The Tampa Bay Buccaneers knew they were going to have a training camp battle for the starting left guard spot, but they didn't anticipate having a similar competition for the position next door. Robert Hainsey and Nick Leverett wouldn't have asked for that latter competition to exist, but now that it's here they're going to work tirelessly to win it.
On Thursday, Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen went down near the end of practice with a knee injury and had to be taken to the training room on a cart. A day later, the Buccaneers still don't fully know the severity of the injury but they have learned enough to know they will be without Jensen until at least the latter part of the regular season. Further examinations could potentially rule Jensen out for the entire campaign.
"Don't know the severity of it, per se, but I do know he'll miss some significant time, up to a couple of months," said Head Coach Todd Bowles after the team's third training camp practice on Friday. "Whether he'll be back later in the season, November or December, that depends on what they find in the knee, but he won't be available anytime soon."
Which means the Buccaneers will have new starters at all three interior-line positions for at least the majority of the 2022 season. Trade acquisition Shaq Mason is entrenched at right guard after the free agency departure of Alex Cappa. With Pro Bowl left guard Ali Marpet riding off happily into retirement, the Buccaneers are having an open competition at that spot, with Aaron Stinnie and Luke Goedeke considered the frontrunners but others possibly in the mix.
Similarly, while there are potentially a number of different options for the Buccaneers at center in Jensen's absence, Bowles did identify the two main contenders: second-year players Robert Hainsey and Nick Leverett.
"It will be between Hainsey and Nick Leverett right now," said the coach. "Both of them have played it. It will be a tough battle going in. Both of them are very smart, both are very tough. It's better to happen now than in the middle of the season so these guys can get some practice reps and prepare for it. I think either one of them will be fine."
Hainsey was a third-round draft pick in 2021 and he spent his rookie year as the backup center, seeing a total of 31 offensive snaps in the regular season. Leverett is technically a second-year player after spending his entire rookie season on the Bucs' practice squad but he won and maintained a spot on the 53-man roster throughout last year. Leverett played a total of 69 offensive snaps, most of it at left guard. He was an undrafted rookie out of Rice.
While injuries are an unavoidable part of football, and often of training camp, both Leverett and Hainsey were shaken by Jensen's misfortune.
"It just sucks to see that happen to a guy I love and to a teammate that I care about so much, a guy who gives everything he has to this and to us – to that locker room," said Hainsey. "And that's just how it goes. I've had an injury like that too and I know how he feels – it's not fun. I want to be there for him and everything, I know that he's going to be there for me, and I know that he's going to help me and Nick and everyone else."
Added Leverett: "It's always hard to see a teammate go down – especially Ryan Jensen. He's my role model, he's a great leader, and is a guy I truly look up to. I just want to say I really appreciate Ryan for everything he's done, not only for me, but this team and this organization
The Buccaneers drafted Hainsey, a right tackle at Notre Dame, with the initial idea of moving him to center. A year of learning from Jensen and the Bucs' excellent coaching staff and a dedicated offseason that included a lot of offsite work with former Buccaneers coach A.Q. Shipley in Arizona have Hainsey in a confident spot as he gets a chance to win a starting spot at his new position. He has been emboldened along the way by what he feels has been a very steady progression.
"I think I played in four [games] last year. One in the preseason and then four in the season at the end," said Hainsey. "You know, each one was better, honestly. First one was [against] Miami and I remember coming off and I forget – Blaine [Gabbert] way saying, 'Communicate more' – and then the next was better and a little better and a little better. Obviously it wasn't as much as I would have loved to play, but noticing myself improving still makes a huge difference in how I feel going out there anytime. So having said that and feeling how I feel throughout this summer and the start of camp, I feel, like I said, prepared and ready."
Multiple teammates have pegged Hainsey as one of the smartest men in their room, and he's coupled that with an emphasis on film study.
"His film study is outstanding," said Bowles. "He has been a tough guy. He comes from Notre Dame, he's very smart, he can see defenses, he can help the quarterback that way. He can help the offensive line. He's diligent about it and he wants to be good. There's not a day he doesn't come in and watch tape. So it's just a matter of putting it on tape and getting a chance to play."
Leverett used an impressive training camp to vault himself onto the active roster last season, though he was generally placed on the inactive list for the games. His most extensive playing time came at Indianapolis in Week 11 when Marpet missed one game due to an abdomen injury. Stinnie got the start at left guard but suffered his own knee injury early in the contest, which pressed Leverett into service. Leverett held his own against massive Colts lineman Deforest Buckner.
Leverett said he's fully comfortable snapping the ball and he's eager to help out the team in any way.
"I'm going to give them my all," he said. "My mindset is to be the first one here and the last one out. My mindset is to be the hardest worker and to compete against myself. Honestly for me it doesn't matter who the quarterback is, it's more so of me being the best player I can be for my team and my teammates."
Referring to himself as a team player, Leverett said he would understand if the Buccaneers brought in an experienced veteran to replace Jensen, but it sounds as if the team is eager to give its homegrown players the first shot.
"There's been discussions but not heavy discussions," said Bowles of scouring the free agent market. "We'll see what's out there and we'll see what fits us. If we need to bring somebody in, we will. We're always looking for an offensive lineman; it's just got to be the right guy and it's got to fit. But we've got to give the other two guys a chance as well."