Jeb Terry, a fifth-round pick in 2004, is one of the main competitors for the open right guard position
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive line corps is versatile, young and promising. For those reasons, it is also a work in progress.
There are currently 17 offensive linemen among the 101 players on the Bucs' bursting-at-the-seams roster. With five starting spots available, that's more then three men competing for each position, on average.
However, the math is a little fuzzier than that, thanks to the multi-position capabilities of such men as Derrick Deese, Matt Stinchcomb and Sean Mahan. Add second-year man Anthony Davis to that list; after an extremely impressive camp at tackle last summer, Davis is now going to try his hand at guard in order to give the team another option at a position that is in flux.
Just two years ago, the Buccaneers started a lineup of Roman Oben and Kenyatta Walker at tackle, Kerry Jenkins and Cosey Coleman at guard and John Wade at center. Oben, Jenkins and Coleman are now gone, Wade missed the second half of 2004 with a very significant knee injury and Walker is currently sidelined – albeit briefly – after having had arthroscopic knee surgery.
Five of last year's six primary starters (Wade and Mahan started eight games each at center) are returning, with only Coleman moving on. However, given the Bucs' offseason emphasis on improving the running game, it's fair to say there is open competition at most spots. And, of those 17 men who will be involved in that competition, a full dozen have two or fewer years of experience.
Among the primary competitors, for instance, are four players from the Bucs' last three drafts – Mahan, Jeb Terry, Chris Colmer and Dan Buenning. Colmer and Buenning, third and fourth-round picks, respectively, this year, are the least predictable assets. Following last week's round of organized team activity (OTA) days – the first to mix veterans with the new class of rookies – Head Coach Jon Gruden said he didn't yet know how much Colmer and Buenning would play in 2005. The fact that they are rookies, however, will not be held against them.
"It depends on how Stinchcomb does; it depends on how Jeb Terry does," said Gruden. "There's competition there, and we're not going to discriminate against any of them. We'll get the five best guys playing.
Mahan held his own after Wade's injury last fall, and Terry, a rookie last year, looked good enough on the practice field by the end of the season to be considered a real option to replace Coleman. Colmer and Buenning are just at the beginning of the same process of growth and evaluation.
"I'll say this – Buenning looks good," said Gruden. "He's a square guy and he's tough as hell. He's all business, all the time. Colmer is having peaks and valleys right now, as most left tackles do. When you say hello to Simeon Rice every morning, and he's all over the place, and we're putting a new offense in and it's hot out, that's a tough day at the office. Colmer is going to be a good football player. Inside is what makes him outstanding. He's got a tremendous amount of pride and he's tough."
Walker's recent surgery is not a major issue and he is expected back on the field in a couple weeks. Wade is progressing well in his rehab and is planning to be at full speed for the start of training camp. It's possible that the Bucs could start the 2005 season with four of last year's five starters in place, including Deese at left tackle and Stinchcomb at left guard. However, there will certainly be a new right guard, with Coleman off to Cleveland after starting all 16 games last year.
Gruden identified Terry and Davis as the two main candidates at that spot, at least at the moment. Davis, however, has been taking a good amount of reps at right tackle, with Walker sidelined.
"Well, it's awfully early," said Gruden, asked to pinpoint a right guard. "With Kenyatta Walker out, we've had to obviously adjust the line a little bit and keep Anthony Davis working a little bit at right tackle. If anything did happen to Kenyatta, we'd have to make a move there. But those two guys are taking the majority of the reps at right guard."
The Bucs aren't completely green on the front line. Deese is entering his 14th season in the league while Todd Steussie has 11 years under his belt. Wade and Walker are in the middle of their careers. But the Bucs have invested quite a few draft picks in the offensive line in recent years and, at some point, would like to see some youth injected into the lineup. On the practice field, at least, that began last week, and the results were encouraging.
"I thought it went quite well," said Gruden. "[The young players] are not intimidated. They obviously respect the competition, but these guys are here to help us compete, and they're doing that."
Returns Close for Garner, McFarland
Wade and Walker aren't the only veteran player whose health is being closely monitored by the time. Both running back Charlie Garner and defensive tackle Anthony McFarland are returning from season-ending injuries last fall, and both are progressing according to schedule.
McFarland, who had shoulder surgery last season, could be close on the verge of getting full clearance.
"I think Mac is close to lift-off time," said Gruden. "We're just being very careful with him. He looks very good right now in individual work. [Chris] Hovan is right now making a difference. He's hard for us to handle [on offense]. He and McFarland inside are a problem for us, but that's a great thing for our team."
Garner, who suffered a broken foot in the third game of the 2004 season and missed the rest of his first year as a Buccaneer, is not likely to see much action until the team moves its operations to Orlando in late July.
"We think training camp is his target date," said Gruden. "He's doing quite well. He's been to meetings and he's been around here working. He's getting close to being at full strength, but he won't compete until training camp."