The Tampa Bay Buccaneers believed they would field the best offensive guard tandem in the league in 2012 after signing All-Pro Carl Nicks to play alongside Pro Bowler Davin Joseph. Instead, those two combined for seven regular-season games played, none of them together.
That was undoubtedly one of the main disappointments of the 2012 season, which in many other ways was very promising under first-year Head Coach Greg Schiano. That is also one very strong reason for optimism in 2013.
It's not just that Nicks and Joseph are expected to be back at full strength for the start of the season, flanking Jeremy Zuttah in his most natural position at center. It's what transpired in their absence – plus a few more recent developments – that has the Buccaneers believing they have not only a very strong line to trot out in Week One but also the kind of depth that can prove crucially important.
The Buccaneers didn't fold in the absence of Joseph, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third week of the preseason. And an offense that was just hitting its stride at midseason didn't fall apart when Nicks was shelved by a toe injury after the seventh game. They adjusted, they asked new things out of their reserves and they powered on, finishing with some of the best offensive numbers in franchise history. A half-year later, Offensive Line Coach Bob Bostad is still impressed at what his chargers were able to handle in such adversity.
"Last year, you have to give the players all the credit," said Bostad. "I thought those guys did a tremendous job – Jamon Meredith and Demar [Dotson] and Ted Larsen moving around and playing multiple positions in a short amount of time, with short turnaround…being able to be the next guy up, so to speak."
Jeremy Trueblood, the long-time starter at right tackle, was also banged up to start the season, which thrust Dotson into the lineup by Week Two. He never relinquished the job. Meanwhile, Larsen was the first one to get the call at right guard in Joseph's place, though he was later replaced by Meredith, who made a quick conversion from offensive tackle. After Nicks went down, Larsen came back into the picture at center, with the always versatile and dependable Jeremy Zuttah moving to left guard.
The Bucs knew they had a flexible piece in Zuttah, who has started all three interior spots during his career, though both he and the team would prefer to let him flourish at center. They also knew that Larsen would hold his own at short notice after seeing the relatively unknown player emerge in similar circumstances as a rookie in 2010. But they have since found out that Dotson, who played a grand total of six college football games before coming to the NFL, is a starting-caliber player despite his lack of experience. And they have also very recently added a new piece to the puzzle in former Chicago Bear Gabe Carimi, a 2011 first-round pick who came over in a trade on Monday and who has started at both right tackle and right guard.
Those lessons, combined with the arrival of Carimi and the returns of Joseph and Nicks leave the Buccaneers with a suddenly very deep and malleable group of offensive linemen, one that can sustain success even if injuries unfortunately strike again.
NFL teams generally keep either eight or nine offensive linemen on their 53-man roster, with seven of them usually active on game days. Take the core that was on the depth chart at the end of last season – Donald Penn, Jamon Meredith, Jeremy Zuttah, Ted Larsen, Demar Dotson and Cody Wallace – and add Nicks, Joseph and Carimi and you have a possible nine-man crew. Now, there are other young linemen in the mix who may force their way onto the depth chart, so the Week One depth chart might not be those exact nine players. However, if it were, that would be an impressively versatile and experienced crew.
The Bucs would have four players they feel comfortable with at tackle in that scenario (Penn, Dotson, Meredith and Carimi), six who could play guard (Nicks, Joseph, Zuttah, Larsen, Carimi and Wallace) and three who could play center (Zuttah, Larsen and Wallace). That's the kind of depth a coach loves to see on a depth chart, and it was certainly hard-earned.
"Hopefully with those reps we dumped into them, they're going to be able to either be there for us right off the bat or step into that same situation that happened," said Bostad. "It was a really good investment. Last year was a good investment that way."