The Tampa Bay Buccaneers added or re-signed 20 players between the start of free agency and the end of last weekend's draft, and nine of them play either offensive or defensive line. There isn't much mystery as to where the Buccaneers' offseason priorities lie in 2018.
Those two units combined could have as many as six new starters among nine spots, not to mention a handful of newcomers playing key reserve and rotational roles. The Bucs have added big men (Vita Vea), men with attitude (Ryan Jensen) and men who have produced at elite levels (Jason Pierre-Paul). Tampa Bay is trying as hard as it can to be dominant up front and, as left tackle Donovan Smith sees it, that's practically a necessity in the NFL.
In fact, Smith thinks the big men need to lead the way on both sides of the ball for the Buccaneers to be successful.
"A football team thrives off of the offensive line," he said. "Without the offensive line, defensive line, there's really no football. It's 7-on-7. You have to have those guys up front – big, mean, tenacious guys who are going to push each other and take lead and charge of the team because … there's four to five of us on the field at a time. It's almost a must to have a great defensive line, offensive line to [foster] accountability, mental toughness, discipline, all of those good things, to tie them together. So, that's what we have from top to bottom on both sides."
Pictures from Buccaneers practice on May 3rd.
It's easy to see why Smith is confident in the Bucs' two front lines heading into a new season. At least on paper, the team has made enormous improvements. On defense, the line can run at least eight deep with Vea, Pierre-Paul, Gerald McCoy, Beau Allen, Vinny Curry, Noah Spence, Mitch Unrein and Will Gholston, all of whom have been or can reasonably be considered impact players. On Smith's side of the ball, Jensen steps in at the pivot and brings his "nasty" attitude to a line that now has rising-star Ali Marpet at left guard. Both Smith and the Buccaneers believe he's on the verge of ascending into the league's elite level of left tackles, and Demar Dotson is coming off a strong season at right tackle. Right guard still needs to be settled but there are attractive options, including third-round pick Alex Cappa.
But, again, that's all on paper so far. Smith knows the linemen have a lot of work to put in if they want to be the team's leaders.
"We have to [be resilient]," he said. "You never know what's going to be thrown at you day in and day out, game in and game out. You just have to be able to overcome it and fight through it. You have to be able to adapt, adjust and make sure you stay on your 'P's and Q's' when you go through those things. So to be able to overcome those things and keep competing at a high level is huge."
Smith and Marpet are going into their fourth seasons – they were the Bucs' pair of second-round picks in 2015, right after the team took its franchise quarterback, Jameis Winston, in the first round – and they've both been starting since Day One, so it would be natural for them to develop into team leaders. That said, Smith thinks Jensen will go a long way in setting the tone for the offense. The Bucs went after the former Baltimore center early in free agency due to both the high level of play he put on film last year and the way in which he plays.
"Any time you get experience like that, a mean streak like him to come into the room and contribute, it's huge," said Smith. "To be able to take all of that experience and tie that together with what we have already, the sky is the limit for us."
Buccaneer coaches have long contended that Smith has the talent to develop into one of the league's top left tackles, and he believes he's close. He has already displayed one ability that helps put a lineman among the league's elite: availability. Smith has started all 48 games in his three NFL seasons and has barely every missed a snap.
"That's the thing," he said. "You have to be able to be durable and reliable. It makes everybody's job easier when your left tackle, your quarterback, whoever, you don't have to worry about them missing games regardless of how hurt they are or whatever they're going through off the field. You know they're going to be there. So, to be able to ease it up that way is just huge. It's something I take pride in."
On offense, the Buccaneers struggled to run the ball with any consistency in 2017, and Winston's protection was up and down. On defense, they finished last in the NFL in sacks, with 22, and didn't stop the run particularly well. As clear as it is that the Bucs' prioritized making their two lines stronger in 2018, it's just as obvious why they chose to do so. Those lines are now well-stocked and have the potential to be dominant. And if that happens, it will definitely be the Buccaneers' big men who are leading them back into Super Bowl contention.