Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen and Alex Cappa combined to make 45 of a possible 48 individual starts at the three interior offensive line positions for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019. The plan heading into the 2020 campaign appears to be to run those same three back again in front of new quarterback Tom Brady.
Injuries and/or competition can always change plans, but if the Marpet-Jensen-Cappa trio does indeed stick for all or most of 2020 it will end a seemingly impossible streak. The last time the Buccaneers had the same three players make the majority of the team's starts at left guard, center and right guard in two consecutive seasons was 1998 and 1999. For the record, that threesome was left guard Jorge Diaz, center Tony Mayberry and right guard Frank Middleton.
In a year in which continuity is a more valuable commodity than ever, the Buccaneers will have it in the middle of their offensive front. That has been underscored by a relative lack of attention given to the guard and center positions during an otherwise very active offseason. While the quarterback room was welcoming the sagest possible addition, the defensive front was kept intact by a salary-cap splurge and the offensive tackle position was addressed in three different ways, the interior line group has actually had a net loss of one experienced veteran.
Earl Watford, who was the team's active reserve for the guard and center positions throughout 2019 – and who actually started the three games that Cappa missed – remains an unsigned free agent. The only additions the Buccaneers have made at the position were three rookie free agents following the draft. Backing up the starters between the tackles at the moment, other than those three rookies, are three players who have a combined 15 games and two starts in the regular season: Aaron Stinnie, Zack Bailey and Anthony Fabiano.
Obviously the Buccaneers think highly of their starting guards and centers, and certainly they've made big financial commitments to Marpet and Jensen. There is still the possibility of a veteran addition or two at guard or center, but it looks like continuity will be king in 2020.
Over a six-week period in May and June, we will be taking a close look at each position on the depth chart now that the draft and most of free agency are complete. Some positions needed more attention in the offseason than others after the 2019 season, but every spot on the depth chart has seen some turnover. Today we focus on the men in the middle of the trenches on offense.
Roster Review Schedule:
• Monday, May 18: Quarterbacks
• Wednesday, May 20: Running Backs
• Monday, May 25: Wide Receivers
• Wednesday, May 27: Tight Ends
• Monday, June 1: Offensive Tackles
• Wednesday, June 3: Guards & Centers
• Monday, June 8: Defensive Linemen
• Wednesday, June 10: Outside Linebackers
• Monday, June 15: Inside Linebackers
• Wednesday, June 17: Cornerbacks
• Monday, June 22: Safeties
• Wednesday, June 24: Specialists
The Buccaneers' linemen will also benefit from the team's overall continuity, as the coaching staff returns almost completely unchanged and the players now have a year of playing in Arians' system under their belts. With the offseason program essentially wiped about by quarantine efforts and the exact return date not yet known, that could be an edge for the Bucs and teams like them.
"I think that teams with new schemes, new coaches, first-year coaches, it's going to be a little bit harder obviously because you have less time to install the playbook," said Marpet. "I think for us it gives us maybe a slight advantage being in the same system with the same terminology. So I think that's a benefit for us and we're fortunate in that way."
Tampa Bay's starting trio of interior linemen is interesting in that is undoubtedly the first time and NFL team has filled out those spots with players from Hobart, Colorado State-Pueblo and Humboldt State. Those are the origins of Marpet, Jensen and Cappa, respectively, and those three schools have produced exactly zero other draft picks since 1993. The Buccaneers became enamored of Marpet during the lead-up to the 2015 draft and traded up into the bottom of the second round to make sure they got him. They pulled off a similar maneuver to ensure they would get Cappa in the third round in 2018. Jensen, meanwhile, was a sixth-round pick by Baltimore in 2013.
Jensen got a chance to start regularly for the first time for the Ravens in 2017 and was so impressive that he landed a lucrative four-year deal from the Bucs the next offseason. He is currently halfway through the deal and his high level of play in 2019 made it logical that he is one of the higher-paid centers in the league. Marpet also got a new contract from the Buccaneers in 2018 before his initial rookie deal could expire.
With Watford gone, the Buccaneers' most experienced reserve at guard or center is Fabiano, who started one game for Cleveland in 2016 and one for Indianapolis in 2017. The Harvard product spent the last 10 weeks of 2019 on Tampa Bay's practice squad. Stinnie got into four games with the Titans and two with the Bucs but has not yet logged a start. Bailey was a highly-regarded undrafted rookie and he did make the 53-man roster to start the season but he never got into a game before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in practice.
• Zack Bailey…Entering second year of three-year contract signed as an undrafted free agent in 2019; Made 53-man roster as a rookie but spent last 11 weeks on injured reserve
• Alex Cappa…Entering third year of four-year rookie deal after being drafted in the third round in 2018; Opened 13 games at right guard in first season in starting lineup
• Anthony Fabiano…Signed new two-year deal in January after finishing season on practice squad; Has played in nine regular-season games for Browns and Colts, starting two
• Ryan Jensen…Entering third year of five-year contract signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2018; Has started all 32 games at center since joining team
• Ali Marpet…Signed five-year extension through 2023 in October, 2018; Started all 16 games at left guard and has started at all three interior line positions since 2015 rookie year
• Aaron Stinnie…Claimed off waivers from Tennessee in November, bringing contract through 2020 with him; Has appeared in six regular season games, including two with Bucs last year
• Mike Liedtke…Signed with Washington as free agent; Spent all of 2019 on injured reserve
• Earl Watford…Remains unsigned unrestricted free agent; Started three games at right guard in place of an injured Alex Cappa in 2019
• Nick Leverett…Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Rice; Started all 12 games at right guard for the Owls in 2019 and won honorable mention all-conference honors
• John Molchon…Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Boise State; Started every game in 2019 and won all-conference first-team honors for the second consecutive year
• Zach Shackelford…Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Texas; Started four years at center for Longhorns, opening 40 games
Leverett, Molchon and Shackleford are the only true newcomers but they certainly picked a destination that should allow them to compete for spots on the 53-man roster. Last season, the Buccaneers kept two reserve interior linemen on the roster throughout the year, with Watford joined first by Bailey and then undrafted rookie center Nate Trewyn and finally Stinnie after a waiver claim in November.
Tampa Bay took 16 offensive linemen overall into training camp, including six who were specifically identified as guards or centers and another five who were marked with a more generic "OL" on the roster but who could clearly play guard or center. At the moment the team has 14 offensive linemen on the roster, nine of whom are specifically labeled as guards or centers. The other five are clearly going to play tackle. That suggests the team could still add a lineman or two before camp but it won't necessarily be an interior guy.
The Buccaneers did make two significant additions at tackle, with the drafting of Iowa's Tristan Wirfs in the first round and the signing of former Colt Joe Haeg. At least one of those moves was completely necessary as the Buccaneers were looking for a new starter at right tackle to take over for Demar Dotson. However, they appear to be content with their starters on the inside.
"When you look back at the grades last year – I don't put a lot of stock into what other people grade our guys – they were graded pretty high. Ali is solid; Ryan had a heck of a year; Cappa, I thought had a fantastic year for a young guy," said Arians in March. "[He] played with a broken arm and he got better and better. Joe Haeg is a solid right tackle. We will see what happens in the draft. I think we'll need some depth. I think we do have some really young guys I like – [Brad] Seaton, Stinnie – some of those guys that practiced us with us all year, like Fabiano. I really like what those guys bring as depth. I don't see it as a glaring need, but you're always looking to upgrade somewhere."
Here we can repeat most of the points from Tuesdays' review of the tackle position, since the O-Line works as one unit more than any other group on the depth chart. The Buccaneers would like to improve upon a running game that ranked 24th in yards per game and 28th in yards per carry in 2019. They were roughly middle of the pack in sacks per pass play but also faced a high level of difficulty with the Buccaneers' offense throwing it downfield more than any other team in the league.
And, of course, there were the clear successes for the Tampa Bay offense, for which the offensive line clearly deserves its share of the credit. The Bucs tied New Orleans for the third-most points in the league, scoring more than they ever had in a single season before. They also threw for the most yards in the league and had the most plays of 20 or more yards.
According to Football Outsiders, the Buccaneers' rushing attack, while not as good as hoped, did its best work running directly up the middle. Tampa Bay's "adjusted line yards" when running behind the interior linemen was an average of 4.28; it failed to top 3.55 in any of the other four directions (left or right edge or behind left or right tackle).
Three Key Questions:
• Will Alex Cappa take a significant step forward?
Marpet has been described by some as a future Pro Bowler and Jensen is coming off a very good second season in Buccaneer red. As noted above, Arians was clearly pleased with Cappa's efforts in his first year as a starter, especially while dealing with an arm fracture. Still, it's likely that the third-year player has the most room for improvement among those three starters. Jason Licht dipped into the small-school pool again to get Cappa because he's big and talented, but it makes sense that there would be an adjustment period for him at the NFL level. Now that he's had a year as a starter in the pros, will he find another level and possibly make a big positive difference in the Bucs' rushing attack?
• Who will be the reserves at guard and center?
Last season the Buccaneers had Watford as a safety blanket if any of their three starters missed time; presumably if Jensen had gone down Marpet would have reprised his role at center and Watford would have stepped in at guard, though that never proved necessary. Watford had started 22 games over four seasons in Arians' offense in Arizona, seeing action all up and down the line. At the moment, the Buccaneers don't have a veteran presence of that variety to back up Marpet, Jensen and Cappa. Stinnie and Fabiano start with an edge over their new young teammates having had plenty of time to work in that offense in practice last fall. However, neither is entrenched enough to be a sure thing to hold off the likes of Shackelford or Molchon. It's also possible that the team will add a veteran with some starting experience before the season begins, though that hypothetical newcomer would have to work hard to pick up the offense in a limited amount of time?
• Can the Buccaneers field a more balanced offense in 2020?
The NFL, more than ever, is a passing league, so the concept of a "balanced offense" isn't quite what it used to be. The Ravens and Lamar Jackson were an obviously outlier in 2019 but 20 of the 32 teams threw the ball on at least 58% of their offensive plays. That said, six of the top seven teams in terms of rushing percentage made the playoffs, and none of the bottom nine were in the postseason. The Buccaneers' offense is likely to remain one of the better passing attacks in the league with Brady taking over direction of a cast that includes Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, Cam Brate and Tyler Johnson. But Arians has made it clear that he would like to run the ball more and more effectively. Improvement could come from the additions of Wirfs, Gronkowski and Ke'Shawn Vaughn, but the interior linemen will be an important part of that process, as well.