular-season start in 2018.
Wester was inactive for much of his rookie campaign, seeing action in three games on special teams while Demar Dotson was out with an injury. He made the roster again in 2017 and was active for about half the season, getting into eight contests. Last year, however, Wester started the season in his most prominent position yet, as the third "swing" tackle active on game days. That meant Wester played in every game on special teams and occasionally as a sixth blocker in jumbo sets, and it also meant he was the one who would step in if either Donovan Smith or Demar Dotson went down. That happened in late November with Dotson's hamstring strain, and Wester handled himself well at right tackle for a game and a half in a pair of Buccaneer victories.
Wester has taken the usual contract path of an undrafted free agent who makes the team. He had a two-year deal to start and, upon completing it in 2017, was an exclusive rights free agent. That earned him a tender offer that became another one-year deal when he signed it before the draft. After playing out that one-year deal, Wester is now a restricted free agent likely to once again get a one-year tender offer. If that does indeed happen, Wester would likely be back for 2019 and then would have a crack at unrestricted free agency in 2020.
When and if Wester does hit free agency, it would obviously help him to have more regular-season tape to demonstrate his ability to play a prominent role in the NFL. It's unclear if that opportunity will arise in 2019, but if he remains in a reserve role with the Buccaneers he could eventually get a shot. The team may not be quite so fortunate with injuries along the line in 2019 as it was last year.