Playing left guard, Matt Lehr helped the Falcons run for 183.7 yards per game last year
A factor in free agency for the first time in years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a plan heading into the 2007 offseason: Build depth and foster competition at every possible position.
On Tuesday, the Buccaneers executed that strategy at a spot where their depth has frequently been tested by signing seventh-year center/guard Matt Lehr.
The 6-2, 304-pound Lehr joins the Buccaneers after two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, for whom he started 26 games at left guard in 2005-06. Prior to signing with the Falcons as an unrestricted free agent in 2005, Lehr spent one season in St. Louis (2004) and three in Dallas (2001-03), earning at least two starts each year. He was originally a fifth-round pick (137th overall) of the Cowboys in 2001.
A tough, versatile and hard-working linemen, Lehr started all 16 games at center for the Cowboys in 2003. The Bucs see that as his natural position, though he obviously provides depth at all three interior spots. The team was reminded of the importance of O-line depth early last fall when both starting guards, Dan Buenning and Davin Joseph, suffered injuries in the nine days prior to the season opener. The Bucs have since lost another versatile inside man, Sean Mahan, in free agency, while Buenning is still rehabilitating the injured knee that cost him the last five games of 2006.
With the Falcons, Lehr was part of a starting five that paved the way for the NFL's leading rushing attack in each of the past two years. Atlanta averaged 159.1 yards per game on the ground in 2005 and increased that to 183.7 yards per game last year. While the presence of fleet-of-foot quarterback Michael Vick obviously inflated the Falcons' rushing total, Lehr did help running back Warrick Dunn rush for 1,140 yards and 4.0 yards per carry. Even rookie back Jerious Norwood found room to run for 633 yards and a whopping 6.4 yards per carry.
Lehr played primarily on special teams as a Cowboy rookie in '01, getting into eight contests. In 2002, he played in 12 games and opened four, earning starts at both center and left guard. That led to his ascension to the starting center spot in 2003, where he started the entire season and helped Dallas construct the league's 12th-best rushing attack.
Lehr was released by the Cowboys midway through the 2004 season but was immediately claimed by the St. Louis Rams, for whom he finished the season. He played in seven games in '04, starting two at right guard for Dallas. After his two seasons in Atlanta, Lehr was released on March 5, becoming the equivalent of an unrestricted free agent.
Lehr is the second offensive linemen the Bucs have signed since the beginning of free agency, importing two players who were starters elsewhere in 2006. On March 6, Tampa Bay [inked former
stalwart Luke Petitgout](/news/article-1/loading-up-on-the-line/393DCC21-755A-43FC-8316-7D7028B7D339), a long-time starter at left tackle.
The Bucs have been busy all across their depth chart since the March 2 beginning of free agency. In addition to re-signing FB Mike Alstott and CBs Philip Buchanon and Jeff Garcia, the team has added Petitgout, QB Jeff Garcia, LB Cato June, DE Kevin Carter, LB/DE Patrick Chukwurah, FB B.J. Askew and CB Sammy Davis. Early in the free agency period, the Buccaneers also traded for the rights to Denver QB Jake Plummer.