View some of the top photos of C Ali Marpet from the 2017 season.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive line has the potential for great change in 2018, but it also feature near complete continuity. The overarching question – which of those two avenues the Buccaneers choose – will depend on how the questions for individual linemen you see below are answered.
Four of the Buccaneers' five opening-day starters on the O-Line in 2017 remain under contract, including tackles Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson and interior linemen Ali Marpet and J.R. Sweezy. Kevin Pamphile, who manned the left guard position last year but has also started at right tackle, is a pending unrestricted free agent but both sides may be motivated to keep the relationship going. It wouldn't be too difficult for the Buccaneers to open 2018 with the same line they started with the previous September.
On the other hand, the Buccaneers could choose to move Ali Marpet back to guard after giving him a season-long look at center. They could put Joe Hawley back in the lineup at center or give Caleb Benenoch a look at guard after he finished last year starting at right tackle. They could make additions to the group, either through free agency or the draft, and set up additional competition at several spots. And they just might be motivated to make some changes after a season of poor results in the running game.
Nothing is ever truly static on an NFL team's depth chart from season to season, of course. The only certainty is that there will be change, some of it based on players improving or declining, some based on health or roster additions. In anticipation of that, we're going through the depth chart, position by position, and asking one Burning Question for each player. After looking at three levels on defense (secondary, linebackers and defensive line), we now switch to offensive and start with the men up front.
As will be the case at every position, we are only including players who are currently under contract for 2018, or will likely have tender offers as restricted and exclusive rights free agents. For the pending unrestricted free agents, obviously, the burning question that must be answered first is, 'Will they be back?'
One Burning Question for Each Buccaneer: Offensive Linemen**
(Potential unrestricted free agents: G Adam Gettis, C Joe Hawley, G Kevin Pamphile, G Evan Smith.)
Caleb Benenoch: Will his late-season run as a starter continue in his third NFL campaign?
Injuries to Ali Marpet, J.R. Sweezy and Demar Dotson forced the Bucs into quite a bit of shuffling on the line in December of last season, and when Joe Hawley got sick on the Week 13 trip to Green Bay, the team actually made some adjustments on the day of the game. Rather than move Kevin Pamphile out to right tackle to take over for Dotson, the Bucs gave that job to Benenoch, who made just his second career start. Pamphile stayed at left guard and Evan Smith stepped in at center for Marpet. (Sweezy went down two weeks later.)
The Buccaneers' rushing attack had one of its best days of the season at Lambeau Field, then performed well again the next week against the Lions, and the coaches chose to stick with that alignment, letting Benenoch start the last five games at right tackle. The results for the line as a whole were up and down over those five weeks, but the former 2016 fifth-round pick did get plenty of useful experience.
Given that he is considered versatile enough to play inside or outside and he's now started at two positions, Benenoch could factor into the planning if there is some shuffling of starting spots in 2018. It remains to be seen if the Buccaneers think his best future is at tackle or guard, but the projected starters look a little more set on the edges than in the middle. At the very least, Benenoch should head into the offseason with the belief that he has the opportunity to compete for a starting job.
Demar Dotson: Can he continue to excel as he just did in his age-32 season?
Dotson missed the last five games of 2017 due to a knee injury but prior to that he was performing quite well as the elder statesman on a mostly young front line. As he revealed that Dotson would be headed to injured reserve, Head Coach Dirk Koetter said that he thought the ninth-year veteran was having his best season out of the last three.
"I think Dot was holding down the right tackle spot well, especially in pass protection," said Koetter at the time.
The Buccaneers lost Dotson and Marpet on the same day, and it did appear as if the pass protection suffered after that. Prior to those injuries, Tampa Bay had allowed 20 sacks in 11 games, the ninth-fewest in the NFL. Over the last five weeks, the Bucs allowed 20 more sacks, tied for the second-most in the league.
Dotson will turn 33 in the middle of next season. That's not ancient for an offensive tackle; there were five tackles chosen for this year's Pro Bowl (including replacements) who are already in their 30s. In addition, he was already 24 when he arrived as an undrafted free agent in 2009 and wasn't a full-time starter until 2012, so his legs might be fresher than the average 10th-year lineman. Still, it was impressive to see him put together such a strong season at this point in his career and it will help the Bucs tremendously if he can do so again in 2018.
Michael Liedtke: Will he get his first regular-season action on the offensive line in 2018?
Liedtke drew some praise for his play at guard during the preseason after landing on the Bucs' practice squad in the second half of 2016. It was enough to earn him a spot on the practice squad and that in turn led to a promotion in December when three-fifths of the starting line landed on injured reserve. Liedtke did get into a regular-season NFL game for the first time when he played in the season finale, but he is still looking for his first snap on offense in a game that counts.
Like a couple of his teammates, Liedtke brings some versatility to the line, as he played extensively at both guard and tackle at Illinois State. That always adds to a player's chances of making the 53-man roster as the team tries to figure out how to get down to nine linemen, and seven active ones on game day. Given what he has shown in his year-and-a-half in Tampa, Liedtke seems like he'll get a shot to earn a spot on the active roster in 2018. If that happens, he might eventually get to battle in the trenches for the first time in the regular season after seeing time with the Dolphins, Jets, Chiefs, Browns and Bucs.
View photos of Mike Mayock's top offensive tackle prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft. Photos by AP Images.
Ali Marpet:** Will he play guard or center?
This is the most intriguing question facing the Bucs' offensive linemen and, as was probably clear in the above paragraphs, several other decisions will likely roll off of this one. That said, we may not have a clear answer on this issue until after free agency and the draft.
The school of thought that puts Marpet back at guard is based on the idea that he was a rising star at that position, and his ceiling might be highest in that role. However, the Buccaneers moved Marpet to center for a reason and, after some early-season adjustments, were very happy with the way he was playing before his Week 12 injury. If nothing else, the Bucs' front line definitely got bigger when Marpet took over on the pivot and J.R. Sweezy stepped in at right guard.
The upshot is that the Buccaneers likely feel comfortable starting Marpet at either center or guard, which gives them some flexibility as they try to add talent to that group in the offseason. If free agency or the draft brings in a plug-and-play starter at center, Marpet could slide back over to guard in order to get the most talented lineup on the field. If, instead, there is a high-profile addition at guard – and some mock drafts have Notre Dame mauler Quenton Nelson falling to them at pick #7 in the draft – the line might be best served with Marpet still in the middle.
There is no question, on the other hand, that Marpet will be starting somewhere among the Bucs' three interior line spots, as he appears to be a Pro Bowler in the making.
Donovan Smith: Can he develop into an elite blindside protector?
One clear takeaway from Koetter's final press conference of the 2017 season is that he – and likely by extension the Bucs' football staff as a whole – is higher on the team's offensive line talent than are many outside analysts.
"I think we have depth on the offensive line, I think we have versatility on the offensive line and…I know our O-line is heavily criticized. I think our O-line is in the upper-half of the league. I don't know where the line is because I can't rank them all, but when I'm looking at tapes of other teams, I see some bad offensive line play. Part of that is injuries, okay? But I think our O-line play is pretty good."
The Bucs didn't get the run-game production or – after some late-season injuries, at least – pass protection they desired in 2017, so it's not surprising that a lot of attention is being paid to the offensive line. And just like a quarterback is going to get the largest share of credit or blame for what an offense as a whole does, the critical left tackle position is the first place people will look when things go poorly for the line. Koetter, though had nothing but praise for Smith at the end of the season.
"If you listen to rumors you'd think Donovan Smith should never play football again but all Donovan Smith does is play hurt, play consistent, play against the best pass rushers in the world," said the coach.
"Donovan Smith is a pretty darn good football player."
In defending Smith in the past, Koetter has noted that the former Penn State standout is loaded with talent that will be fully unlocked as he begins to play with more consistency. In three seasons, Smith has barely missed a snap, and if Koetter is right about him, he could be ready to join the ranks of elite NFL left tackles in his fourth campaign.
J.R. Sweezy: Will he have better fortune with injuries in 2018?
The Buccaneers signed Sweezy in March of 2016 with the idea of plugging him in directly for retiring left guard Logan Mankins, but a back injury kept the former Seahawk from ever seeing the field in his first year in Tampa. Sweezy made it back to the starting lineup this past season but ended the season on injured reserve due to a leg injury. Thus, he has only played 14 games in two years as a Buccaneer after missing just two starts over the previous three seasons in Seattle.
Sweezy arrived with the reputation of being a superb run-blocker, and that's obviously something the Buccaneers would like to have in their lineup as they seek to restore a ground game that has faded the past two years. The Bucs have probably not seen Sweezy at his best yet, but better luck on the injury front could change that.
Leonard Wester: Can he maintain a full-season role as one of the seven linemen active on game days?
Wester arrived as an undrafted free agent out of Missouri Western, so spending two full seasons on an active NFL roster, as he has done in Tampa, is already an impressive achievement. As a rookie, he was a game-day inactive for most of the season before seeing some action late in the year. His second year followed almost the exact same pattern, though his 36-snap exposure in the 2017 finale represented by far his biggest chunk of playing time on offense yet.
The next step for Wester, having now established that he is an NFL-caliber blocker, would be to prove he's one of the seven linemen the Bucs should keep active on game days, starting on Day One of the new season. The Buccaneers prize versatility in those game-day reserve roles, so at the least Wester would need to convince the staff that he is the next best option to step in at either tackle spot if an injury occurs during a game.
Givens Price, Brad Seaton, Avery Young: Will these late-season practice squad additions challenge for roster spots in next year's camp?
Buccaneer fans can be forgiven for knowing little about these three, whom we've grouped together under one question because of their shared circumstances. All three joined Tampa Bay's practice squad in Week 12 or later after injuries started taking their toll on the O-Line. Seaton and Young have yet to play in a regular-season NFL game; Price has played in one, with Arizona in 2016. All three are 25 or younger and have already spent time with multiple teams. All three were re-signed by the Buccaneers to reserve/futures contracts in January after finishing the season on the practice squad.
Obviously, the Bucs thought enough of those young linemen to at least want to take a longer look at them in the spring and summer. Can any of them use that opportunity to break through on an active roster in 2017?