The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2020 offseason featured dramatic moments in all three types of roster construction: re-signings of potential free agents, outside additions through free agency and trades, and draft picks.
The first category was highlighted by the retention of front-line defenders Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong. The second category included the arrival of the Tom Brady-Rob Gronkowski duo. And the third category brought in important help for both the offensive and defensive backfields in Antoine Winfield, Jr. and Ke'Shawn Vaughn.
But only one position group on the entire team saw its construction affected by all three of those avenues: the offensive line.
While the Brady signing was obviously the big news in the early days of free agency, the Buccaneers also added valuable depth to their O-Line by inking former Colt Joe Haeg, who started 35 games in Indianapolis over the past four years. In the draft, Tampa Bay surprised approximately no one by targeting one of the blue-chip offensive tackle in the first round, actually trading up a spot to secure Iowa's Tristan Wirfs. Finally, a week after the draft the Bucs dipped one more time into their own list of free agents, re-signing Josh Wells, who made one start each at right and left tackle in 2019.
Does all of that mean the offensive line was the position that needed the most work after the 2019 season? Not necessarily. The team did have one glaring hole to fill at right tackle, with Demar Dotson not returning, and that now has two possible answers in Wirfs and Haeg. And with Wells returning, the team essentially maintained its four-man tackle depth from 2020, with Haeg replacing Jerald Hawkins.
Otherwise, the Bucs are returning four rock-solid starters, all of whom were either second and third-round draft picks by the team or players who have received lucractive contracts in the last three years…or both. Ali Marpet, the cerebral and bruising left guard, is flanked by left tackle Donovan Smith and center Ryan Jensen, with third-year man Alex Cappa coming off his first season as the starter at right guard. No matter what perception existed about the Bucs' offensive line needing help, Marpet was already very confident in that group.
"I can really only speak for myself, so it may be different for other guys," he said. "But if I'm speaking for myself I really think what the perception is and how I feel about…I feel much more confident in how I feel about it than whatever the perception is. I really don't put much into that. Now, I think that an offensive line coach may try to use that as a tool to motivate guys; that could be useful sometimes. But ultimately, no, for me it's about how I feel, what kind of effort we're putting forward and how we're preparing. Are we doing everything we can possibly do to be successful? And if we're kind of checking those boxes and we're doing all that, then that's what I'm going to ask for."
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster as it currently stands.
There is room for improvement, of course. In particular, the Buccaneers would like to ramp up a rushing attack that finished 24th in the NFL in yards per game in 2019 and, most importantly, averaged just 3.7 yards per carry. The additions of Vaughn, Wirfs and Gronkowski all could factor into that improvement but Marpet says the returning O-Line was already determined to take its game to another level in 2020.
"I do think that our group, even though they're the same guys, are guys that want to improve on themselves and get better, get stronger and in better shape," he said. "So I think that you'll see better years from everyone – Donovan will play better, Ryan will play better than the year before. I think you'll see that everyone's going to work to play a little bit better because we have that sort of mentality and approach, just always kind of improving on ourselves. So I really do expect better results, better results in the run game, next year."
Marpet acknowledged that it will be exciting to block for Brady, who comes to Tampa looking for his seventh Super Bowl ring, but says that the effort is the same no matter what quarterback he and his line mates are trying to protect. What actually could make a difference, though, is the Buccaneers' defense getting better. That young crew came into its own in the second half of 2019 and is confident that will carry over into a great year in 2020. Last week, linebacker Devin White said that even with Brady in town it would be the defense that carries the team this fall.
That attitude, and hopefully that level of play, will raise the stakes for everyone in training camp.
"For such a long time we just play against ourselves during training camp, and that's such a huge element to have both sides of the ball improving each other," said Marpet. "I think playing against good players makes you better. I think having a competitive approach to wanting to have the better side of the ball is always helpful. So without a doubt I love that Devin White thinks the defense is going to be the driving force. Obviously, selfishly, I think it's going to be the offense. So I love that competitiveness and I think that's one aspect that can make the team great. But, really, it just makes practice more fun."