In 2020, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense finished third in the NFL in scoring, seventh in total yards and second in both passing yards and sacks allowed per pass play. It was a star-studded group led by the incomparable Tom Brady and featuring such NFL household names as Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski and Leonard Fournette.
As great as Brady is and as deep as his cast of pass-catchers and ballcarriers was, none of those things happen without a cohesive offensive line operating at the top of its game. And the Buccaneers had that in 2020, despite relying on a rookie to take every offensive snap at right tackle.
Tristan Wirfs gave the Buccaneers an immediate and better-than-expected return from the 13th-overall pick in the 2020 draft. He paired with Donovan Smith to give Tampa Bay two iron men on the edges of the line. Smith famously opened his career with 77 straight starts for the Bucs at left tackle, missing only 30 snaps through his first four seasons, and Wirfs took a cue from his established linemate by never coming off the field last year.
Those two will be right back in their spots in 2021, keeping Tom Brady walled off from the NFL's many talented edge rushers, and swing tackle Josh Wells is back, too. While the team did have one rare free agency departure from the tackle group, the offense remains essentially intact from last season's championship run, and Assistant Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin thinks that will allow it to get off to a quicker start this fall.
"We're very fortunate to get all the guys back plus add some pieces this offseason through the draft and through free agency," said Goodwin. "For me as a coach, it's going to be exciting to back into the room and everybody's going to know what I'm talking about right from the rip. But with that being said, we can't be complacent. We have to stay hungry and just pretend like last year did not happen. Hopefully we can get better that way, stay focused throughout the year and maybe have an opportunity at the end of the day to still possibly repeat."
Like most teams in the NFL, the Buccaneers are holding a three-day mandatory mini-camp this week, after which players will have six weeks to rest before training camp. They have a 90-man roster for this week's practices, which is the same number they will take to training camp. That roster might see a minor change or two during those six weeks, but with the draft and most of free agency now in the rear view mirror, any changes are likely to be minor. That makes this is a good time to do a position-by-position review of the Bucs' depth chart heading into training camp, which we started two weeks ago. This week the focus is on the offensive line, with the tackles getting a look today and the guards and centers coming on Friday. Below is a full schedule of those positional reviews, including the ones already completed:
- Tuesday, May 25: Quarterbacks
- Friday, May 28: Running Backs
- Tuesday, June 1: Wide Receivers
- Friday, June 4: Tight Ends
- Tuesday, June 8: Offensive Tackles
- Friday, June 11: Guards & Centers
- Tuesday, June 15: Defensive Linemen
- Friday, June 18: Outside Linebackers
- Tuesday, June 22: Inside Linebackers
- Friday, June 25: Cornerbacks
- Tuesday, June 29: Safeties
- Friday, July 2: Specialists
In February, the Buccaneers were facing a long list of potential free agent defections from their Super Bowl roster and a relatively tight salary cap situation. That naturally drew attention to players who had high-dollar contracts that could be terminated without a dead-cap hit, and both Smith and center Ryan Jensen fell into that category. General Manager Jason Licht was asked about those two and made it clear that he had no intention of breaking up a line that played so well in 2020.
"We love Ryan and Donovan," said Licht. "They played a pivotal role in our offense – in their protection, in the run game. We envision Ryan and Donovan both being on this team. We expect them, not just envision them."
And indeed, the Buccaneers not only kept Smith but gave him a contract extension that simultaneously gave him more guaranteed money over the next couple years but also created some valuable cap space in 2021. Given his college experience and how well he played as a rookie, Wirfs could almost surely handle left tackle if Smith were out of the picture, but the Buccaneers greatly prefer having both standout tackles to anchor their line this season, especially with the 27-year-old Smith still very much in his prime.
Wells has not been needed much in his first two seasons with the Buccaneers with Smith rarely missing time and Demar Dotson giving way to Wirfs on the other side, but he has proved solid when called upon. Wells started one game each at right and left tackle in 2019 and one game in Smith's place last year. The Bucs obviously like the experienced depth he provides, as evidenced by the third straight one-year deal he got in late March. That said, there is possibly room for a newcomer at that position, as Bruce Arians noted after a recent OTA practice.
"Yeah, there are a couple spots that we could fill some roster spots – safety, tight end, offensive line," said Arians. "There are always some last-minute guys that always surprise me in these types of opportunities."
- Brad Seaton…Opted out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which means the two-year contract he signed after the 2019 season tolled and he is now entering the first year of that deal; Has spent time with Tennessee, Cleveland and Tampa Bay but has not yet appeared in a regular-season game.
- Donovan Smith…Entering the first of three years left on a contract that was renegotiated in March and now extends through the 2023 season; Started 19 of 20 games at left tackle in 2020, missing one while on the COVID-19 list, and played in 97% of the offensive snaps in those 19 games.
- Josh Wells…Signed a new one-year contract to remain with the Buccaneers on March 30; Played in each of the last 19 games of the 2020 season serving as the primary backup swing tackle, and started one contest at left tackle.
- Tristan Wirfs…Entering the second year of the rookie deal he signed after being selected in the first round of the 2020 draft; Started all 20 games at right tackle as a rookie and was credited with allowing just one sack all season.
- Joe Haeg…Signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers as an unrestricted free agent on March 24; Played in 16 games in his one season with the Buccaneers, starting one at left guard and two as a sixth offensive linemen, seeing 191 offensive snaps primarily in jumbo packages.
- Calvin Ashley…Signed a three-year contract as an undrafted free agent on May 13; Finished his college ball at Florida A&M after previously attending Auburn and Florida Atlantic.
- Robert Hainsey…Selected in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft; Started three seasons at right tackle for Notre Dame but has position flexibility.
The Bucs ran with exactly four tackles during the entire 2020 season, with all four of them also active for every game except the opener, which Wells sat out. The fourth man was Joe Haeg who, as noted above, got most of his time playing as a sixth offensive linemen in jumbo packages, particularly in the playoffs. Haeg was one of the very few Super Bowl LV champs to leave Tampa in free agency, hopping over to the Steelers a week into the new season.
That created one of the openings that Arians mentioned, and two of the primary candidates are either returning from a year off or entering the NFL for the first time. The former is first-year man Brad Seaton, who was on the practice squad for all of 2019 before opting out in 2020. The 6-9, 330-pound Seaton is the Bucs' biggest offensive lineman and he appears to have returned from his year off in very good shape.
"I was really happy to see Brad Seaton back," said Arians after the Villanova product took part in the team's OTA practices. "He opted out last year and he looks fantastic. He looked really good."
The latter is third-round rookie Robert Hainsey, who played right tackle at Notre Dame. The Buccaneers were absolutely attracted by Hainsey's positional flexibility, which he showed off to much praise at the Senior Bowl. The Buccaneers are currently having Hainsey learn to play center, a position at which they don't have an obvious number-two backup to Ryan Jensen, but his versatility could also make him the answer at the fourth tackle spot during the regular season. In a similar vein, our solution in these position-by-position reviews will simply be to include him in both posts this week.
"We're going to train him so that he is ready to go just in case," said Arians. "His position flexibility is amazing. He's going to play five spots. Center is a totally different bird. You learn the whole offense when you learn center – snapping the ball, especially when you've got Vita [Vea] and guys like that on you. That's a little different challenge, so we'll train him there. We know he can play tackle, we know he can play guard."
One of the best abilities possessed by the Bucs' offensive tackle group as a whole in 2020 was availability. As noted above, Smith only missed one game due to COVID (he did not test positive but was in close proximity to someone who did) and Wirfs never even missed an offensive snap. Wells and Haeg were also readily available when needed, Wells as a spot starter and Haeg as a sixth lineman. It was a well-coordinated group.
Wirfs was the fourth of the four blue-chip tackle prospects selected in the first half of the opening round in the 2020 draft, with the Bucs trading up a spot to make sure they didn't miss out. He would likely be well out of Tampa Bay's range if that draft got a do-over after he played at a Pro Bowl level throughout his rookie season. He only drew three penalty flags, including just one holding call, during the regular season, and none after Week Five. And, according to Stats LLC he was responsible for allowing only one sack during the regular season.
Meanwhile Smith had one of his best seasons protecting Tom Brady's blind side as the Buccaneers allowed a sack on just 3.51% of their pass plays, second in the league only to Pittsburgh (2.13%). Tampa Bay's front line was particularly strong down the stretch, allowing one or fewer sacks in nine of its last 12 games, including the playoffs. After allowing three sacks to Washington's talented defensive line in the Wild Card game, the Bucs only allowed Brady to be dropped one team each in the last three playoff contests.
Tampa Bay's rushing attack wasn't as strong during much of the 2020 season, ranking 28th in the league, but it also picked up steam at the end, averaging 106.6 yards per game over the last eight weeks.
Three Key Questions:
· Can Tristan Wirfs be even better in his second season after a stunningly good rookie campaign?
That's an admittedly greedy question after the season the former Iowa star turned in in 2020. Even if the Buccaneers thought Wirfs had the capacity to be a star on the NFL level, they surely would have been satisfied to see him reach that level two or three years into his career. Instead, he arrived fully formed as one of the best tackles in the entire league. That was the opinion of ESPN's Bill Barnwell, who named him and Green Bay's David Bakhtiari as the two tackles on his 2020 All-Pro team.
Where can Wirfs improve? The answer isn't obvious. He even did well as a run blocker, with the Bucs averaging 4.3 yards per carry when rushing over right tackle in both the regular season and the postseason. Still, with the type of athleticism that allows him to jump straight out of a pool, there is likely still some untapped potential. No matter how good a player performs as a rookie, he usually gets better after an offseason or two to hone his game at the NFL level.
Or perhaps Wirfs will be just as good in 2021 as he was in 2020 but will simply get more recognition. Rookie offensive linemen not named Quenton Nelson don't make the Pro Bowl very often, but Wirfs isn't a rookie anymore and he also now happens to be a Super Bowl champion. Pro Bowl and/or All-Pro recognition could finally be coming for several of the Bucs' offensive linemen now that the team has spent so much time in the spotlight.
· Will the Buccaneers make another veteran addition at tackle before or during training camp?
As noted above, the Bucs saw Joe Haeg walk in free agency and did not replace him with a veteran. That doesn't mean the team has a glaring hole on the depth chart; in fact, Brad Seaton's return from his opt-out year could end up being a one-for-one replacement. And if Hainsey really is capable of and trusted to play both interior and tackle spots, the Bucs could choose to go lighter at tackle and keep an extra guard or center instead. Undrafted rookie Calvin Ashley is also in the mix.
That said, Arians seems to prefer backup linemen with some NFL starting experience and he signed one in August or September in each of his first two seasons at the helm. In 2019 it was former Jaguar tackle Josh Wells, whose continued presence is noted above. Last year it was former Cardinals center A.Q. Shipley, who provided quality depth and some spot starts in 2020 before suffering a season-ending injury and transitioning to the Bucs' coaching staff.
The Buccaneers don't have a lot of cap space so would surely be looking for a very affordable veteran addition if they look for one at all. That might keep them away from the likes of the still-available Russell Okung, Mitchell Schwartz, Jason Peters and Rick Wagner. There are still a handful of free agent tackles with resumes similar to the one Wells had in 2019 – four or five years in the league and about 10 starts – including Jason Spriggs, Chaz Green and Brent Qvale.
Arians has shown an interesting in bringing in some of his former linemen from his five-year stint as the head coach in Arizona, at one point or another signing Shipley, Earl Watford and Ted Larsen. John Wetzel, who got 19 of his 24 career starts in two seasons under Arians, could fall into that category. Two guys who hadn't played much before 2020 but got big opportunities last year and are now available are former Titan Dennis Kelly (16 starts last year) and former Patriot Jermaine Eluemunor (8 starts last year). Sam Young and Marshall Newhouse have bounced around to a lot of teams but have significant starting experience. And even former Buccaneer Demar Dotson is on the open market, with no word yet that he wants to retire.
· Will the Buccaneers tackles get to run block more often in 2021?
In a Zoom interview during the Buccaneers' rookie mini-camp, Hainsey was asked if he preferred pass protection or run-blocking. His answer probably spoke for a lot of offensive linemen.
"Drive block, not even close," said Hainsey, who then repeated a well-known quote from a longtime college coach for whom a postseason award for offensive lines is named. "Joe Moore said, 'The greatest feeling in the world is moving a man from Point A to Point B against his will.' It's the best."
Assuming Smith and Wirfs agree, will they be happier in 2021 after a 2020 season in which the Buccaneers ranked 30th in the NFL with runs on 36.3% of their offensive plays? It makes sense that a team featuring Brady, Evans, Gronkowski, Chris Godwin and so on would throw the football a lot. It usually works out pretty well. That said, with the Bucs backfield starting with two running backs who look like they should be starting in 2021, the offense could keep it on the ground a bit more this fall. Arians has said on multiple occasions that he would prefer to have a balanced offense, particularly so that Brady's play-action fakes have more bite. Smith and Wirfs are both big, powerful linemen who should be able to create a lot of involuntary trips from Point A to Point B.