Though the real competition among offensive linemen doesn't get going until training camp, when full-contact drills are finally allowed, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will begin their 2016 offseason with a specific plan in mind for the starting five. That includes the return of Demar Dotson to right tackle.
Dotson actually returned to that spot at the end of the 2015 campaign, though an August knee injury limited him to six games and three starts in total. Prior to getting hurt in the preseason opener at Minnesota, Dotson had started the previous 46 regular-season games for the Buccaneers and had been essentially the only holdover in a line that was massively reshuffled after a disappointing 2014 season. The Buccaneers signed Gosder Cherilus in reaction to Dotson's injury and were pleased with how the veteran lineman filled in during a much more impressive season for the offensive line in 2015.
Both Dotson and Cherilus return in 2016, but Head Coach Dirk Koetter says that Dotson will regain his spot at the top of the depth chart.
"[The] game plan is we're going to come in with Demar Dotson as the starter at right tackle and Gosder Cherilus is going to come in as the backup and the swing tackle," said Koetter, who was elevated to the head job after spending 2015 as the Bucs' offensive coordinator. "That was our plan last year. Gosder wasn't on the team yet but our plan was to have Dot at right tackle. Due to injury, it didn't work out that way. Gosder came in and it was well worth what we spent to get him in last year. He's excellent in the locker room and he played well when we needed him to play. That's where we'll start this spring."
The Buccaneers' first two orders of business in free agency two weeks ago were to re-sign running back Doug Martin, who was the NFL's second-leading rusher last year, and bring aboard former Seahawk J.R. Sweezy to replace the retired Logan Mankins at left guard. Getting Dotson back in place is part of the same overall effort to keep a powerful rushing attack as the core of the Bucs' offense.
The best photos of the Buccaneers' offensive linemen in 2015.
"Dot is a dominant run-blocker," said Koetter. "So Dot back at full strength and adding J.R. Sweezy at left guard, another good run-blocker, I think we have a good run-blocking unit. We've got some things we still need to work on."
After promising rookie seasons, 2015 second-round picks Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet are entrenched at left tackle and right guard, respectively. That leaves only the center position undecided as the offseason begins, but not due to a lack of options. Both Evan Smith and Joe Hawley logged starts at that spot last center, and both drew strong reviews from the coaching staff during their respective turns. They will battle for the job again this year, but the Bucs will also prepare some other options for the pivot.
"We're going to have a competition at center between Joe and Evan, and some of that's going to come down to health," said Koetter. "We have two guys that we think can do a good job at center and we're going to continue to develop our depth at center. Kevin Pamphile's a guy that we've started to work some at center, and also Ali Marpet."
In addition to those mentioned above, one other player started a game on the Bucs' offensive line last year: third-year lineman Kevin Pamphile. Pamphile stepped in for an injured Logan Mankins in a Week Five win over Jacksonville and was impressive. He was originally drafted as a tackle and has stuck in the NFL as a former fifth-rounder largely because of how many different things he's proved capable of doing. In fact, that ability means the team can wait and see what develops elsewhere in their O-Line unit before honing in a spot for Pamphile.
"Kevin's versatility is what his main asset is," said Koetter. "Kevin can really play any spot across the line. When we actually get on the field for OTAs for Phase Three – because Phase Two you're not going against the defense – we'll kind of see where the health of our guys are, and Kevin can fit in at a lot of positions. Based on where we are health-wise at that time, we'll get Kevin plugged into a spot. What we told Kevin was, even though we signed J.R. we still want Kevin to come in and compete. We're going to try to figure out a way to get the best five linemen on the field come September, but it's a long way to September."