As I noted last week, there is only one position on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' depth chart at which the team has done all three of these things during the 2020 offseason (so far):
1. Signed an unrestricted free agent from another team;
2. Selected one in the draft; and
3. Re-signed one of its own unrestricted free agents.
Those three players would be former Indianapolis Colt Joe Haeg, former Iowa Hawkeye Tristan Wirfs and still-Buccaneer Josh Wells. And the position, of course, is offensive tackle. That's an obvious indication that this position needed attention before the 2020 season, though left guard Ali Marpet argues in the linked story above that the offensive line as a whole was pretty solid already. The issue was two-fold: A new starter to replace longtime stalwart Demar Dotson at right tackle and a restoration of overall depth.
Dotson spent most of the last decade manning the right side of the Bucs' offensive line, expect for some stretches he missed due to injuries. That included 15 starts last year, but the 34-year-old veteran hit unrestricted free agency in March and the team has not moved to re-sign him. Instead, that became a clear target in the draft, which featured a quartet of blue-chip tackle prospects, all of whom went among the first 13 selections.
It was at number 13, after a trade up one spot to keep another team from swooping in, that the Buccaneers capped that run with the choice of the freakishly athletic Wirfs. He and Haeg will presumably battle to start the season in Dotson's former spot, and any team that selects an offensive tackle in the first half of the first round is obviously hoping it has landed an instant starter.
Donovan Smith mans the other side of the line and is coming off perhaps his best season, though the 2019 campaign also included the only start he has missed due to injury (or any other reason) in his five-year career. The assignment that Smith and, presumably, Wirfs have in 2020 became a lot more high-profile when the Buccaneers started the 2020 NFL calendar year by signing quarterback Tom Brady way from the Patriots.
Though Smith has been an iron man and Wirfs has fresh 21-year-old legs, valid offensive tackle depth is still critical. If there is a significant drop-off from an injured starter to his replacement, that imperils the quarterback and can hamstring the offense. Thus, even if he doesn't beat out the rookie for the right tackle job, Haeg fills a valuable role on the roster, as does Wells, who started at both tackle spots last year.
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 those players who have to set the edges for Brady and get some more production out of the rushing attack.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster as it currently stands.
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 selection of Wirfs marked the first time the Buccaneers have used a first-round pick on an offensive lineman since Davin Joseph was nabbed at number 23 in 2006. Moreover, he is the first offensive tackle Tampa Bay has taken in the opening round since Kenyatta Walker in 2001. Massive hits on undrafted free agents Dotson and Donald Penn helped bridge that nearly two-decade gap, and Smith was picked just a few spots into the second round in 2015, but it was obviously time for the Buccaneers to invest heavily in that key position again.
The trade that moved the Bucs up one spot from 14 to where the San Francisco 49ers were originally set cost a fourth-round draft pick but eased worries that another team would make a similar deal after Andrew Thomas, Jedrick Wills and Mekhi Becton were all taken in the first 11 picks.
"To be able to ensure that we get the player we all love thus far and what we've seen and what he is as a person and a player, I think it's well worth it," said General Manager Jason Licht. "It's across the board with Bruce [Arians] and I and our staffs. We felt like was something worth doing.
"We didn't want to risk it. As Bruce [Arians] says, 'No risk-it, no biscuit.' We had to give up a little capital to go get him, but in this case, we thought because of the player and the position – but especially the player – that it was worth it."
Wirfs is considered capable of starting on either end of the line, and that certainly adds to his overall value as a draft pick, but for now the Buccaneers are committed to Smith on the left side. He neared free agency a year ago before agreeing to a new three-year deal that runs through 2021. Three of the Bucs' five front-line starters – Smith, Marpet and center Ryan Jensen – are playing on lucrative contracts either signed in free agency or as second deals for drafted players.
Haeg and Wells both have starting experience in the NFL and the ability to play on either side, which makes them both good options as the "swing tackle" who is active on game days along with the two starters. The fifth tackle on the current roster is Brad Seaton, a first-year player who has been working to land a sustained NFL job since he was a seventh-round pick by Tennessee in 2017. The massive Seaton (6-8, 325) spent all of 2019 on the Bucs' practice squad and the Bucs still see potential in him. That said, all eyes will be on Wirfs when the team gets back on the practice field.
"We're just very excited to have him as a player," said Licht. "We feel good about Joe Haeg. We feel good about Brad Seaton. We feel good about Donovan [Smith], so we feel like we have some good players on our team."
• Brad Seaton…Signed new two-year deal in January after finishing season on practice squad; Two stints with Bucs, also time with Cleveland and Tennessee but no regular-season games played
• Donovan Smith…Entering second year of three-year contract signed in 2019; Has started 79 of a possible 80 games at left tackle over first five NFL seasons
• Josh Wells…Signed new one-year contract in May; Made one start each at right and left tackle for the Buccaneers in 2019
• Demar Dotson…Remains unsigned unrestricted free agent; Started 15 games at right tackle for Bucs in 2019, pushing career total to 106 starts
• Jerald Hawkins…Remains unsigned unrestricted free agent; Appeared in one game as a reserve in 2019
• Joe Haeg…Signed from Indianapolis as an unrestricted free agent in March; Started 19 games over four seasons with Colts, playing both right and left tackle
• Tristan Wirfs…Selected with the 13th overall pick of the 2020 draft, the first offensive tackle drafted in the first round by Tampa Bay since 2001; Started 43 games at Iowa, 40 at right tackle
The Buccaneers picked up three interior offensive linemen in the post-draft rookie signing frenzy, but no tackles. Last year, they took 16 offensive linemen to training camp, four of whom were specifically identified as tackles on the roster and a handful of others (Caleb Benenoch, Cole Boozer, Mike Liedtke) who had the ability to play out there. It's possible the Buccaneers, who currently have three open spots on their 90-man offseason roster, could still add to the tackle position before the start of camp.
Licht said the Buccaneers had high grades on all of the tackles who went in the first 13 picks, but there was no doubt he was excited about landing Wirfs. The former Iowa standout opened eyes at the NFL Scouting Combine by running a 4.85-second 40-yard dash at 320 pounds and adding a 36.5-inch vertical leap and a 10-foot, one-inch long jump. Wirfs has a powerful game but the former high school wrestling champ also has the nimble feet that could make him a star at the tackle position.
"He's an incredible athlete and I think he still has a huge ceiling," said Licht. "He also has a high floor. He's a very good player, but I think he's got a tremendous amount of upside in front of him, as well."
As for Smith, Buccaneer officials have long pushed back at the notion that the Buccaneers were lacking at the left tackle position, which was obvious when they re-signed Smith a year ago. In addition to his very valuable ability to suit up Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, Smith also was still improving his game in 2019, in the Buccaneers' eyes. They expect even better things in 2020.
"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," said Arians. "I thought Donovan got a lot better. I think he'll get even more intense with Tom back there at quarterback than he has been, but he did play extremely well last year. I thought he made the most improvement of the things we asked him to do than anybody up front."
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The discrepancy between some of the outside opinions of the Buccaneers' offensive line – to which Marpet alluded last week – and the team's evaluation is another indication that the play of linemen is difficult to judge, statistically. Sack rate and per-carry rush average offer some insight, and the Buccaneers could use some improvement in both categories in 2020, but the linemen must also get their share of the credit when an offense succeeds.
And, with the obvious exceptions of turnovers and an inconsistent rushing attack, the Buccaneers saw a lot of success on offense in 2019. Tampa Bay demolished its former single-season scoring record with 458 points and still would have set that record even without the six touchdowns contributed by the defense. The Bucs led the NFL in passing yards and had more plays of 20 or more yards than any other offense in the league. That obviously requires some pretty good protection to set up so many downfield gains.
The Bucs' line gave up 47 sacks, which was the 11th most in the NFL, but also threw the ball 630 times, which was the fourth most. The results were 28.6 points per game, tied with New Orleans for the third most in the league.
The rushing attack was less effective, thought it improved down the stretch. Tampa Bay ranked 24th in rushing yards per game and 28th in yards per carry, the latter figure at 3.7.
The Bucs enjoyed good health along the line in 2019, which helped. While Smith finally missed a start after opening 77 games in a row, Jensen and Marpet were both available for all 16 games. Dotson only missed one start and Alex Cappa, in his first season manning right guard, was out for just three. The Bucs only had one game in which more than one of their usual five were out. That continuity surely helped, as it does in a larger sense with four of five starters returning in 2020.
Three Key Questions:
• Will Tristan Wirfs provide an elite level play right from the beginning of his career?
Wirfs play at Iowa and his measurables surely paint the picture of an elite NFL lineman, but it's common knowledge at this point that the draft is no sure thing. There are examples of both ends of the spectrum from the Buccaneers' own history. Paul Gruber was taken with the fourth-overall pick in 1988 and was an outstanding lineman from Day One to the end of his 12-year career. Kenyatta Walker was the 14th pick in 2001, and while he was a starter on the 2002 Super Bowl team he only lasted one season at left tackle. Assuming Wirfs does win the right tackle job to start the season, the Buccaneers will need him to be a solid protector for Brady immediately. Tampa Bay's offseason maneuvers are those of a team in win-now mode, which means any rookie contributor is going to be expected to play at a high level right away.
• Does Donovan Smith have another level to reach in 2020 and beyond?
Again, the Buccaneers are clear on this: They believe Donovan Smith is a very good left tackle and they think he had his best season in 2019. Arians noted that Smith took a step forward last year and improved in some specific areas. Smith is big, talented, durable and confident…could his career eventually include some Pro Bowl recognition. The additions of Brady and Rob Gronkowski have turned the NFL spotlight on Tampa Bay (five prime-time games!), and that in turn is going to shine a light on some other Buccaneers who might be underappreciated. Linebacker Lavonte David is the poster boy for that idea, but Smith is another Buc who could significantly change how he is viewed. Arians believes blocking for Brady will increase Smith's intensity level, and perhaps it will take him to a new level overall.
• Who will be the primary swing tackle?
The Bucs have two obvious candidates for this job in Haeg and Wells, assuming that Wirfs joins Smith in the starting lineup. Tampa Bay moved quickly to grab Haeg from the Colts in March, suggesting that they have a definite role for him in mind. The team didn't re-sign Wells until after the draft, but it's reasonable to believe that the shuttering of the offseason program due to the coronavirus played a part in that slow process. Both players have starts at right and left tackle on their NFL resumes. Even if both make the 53-man roster there should still be a battle to see who gets to be first in line on Sundays when injuries hit.