The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have a future Pro Bowler at one of their two offensive guard positions – you'll see that opinion below, in fact – but they'll have a brand new starter at the other one, and it might be a very inexperienced player. The players handling two of the three interior-line spots – Ali Marpet at left guard and Ryan Jensen at center – have each landed lucrative new contracts in the last 14 months. The third spot, right guard, has no such invested certainty.
Spoiler alert: When we get to the "Key Question" in this edition of our Roster Reset series, we're going to be talking about the right guard position.
When the 2018 season came to an end, the Buccaneers had 78 players scattered over the active roster, the practice squad and reserve lists. Twenty-five of those 78 players have since departed, and 37 newcomers have pushed the Bucs back to the 90-man offseason limit. That means over 40% of the current roster is new, and that's what happens with every team in the league, essentially, every year. One would also expect a little bit more of a shakeup when a new coaching staff has arrived, as is the case with the Bucs and Bruce Arians' hand-picked crew.
As it happens this year, however, the most significant changes have come on the defensive side of the ball, as Tampa Bay ranked third in the NFL in offense in 2018 but 27th on defense. The offensive line, and specifically for today's analysis the interior line, is mostly the same personnel as last year. The changes will come via a new scheme and perhaps some movement on the depth chart.
With the training camp roster mostly set, we are taking a position-by-position look to see how things have changed and where the Bucs stand at each corner of the depth chart heading into the new season. We'll provide an overview of the assets at the position, discuss what some of the numbers from last season indicate about its strengths and weaknesses and then finish with that aforementioned burning question.
View the best photos from the fourth day of Bucs OTAs.
We're in the last of three weeks dedicated to the offensive side of the ball, which began with the quarterbacks and running backs and last week moved on to the wide receivers and tight ends. We're examining the offensive line this week, which started with the tackles on Monday and now moves on to the guys in the middle: Guards and Centers.
Addition(s): Zack Bailey (undrafted free agent), Nate Trewyn (undrafted free agent), Earl Watford (unrestricted free agent)
Returning Players: Alex Cappa, Ruben Holcomb, Ryan Jensen, Ali Marpet, Evan Smith
(* Holcomb was on the practice squad and Smith was on injured reserve at the end of the 2018 season.)
This list does not include Mike Liedtke or Caleb Benenoch, both of whom we grouped with the offensive tackles on Monday. They could factor into the interior line mix, however. Liedtke, in fact, has been seeing work all across the line so far in the Bucs' run of OTA practices, including snaps at center on Tuesday. Benenoch was actually the starting right guard for all of last season but the Buccaneers of 2019 vintage seem more interested in trying him at tackle.
The Bucs made only one veteran addition to their interior-line group, but he might be able to help at more than one position. That would be Earl Watford, who was drafted by Arians' Arizona Cardinals in 2014. Watford has started at multiple positions in the NFL, including both guard spots and right tackle.
"I call Earl the Swiss Army knife," said Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin. "He's played a lot of positions. He gives me comfort from the standpoint that I know I can put him on the grass at any position and he's going to give me all he has. That's a little bit relaxing for me. I would like him to always available to me, from the standpoint that he could be a starter or not a starter."
Watford could be a competitor for that open right guard spot, along with 2018 third-round pick Alex Cappa, veteran Evan Smith (currently injured) and a few others. As noted the Buccaneers are set at the other two interior starting spots with Marpet and Jensen. After switching from right guard to center in 2017 and from center to left guard in 2018, Marpet gets to stay put this offseason, which should help his continued development. Marpet does have to learn a new offense, like all his teammates, but he's shown he can pick things up in a hurry, as he did when transitioning from Division III Hobart College to a day-one starting job in the NFL in 2015. The Bucs are expecting big things from Marpet.
"I think he's a Pro Bowl-caliber type player, and I think this could be a good year for him," said Goodwin. "I've watched a lot of tape and seen the evolution of his play, and he's gotten better and better. He's got some things he needs to work on, some pass-protection things as far as his feet and his punch. He knows that; we talked about that just the other day. But his mentality, his want-to is there, so I think he should get to that plateau at some point where he could be a Pro Bowl player or an All-Pro."
Smith is the longest-tenured member of the group, going into his fifth season as a Buccaneer after five years with the Packers. He's also another very versatile player like Watford, and he has started at all three interior spots during his run in Tampa. Smith finished last season on injured reserve with a hip ailment and has not yet returned to action, but he's been on the practice field with his teammates. On Tuesday, with the front-line players on one field and the rookies and younger guys on another, Smith observed the latter group, where his experience could be of more use.
"I just know he's out there every day watching," said Goodwin. "He's been a great asset to me in the room because he's somewhat of a translator. Because at the end of the day there's a lot of carryover between what they did in the past, play-wise, and what we're doing now. So he's kind of like my whisperer. 'Hey guys, we call this this,' and everybody's like, 'Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.' So he's been good that way. He's a good person for me to have in the background in case I miss something, because there's a lot of stuff going on out there."
Behind Smith, Jensen and Marpet, the Bucs have a largely inexperienced group, outside of Watson. Cappa got some snaps near the end of last season but the rest of the depth is made up of young, undrafted players like Ruben Holcomb. That said, it is not unusual for teams to find O-Line depth in that way. Jensen, Smith and Liedtke were originally undrafted players, as was starting right tackle Demar Dotson.
The Buccaneers didn't make many changes to their O-Line cast, but the coaching staff is happy with the talent on hand.
"As a coach, you want to go in and improve the competition in the room," said Goodwin. "But just so far in the couple months I've been here, I think highly of the room. It's a tight-knit group. Those guys are competitive, they help each other and they work off of each other. It is what it is – those are my guys. So no matter who is out there as the starting five, I will get the most out of them, the fans will get the most out of them. We're going to do the best we can."
Notable 2018 Numbers: Everything we discussed in this section for the offensive tackles also applies to the guards and centers. To summarize those previous notes:
• The Bucs' offense was first in the NFL in passing yards, third in total yards and 12th in scoring, and the guards and centers deserve part of the credit;
• That said, the offensive was very unbalanced, with the top-ranked passing attack paired with the 29th-ranked ground game The Bucs were also 31st in yards per carry;
• The pass protection was pretty good overall, ranking 11th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass attempt despite a passing game that included a lot of long-developing plays;
• The Bucs didn't hurt themselves with a lot of negative plays on offense – 79 plays in all that lost yardage, the 10th-lowest in the NFL – and the O-Line has to get a lot of credit for that.
• Tampa Bay's rushing attack only gained four or more yards on 20.6% of their first-down runs. That's not good and it makes third downs and play-action more difficult.
What can we add for the guards and centers? Well, according to Football Outsiders, the Buccaneers chose to run the ball up the gut more than most teams last year. By FO's estimation, 64.5% of the Bucs' running plays went behind the guards and the center, which was the seventh-highest percentage in the NFL. It remains to be seen if the new coaching staff will have the same approach, or if the possible emergence of second-year running back Ronald Jones will prompt the team to aim more running plays around the edges.
Also, while the Buccaneers' offense was very good on third downs last year, converting on 46% of their chances to rank third in the league in that category, most of the credit for that goes to the passing game. The Bucs were not one of the league' better third-and-short teams, and specifically on third-and-one the team converted on 64.7% of their tries, which was just 23rd in the NFL.
Key Question: Will Alex Cappa seize the right guard position?
This is likely what the Buccaneers want to happen. The team actually traded up eight spots in the middle of the 2018 draft to ensure they landed the Humboldt State product, perhaps hoping they could duplicate the small-school lightning they struck with Marpet three years earlier. Cappa didn't immediately land a starting job like Marpet did, but he did see some playing time at right guard down the stretch in his rookie campaign. With Benenoch specifically not staying put at that position in 2019, the competition is wide open and Cappa has a real shot.
"We've got to figure out, where does Benenoch fit? Where does Capp fit?" said Offensive Line Coach Joe Gilbert. "I think those will be the pieces of the puzzle that we've got to put together, put them in the right spot to have the chance to be successful."
General Manager Jason Licht foresaw a potential starting job for Cappa when he made the selection a year ago but also thought the young linemen could help early as a jack-of-all-trades. The Bucs still see that versatility in Cappa but might be more inclined to let him focus on one task to help him in that transition from Division II to the NFL.
"There's a lot of protections, there's a lot of runs, there's a lot of screens," said Goodwin. "There's a lot of new information coming at you and you have to learn it all. But he's done a great job. He bounced around a little bit at mini-camp, from tackle to guard – left tackle, right guard, right tackle. So his development as far as the mental game has come a long way. I like where he's at right now.
"Cappa's a guy, if the crap hits the fan, he could [play tackle] if he had to. But right now in my mind I envision him at right guard. So far, so good this offseason."
If Cappa can stick at right guard, the Buccaneers could end up with some experienced and versatile depth with some combination of Watford, Smith and Liedtke. They might also find a spot for a newcomer like South Carolina guard Zack Bailey, a priority target in undrafted free agency. Cappa's a long way from locking down that job, but he's off to a good start in his first full NFL offseason.
"I'll be honest: I was shocked when I finally saw him in person," said Gilbert. "He's a big kid. He's put-together, he's athletic, he's smart. Again, it goes back to getting the reps, getting them inside. We've been juggling guys just because of who's here, who hasn't been here, who's sick. You've got to make do with what you've got. From a coaching standpoint, especially with the O-Line, when you're juggling guys they don't get a sense of where they're going to be or who they're working with, and that's critical. There's been a little bit of that going on, but I think when he gets his feet wet and we just get reps into him, I think the kid's got a pretty good chance."