Sean Mahan has had a busy camp, playing three different positions, and he'll probably have a busy regular season as well
Two weeks into training camp, it may seem as if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive line is crumbling a bit, sabotaged by a string of injuries that first beset the tackles then moved inside to the guards.
In another sense, however, that line is coming together.
And it has to. The regular-season opener is in 32 days.
Despite injuries of varying severity to Derrick Deese, Matt Stinchcomb, Dan Buenning, Kenyatta Walker, Scott Jackson, Chris Colmer, Jeff Hatch and Sam Lightbody, the Bucs are going about the business of choosing a starting offensive line.
On the first day of camp, that group, from right tackle to left tackle, was Walker, Jeb Terry, John Wade, Stinchcomb and Deese. That won't be the starting five when the Bucs open the preseason in two days, and it may not be the starting five when the team heads to Minnesota on September 11.
Injuries have certainly played a part in the development of the team's plans, but that has not been all negative. Increased reps on the practice field have meant larger opportunities for some of the younger players and they have taken advantage of it. In particular, tackle Anthony Davis and guard Sean Mahan, both of whom joined the team in 2003, have emerged as strong candidates to start.
In fact, if the Minnesota game were tomorrow, both would be in the opening lineup, Head Coach Jon Gruden revealed on Wednesday.
"If we started today and played the Vikings, Anthony Davis would be the left tackle," said Gruden forcefully. "And if Stinch can't go, Mahan will play left guard, John Wade is starting at center, Jeb Terry would be the right guard and obviously Kenyatta is at right tackle."
Davis has been one of camp's best stories for the second straight year. After establishing that he was a viable candidate for the line in 2004, the one-time undrafted free agent spent most of the season watching, as the team had no real health issues at tackle. This year, he has made the next step up, proving to be the number-one option when Deese's foot problems resurfaced. Since Deese's recovery time is hard to predict, the team has worked hard to get Davis ready to start, and appears to be pleased with the results. Certainly, Davis has put out maximum effort, even playing through his own triceps injury while taking on extra reps.
On the other end of the line, Walker has missed about half of camp's practices with his recurrent knee swelling, but he has also looked strong when he's been on the field. Though he has already been a starter for most of his four seasons in the league, Walker has impressed Gruden with his development, too, albeit in a different way than Davis.
"Obviously, we have been pushing him to be the best football player he can be," said Gruden of the former first-round draft pick. "He has responded. He's got a bad knee right now and he's fighting through it. I think his preparation is better right now. I think his performance is more consistent."
The Bucs have been intent on improving their offensive front this season, and not all of that was going to come from new players on the roster or new starters stepping up. If Walker can take his game up a level on the right edge of the line, that will be a big boon to the team's efforts.
"I've been impressed with him in this training camp," said Gruden. "He's shown toughness, he's shown some leadership, he's shown some eagerness to get better. I think [Offensive Line Coach/Offensive Coordinator] Bill Muir and [Senior Assistant Coach] Aaron Kromer have really gone out of their way to isolate some things for him that he needs to work on, and I give him credit. He's still standing, and he's had a good camp when he's been out here."
Gruden believes Walker will play in Friday's opener at Tennessee, and the team certainly needs every healthy body it can get up front, so as to limit the reps for each player overall. There is a silver lining to that worrisome injury situation, though. Right now, the Bucs have a problem with two few healthy contributors on the line; when the injured players return, they may find that they suddenly have their best offensive line depth in a long time.
"The good thing is, we don't have a lot of serious injuries," said Gruden. "A lot of these appear to be nagging injuries that are short-term in nature. We still have a little time to figure out who's officially in and out of this game. But we do have somewhat of a rotation, and if we have to adjust based on an update from our trainer, we'll do that as well."
Mahan has been one of the few linemen to avoid extended trips to the training room, and he's been a very consistent performer on the field. Before Stinchcomb's injury, he had begun to take most of the first-team reps at right guard, but he is flexible enough to play any of the three interior positions. Gruden recently said that he would be "stunned" if Mahan is not in the team's starting lineup on September 11.
Of course, there is still time for surprising developments before that September opener. Just not very much of it. Injuries or no injuries, the Bucs are closing in on a starting front five.
The Bucs have brought back rookie quarterback Jared Allen, who started camp with the team but was released last Friday. To make room for Allen on the roster, the team released rookie running back Jacque Lewis.
The team usually employs four quarterbacks during training camp, but went down to three a week ago when it needed a spot for returning long-snapper Brian Sawyer. However, Gruden said on Wednesday that he wanted to be back to four passers for Friday's game in Tennessee. Allen was back on the practice field Wednesday morning.
Lewis was one of about 20 rookies or first-year players who participated in a post-draft mini-camp on a tryout basis. Two weeks after the camp, the team signed the back out of North Carolina to their training camp roster. Lewis suffered a hamstring injury on the second day of camp and missed about a week of action but was back at full speed on Monday and Tuesday.
Practice Time Change
The Bucs have made a slight change to their Thursday schedule in order to accommodate players and coaches who need time to get ready for the trip to Tennessee.
The team will hold only its typical day-before-the-game walk-through on Thursday, and it was originally scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m. ET. Since players must return to Tampa for the flight to Tennessee, and many of them will wish to visit their homes first, the walk-through has been rescheduled for 8:30–9:15 a.m. ET.
The team will fly out of Tampa in the afternoon, and arrive back at approximately 4:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. The players have Saturday off before returning to a two-a-day schedule on Sunday. The Bucs are scheduled to practice twice each on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before breaking camp on Wednesday after a brief workout.