View some of the top photos of C Ali Marpet from the 2017 season.
The first part of Ali Marpet's NFL journey could be called a vertical path, as he rose quickly from the far reaches of Division III college football to a starting job at the game's highest level. The last year or so, however, has been more of a horizontal passage for Marpet, from right to left.
Though further roster and roster-health developments could still alter the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' plans, Marpet is currently slated to man the left guard position for the team in 2018. That comes after he played center in 2017 and right guard in his first two NFL campaigns. Head Coach Dirk Koetter revealed this depth-chart switch during his breakfast with the media at the NFL's Annual Meeting on Tuesday morning. The move puts Marpet alongside his fellow 2015 draftee, left tackle Donovan Smith. J.R. Sweezy is the incumbent at right guard, though he has yet been cleared to practice after ending 2017 on injured reserve.
"Ali's going to play left guard," said Koetter. "We're going to play Ali next to Donovan. There's not a technical reason [for putting Marpet on the left side]. Ali is like Evan Smith now in that he can play any of the three inside spots. It will really come down to who we want in the other spot. Right now, as we're sitting at this table today, J.R. played right guard last year, so that is how we would be there. But that still could change."
The Bucs were in no way displeased by Marpet's play at center in 2017 and felt he had improved considerably by the second half of the season as he became more comfortable in the role. In fact, Marpet's days in the pivot aren't necessarily over. However, the team signed former Baltimore Ravens blocker Ryan Jensen to a big contract in free agency and believe he will best help the line by starting at center. Marpet's versatility and proven excellence at guard makes that plan possible.
"What Ryan brings is toughness and an attitude, and it also allows us to move Ali back to guard," said Koetter. "It gives us some flexibility, again, because he can play both, as can Ali. We like his style of play. He's a guy that was drafted late, had to work his way up, got cut, [overcame a] sleep apnea thing, had to fight for his life just to make a team. They changed O-Line coaches, he finally got on the field at the center position and had a really solid year."
The Bucs had four players capable of snapping the ball in 2017 – Marpet, Evan Smith, Joe Hawley and Kevin Pamphile – but Hawley has retired and Pamphile moved on to Tennessee via free agency. The Buccaneers did re-sign Smith last week, and he too has starting experience at both guard and center, but the addition of Jensen puts the Bucs back in a good spot in the middle of the line. With Smith and right tackle Demar Dotson returning, the team's biggest uncertainty on the offensive front is at right guard, thanks to Sweezy's injury.
"We also have the flexibility of bringing Evan back," said Koetter. "We have some options. Right now, J.R. is out of the building and he's training in Pensacola, so I'm not really sure exactly where he stands. Our philosophy has never changed – we're going to get the best five guys on the field. We just don't know who they are right now."
One younger player who could factor into that effort to identify the best five-man lineup is Caleb Benenoch, a fifth-round pick in 2016. Benenoch finished last season as the team's starting right tackle after a rash of injuries to the O-Line in December, but he has experience all over the front. Benenoch played primarily tackle at UCLA was considered more likely to stick at guard when he was drafted. In the two years since, he's shown flashes that he can handle both jobs. He could make the team, and the game day dress list, by giving the Bucs a player who can back up multiple positions, but that's not necessarily his ceiling in 2018. Koetter called Benenoch the "wild card" in the team's starting-lineup plans.
"At the very least, if not more," said Koetter, when asked if Benenoch could handle a swing-guard role. "The one thing we feel from watching Caleb's tape is, if it would ever be possible for us to put Caleb in a spot and leave him there, it would probably help him. Caleb's one of those guys that's been moved around so much he can never really get used to playing [one spot]. One week he's playing left guard and the next week he's the right tackle. I think there's a little bit of an art to that."
An even wilder card is the upcoming NFL Draft. Now that the Bucs have used free agency to shore up the defensive end, center and kicker positions, they have a bit more flexibility heading into the early rounds. Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson, widely regarded as a top-five talent, could fall to the Buccaneers' range if there is an early run on quarterbacks, or the team could look at other interior linemen later in the draft. That could affect the competition that Benenoch is about to enter, and it could conceivably even alter the plans to move Marpet to left guard. Time will tell.
"We have high hopes for Caleb, and then again we still have the draft," said Koetter. "We have a long road to go here before we have to solve this for real. We've got plenty of time."