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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2023 State of the Bucs: Offensive Line

Taking a position-by-position breakdown as the Buccaneers head into the 2023 season continuing with the offensive line

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Position Group: Offensive Line

Players: Donovan Smith, Nick Leverett, Ryan Jensen, Robert Hainsey, Shaq Mason, Tristan Wirfs, Aaron Stinnie (Reserve/Injured), Brandon Walton, Luke Goedeke, John Molchon, Josh Wells (Reserve/Injured), Dylan Cook (Reserve/Future), Grant Hermanns (Reserve/Future), Michael Niese (Reserve/Future), Justin Skule (Reserve/Future)

2022 Evaluation: The Buccaneers concluded the 2022 season ranked 15th in total offense (346.7), last in rush offense (76.9), second in pass offense (324.3) and first in sacks allowed (22.0). Tampa Bay often fell behind early, which dictated the flow of games and led to a pass-heavy script for Tom Brady and company. The offense was predicated on the play of the men in the trenches. Brady's 751 pass attempts in 2022 were the most in a single season in NFL history and the unit's 22 sacks allowed, graded as the fifth-fewest in team history.

Tampa Bay underwent significant changes on the offensive line in 2022. Ali Marpet, the club's Pro Bowl left guard, retired and right guard Alex Cappa signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency. Both were stabilizing forces on the line that had to be replaced. Shuffling along the line ensued at the outset of the year. On the second day of Training Camp at the AdventHealth Training Center, starting center Ryan Jensen suffered a significant knee injury. He later disclosed the details of the injury as three ligament tears, multiple fractures and a meniscus injury following the Wild Card matchup versus Dallas. Traditionally, that would be a setback that would take nine months or longer to recover from but roughly six months later, Jensen made his highly-anticipated return against the Cowboys in the first round of the playoffs – a testament to his resilience, toughness and commitment. He played 80 snaps in the game and showed no signs of limitation, bolstering the offensive line.

Second-year pro Robert Hainsey was then thrust into action at center, playing 97 percent of the team's offensive snaps (100% during the regular season). On 1,175 snaps played, Hainsey racked up just two penalties and did not allow a sack according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). The Bucs drafted Hainsey in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft out of Notre Dame. Hainsey was a four-year starter at right tackle, but his length and base made him an ideal fit for the interior of the line at center/guard. At the Senior Bowl, he was dominant at both center and guard. The Bucs moved Hainsey inside and when Jensen went down, he assumed the pivotal role. Hainsey utilizes above-average short-area quickness and understanding of leverage to burst out of his stance and plays balanced to sustain blocks consistently as a run and pass blocker. 

The Bucs' depth was pushed to the limit when fifth-year guard Aaron Stinnie was carted off the field with a left knee injury in the third quarter of the club's preseason game against the Titans. Head Coach Todd Bowles confirmed that Stinnie suffered ACL and MCL tears in the knee, bringing his 2022 season to a premature end. Stinnie was one of the competitors in an offseason battle to replace retired Pro Bowler Ali Marpet at left guard, and the most experienced player in group. The subsequent battle then featured second-year player Nick Leverett and rookie Luke Goedeke, a second-round pick in the 2022 draft. Goedeke won the starting gig next to Hainsey. He was a two-year starter in Central Michigan's zone-blocking scheme. Goedeke is a finisher in the run game and possesses great contact balance to stay centered in blocks. He consistently drove defenders off their spot at the collegiate level and continued to develop as his experience level increased. Goedeke suffered a foot injury in the club's 21-3 loss to the Panthers, making Nick Leverett the starter. The coaching staff had begun using both interchangeably at the left guard position and given Leverett's production in the lineup during Goedeke's absence, he solidified a permanent starting role in the interior of the line.

Starting right tackle and the Bucs' lone Pro Bowl selection in 2023, Tristan Wirfs, set the tone. He anchored the line, continuing his reign of dominance at the line of scrimmage. Wirfs has started in 46 games over the previous three seasons, including 13 in 2022 as an ankle injury sidelined him for several games. Wirfs can generate movement at the point of attack in the ground game and sustains his blocks well. He is an effective puller and stays square to rushers. Wirfs is adept at using his hand placement to absorb rushers and redirect their power to shield the pocket. The former Iowa product allowed the lowest pressure rate in 2022 with a minimum of 500 pass blocking attempts (0.9%). In pass protection, Wirfs is rarely beat with flawless technique.

The Buccaneers acquired eighth-year guard Shaq Mason from the Patriots via trade at the outset of the 2022 season. Tampa Bay got a steal, sending its 2022 fifth-round pick to secure the deal. Mason started 111 of 116 game appearances in his seven seasons with New England. He previously blocked for Brady for five seasons, featuring two that resulted in Super Bowl championships. He became the club's starter at right guard, adding a veteran presence next to Wirfs. He started 17 games for the Bucs, bringing stability to an ever-changing lineup. Donovan Smith, the Bucs' longtime left tackle, had an up-and-down year as penalties hindered an otherwise promising campaign. As Tampa Bay's blindside tackle, Smith concluded the year with 12 penalties (tied, fourth) and allowed six sacks (tied, 15th) in 13 game starts.

Brandon Walton, John Molchon and Josh Wells provided depth throughout the season and Dylan Cook, Grant Hermanns, Michael Niese and Justin Skule were signed to a future contract with the Bucs following the 2022 season.

2023 Outlook: Of the aforementioned compilation of players, Aaron Stinnie, Josh Wells and Nick Leverett are set to become free agents in March. Leverett is an exclusive rights free agent, meaning he is a player with less than three accrued seasons in the league and an expiring contract. If the Bucs (original team) offers Leverett a one-year contract at the league minimum, then he cannot negotiate with other teams. Leverett earned a starting role to bolster the line in 2022 and Wells provided relief at various spots as injuries piled up. Stinnie did not play a snap during the regular season after suffering an ACL/MCL tear and the Bucs will have several tough decisions lingering in the offseason. The permeating question now becomes, who will the line be protecting in 2023?

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