When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers began looking at the possibility of moving guard Ali Marpet to center early in 2017, it was with the goal of getting the "best five players on the field" as an offensive line. That's a phrase repeated often by both Head Coach Dirk Koetter and General Manager Jason Licht.
Beyond that, the Buccaneers are also trying to determine the best seven-man combination of linemen to keep active on game days. And in a larger sense, they will use training camp and the preseason to figure out which nine or 10 O-Linemen make up the best possible crew overall.
In service of those layered goals, Buccaneer coaches are evaluating everything – from J.R. Sweezy's acclimation back to contact after being out a year to Marpet's command of the mental aspect of playing center – and occasionally trying out some different combinations. For instance, second-year player Leonard Wester got some snaps with the first time at right tackle on Wednesday and Caleb Benenoch got his first look of camp at left tackle on the second team.
Those latter moves have more to do with that seven-man decision on Sundays. The team generally only keeps two reserve O-Linemen active for games, one to back up the three interior spots and one to serve as a "swing" tackle, which means he's ready to step in on either edge of the line. For much of camp, the Bucs had been putting Wester at left tackle and Benenoch at right tackle on the second-team line, but now they've gotten a look at each can handle the opposite edge. Obviously, that evaluation process is ongoing, and there's still a long way to go before September 10.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' training camp practice on Wednesday.
"Yeah, we switch," said Koetter. "We're rotating every couple of days. We're rotating Benenoch and
Wester. When you get in a game, you'll probably only have three tackles up. So, that means that swing tackle has to be able to play both sides."
It is important to build a cohesive starting line, which obviously puts value on every snap in which all five expected starters take together. Right now, that group includes Marpet at center, Sweezy and Kevin Pamphile as the guards and Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson as the tackles, and they've had plenty of collective work in the first week of camp. But Koetter knows that he also has to prepare his team for the possibility of disruption to that line, such as when Pamphile and Joe Hawley sustained injuries near the middle of last season.
"You have to cross-train guys because only one team in the NFL started the five O-linemen the whole year and that was Atlanta," said Koetter. "So like today, Dot rotated out being a veteran that he is and we're trying to get those young tackles some work with the 'ones' as well."
Late last season the Buccaneers found themselves without both Dotson and his primary backup, Gosder Cherilus. Pamphile, who had started 12 of the first 14 games at left guard, moved out to right tackle for the Week 16 contest at New Orleans, with veteran Evan Smith stepping in at right guard. The presence of such versatile players as Pamphile and Smith give the Buccaneers options if, for instance, Marpet was needed at guard or otherwise unavailable. As for Marpet's move to center, however, it is going well.
"It's been great," said quarterback Jameis Winston. "Ali is a very bright, bright center. That connection that we have already – with us coming in together in the same draft class – makes it an easier transition with him being at center."
One reason for that move to center, in addition to the belief that Marpet will excel there, is that it opens up right guard for Sweezy, who started 49 games at that spot for Seattle from 2012-15. The Buccaneers eagerly signed Sweezy in free agency in 2016 but a back ailment kept him out of action all season. The move into Tampa Bay's starting lineup was thus delayed, but it could be a big boon for the line in 2017.
"J.R. Sweezy is a beast out there, man," said Winston. "I'm happy that he is able to play this year and you can see the tenacity in his eyes because he didn't get a chance to play last year."
Sweezy's Buccaneer teammates have noted his strength and his physical style of play, and he was considered a strong run-blocker in Seattle. The Buccaneers are determined to fix their ground game in 2017 after a down year in 2016, and Sweezy's power could be an important part of that.
"Last year was tough for J.R. because had to be around, but he couldn't be in the mix," said Koetter. "Of all the position groups out here, O-linemen hate that the worst. The group is very accepting of J.R. He's fit right in with the guys. J.R started 50-something games at Seattle, so it's not like he forgot how to play. But, he just has to get back to the daily grind of it and how his body feels. He came off back surgery, so he's just got to get used to it again. He's fine, he's where he needs to be after five practices."