14th-year veteran guard Randall McDaniel is still going strong, helping the Bucs rank ninth in rushing yards per game last season
The last time Brad Johnson played in a Tampa Bay–Minnesota game, in 1998, the Vikings protected him with a stellar offensive line of Everett Lindsay (Todd Steussie was injured for the game), Randall McDaniel, Jeff Christy, David Dixon and Korey Stringer. His Buccaneer counterpart at the time, Trent Dilfer, toiled behind another productive front wall comprised of Paul Gruber, Jorge Diaz, Tony Mayberry, Frank Middleton and Jason Odom.
Johnson's a Buccaneer now – after a two-year stopover in Washington – and when he lines up for his first game in red and pewter, only two of the above players are certain to be in front of him.
Christy and McDaniel.
Johnson's former Viking mates have replaced Diaz and Mayberry, so will be familiar faces to Johnson but still relative newcomers in Tampa. Gruber and Odom have both retired. Middleton is currently an unrestricted free agent who may not return. Clearly, the Buccaneers' offensive line has been, and remains somewhat, in a state of flux.
And that certainly makes it an interesting topic as draft day approaches. First, let's break down the numbers:
Offensive Linemen Under Contract: 9 Pending Free Agents: 3 (UFAs Frank Middleton and Kevin Dogins, RFA Todd Washington) Typical Training Camp Offensive Linemen Total: 13-15 (preferably 15) NFL Rushing Offense Ranking: 9 NFL Sacks Per Pass Play Ranking: 22 First-Round Picks Spent on Offensive Linemen, 1976-2000: 4 (G Ray Snell, 1980, G Sean Farrell, 1982, T Paul Gruber, 1988, T Charles McRae, 1991) Total Picks Spent on Offensive Linemen, 1996-2000: 5
The most interesting entry above may be the team's history of selecting linemen in the first round, something many draft pundits are predicting the Buccaneers will do again this year. Tampa Bay's results have certainly been a mixed bag. Gruber could be considered one of the top three or four draft picks in team history, but McRae was part of a string of first-round misses for the team in the late '80s and early '90s. Snell and Farrell contributed decently for the Buccaneers but neither for more than five years, and that was in the pre-free agency period.
Of course, the team's draft history, while interesting and sometimes painful, has been basically irrelevant since Rich McKay took over as general manager in 1995. The Bucs have drafted wonderfully with McKay at the helm, but have yet to spend a first-round pick on an offensive linemen.
Will McKay's Bucs take that plunge this year? There's absolutely no way of telling, with the Buccaneers' personnel department understandably remaining tight-lipped on the draft. We can, however, assess where the team currently stands at that position.
Tampa Bay's running game has ranked in the league's top 15 in each of the past four seasons, a product of many factors, including the work of the offensive linemen, a pair of electrifying runners in Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn, the blocking schemes implemented by Offensive Line Coach Chris Foerster and the dedication to the run shown by Head Coach Tony Dungy.
The Bucs' pass protection unit, on the other hand, ranked 22nd last year, although it was somewhat a tale of two seasons. Over the first 10 weeks of the 2000 campaign, Tampa Bay's offensive line allowed just 14 sacks, including two or less in nine of those 10 games. Over the final six weeks, however, the team's pass protection broke down somewhat, allowing 24 sacks, then another four in the playoff loss at Philadelphia. That led Foerster to offer a good but not completely glowing assessment of his unit's play in 2000.
"I'd have to say that last year we didn't perform well enough," said Foerster. "We won 10 games and finished second in the division, got a Wild Card and lost in the first round of the playoffs. Overall, we didn't play well enough up front. We took our share in the lack of success. We helped the team to win some games, but we also played our role in the losing. So I think we have a lot of improvement to do in this next season.
"I think there are some areas of concern, as you saw in the playoff game. Whatever we do in the passing game to help our left tackles be more productive in pass protection, we have to do better. We had some problems there at times last season against some of the better rushers, and that hurt us down the stretch. We need to be more productive there, and I think we will be. I think we're addressing the needs through personnel, and we've made some changes in the offense to help the guys up front have a little more success."
Despite a new quarterback and a tweak to the offense provided by new coordinator Clyde Christensen, the Bucs have avowed to stick to their guns when it comes to running the football. That gives Foerster's crew another chance to display their skills, as they did last season when the Bucs broke a team record by averaging 4.22 yards per carry. Foerster is not yet satisfied.
"I think that we need to be more consistent running the football; we've been somewhat inconsistent in certain games," he said. "I think that towards the end of the year we started to get a rhythm and hopefully we'll carry that into this next season. Certain defenses presented problems to us. We didn't block them as well as we could have. That's probably as much my fault as the players, but we just need to do a better job of adjusting.
"I think we've focused in a little better on the important questions: How are we going to run the ball with Dunn? How are we going to run the ball with Alstott? How are we going to get the ball to Keyshawn? We'll be a little more familiar with the system, so the ball will maybe be thrown a little quicker and we'll be able to protect a little bit better and take the pressure off areas where we maybe aren't as strong right now."
There's a better chance that Foerster will see that improvement through familiarity he expects now that starting right tackle Jerry Wunsch, a free agent for over a month, has re-signed with Tampa Bay.
"We're very happy to have Jerry Wunsch back," said Foerster. "The one thing about Jerry that I think coaches will always like is that you know what you can expect from him week in and week out. It's not going to vary, you're not going to get a great game one week and a terrible one next week. Jerry's a solid, solid player. He's a solid person, and that shows up in his play. Does Jerry wish he was a little quicker afoot or an even better athlete? He probably does, and we probably do, too, but the great thing he has tremendous consistency and work ethic. Every week, he finds a way to get the job done at a winning level."
Foerster is actually quite fond of his crew, which currently includes nine players under contract and could eventually welcome back Middleton, unrestricted free agent Kevin Dogins and restricted free agent Todd Washington. Foerster's thoughts on each:
Cosey Coleman: "Right now, without Frank Middleton on the roster, Cosey's our starting right guard, and we expect great things out of him. Last year, I anticipated playing him some, but we stayed healthy all year and never had a chance for Cosey to get in the rotation. We were always in a position where I felt it was best to leave the veterans in there and let Cosey learn from the sideline. That's sometimes good and sometimes bad. We'll find out this year. I hope the experience he gained in practice and on the sidelines will help him in 2001 be a real solid contributor and starter. Hopefully, by somewhere during the first few weeks of the season, he'll begin to hit his stride and play consistently through the year."
Jeff Christy: "Jeff had a good season. Obviously, he went to the Pro Bowl again and had a nice year. All of that, with the change in systems, new coach, new surroundings – we sometimes minimize that, think it's not as big of a deal as it is. It's hard for a guy in his first year (on a new team), with new terminologies and not feeling quite as comfortable as he'd been the last five or six years in Minnesota. I really look for him to make another step this year. We should see even more improvement from Jeff, and that will be great."
Randall McDaniel: "Randall's still going strong. He had another nice season last year, another Pro Bowl year, and let's hope that we can keep the streak going for him this year and the team can have a lot of success along with it. Randall is the consummate pro. He works every day, and even through the 13 years of playing all those snaps he's still able to practice every day and be out there with the guys, contributing, having fun and being a leader. I hope he can maintain that high level of play he's had for so many years, and I believe he will."
Kevin Dogins: "Kevin Dogins is a free agent who has had a great role on this team. He's been a backup guard and backup center, and has had to play in situations where guys have been hurt. Last year, Cosey kind of assumed the role as backup guard, but Kevin was always ready to go. He practiced well for us and if he was back again would probably be called on to do the same thing."
Kendell Mack: "I think Kendell Mack (listed as a tackle) is more of a guard. I think he'll end up playing inside for us. I know that he has played tackle before, but I'm not sure what he's playing in NFL Europe. They'll work that out when they decide where he is showing the most ability. It would have been nice to work him at tackle, but I think he's best suited at guard. Last year, we had him in camp and I thought he did some very, very good things. Another year of development and maybe he'll have a chance to contribute in some way."
Wilbert Brown: "I don't know much about Wilbert Brown at all. Our scouting department brought him in and sent him right over to NFL Europe. I haven't had a chance to work with him or watch much tape on him. I just know that he has some good athletic ability and shows a lot of promise. Let's hope he has a good season over there in Europe and he'll do a good job for us."
Pete Pierson: Pete is a guy who had been a backup and finally ascended last year into a starting position. He played probably better than most people had anticipated. I think people felt we would just fall off the table at the tackle position after losing Paul and Jason. While it was a big jump for Pete to go from being a career backup to being a full-time starter for 16 weeks on a good football team, I think he made the transition well – probably not as well as he or I or the team would have liked, but maybe he'll be able to improve on that this year. I know that he's hoping so. With all the talk out there about drafting a left tackle, Pete's probably sitting there saying, 'I'll show you another year, I'll show you that I am the guy that you need out there.' Pete's a hard-working, tough guy who's there every day for us. You can always count on him to play. Unfortunately, he got hurt a little bit at the end of the season, and that hampered him at the end, but he had a good season.
Frank Middleton: "I don't know what Frank's situation is free agency-wise. He had a solid season for us last year and has played here for four years and done a nice job. He's been a starter. With the drafting of Cosey Coleman, and Frank's opportunity to go out on the open market, and what we had coming back at guard, there was less motivation from our standpoint to get involved in the free agent market. If Frank's able to find something out there that's better financially for him, he'll probably take it. But Frank's been a good player for us and I've always liked him."
Todd Washington: "Todd could really have to step up. If nothing happens in the draft right now and nothing happens in free agency with Kevin Dogins or Frank Middleton, than Todd Washington is the heir apparent to the backup center-swing guard spot. He's got to do it all inside. He's in a position to compete with Cosey; he's in a position to backup Jeff and Randall. He becomes the next guy in the game on the inside, which for Todd is a big step. He's always been in that role at the center spot, but know you include both guards. Before, we've always had either Dogins or (Jorge) Diaz or somebody to swing in there at the guard spot besides Todd, although he's had some spot play there at times over his career. Now, he's worked his way into this position, and I think he's ready for it. I sure hope he is, because we'll be counting on him if we don't re-sign anybody or draft anybody."
DeMarcus Curry: "DeMarcus made it on the active roster because we just didn't feel we could lose him. We felt he was worth one more year of development to see how he does. This will be his year to step up and see if he can compete with George and Pete and maybe a draft pick for that third or fourth tackle spot. It's not very often that we keep 10 linemen, so he may have to really earn that ninth spot this year, not the 10th spot. That will be a good challenge for him. He's a great, hard-working guy who is very attentive and very tough. It's just a matter of getting enough at a position and enough experience to show us that we should have confidence in him to be third or fourth tackle."
George Hegamin: "George Hegamin had a good season. He worked very hard and had a lot of playing time at the left tackle spot for us, either splitting time with Pete or, at the end of the season, starting. I think George showed that he can be a starter in this league. I think that neither he nor I are overly pleased with his performance at left tackle last season. I think George, deep down, is really a right tackle. I don't think left tackle is his best position, although he did a very fine job of filling in. People will want to remember the playoff game, Hugh Douglas, all those things. That happens to the best of players in those tough situations. George is a quality person and a quality player. He's a real contributing factor on our football season, from a leadership standpoint, from a work-ethic standpoint… George is just a great guy to have around."
Those are the known commodities, with the unproven but tempting players becoming available in next weekend's draft. Again, Buc personnel men are throwing draft hints around like manhole covers, but plenty of research exists on who the more coveted offensive linemen are in this year's draft.
As usual, it is a position that figures prominently in the upper reaches of the first round, as it was last year when Auburn tackle Chris Samuels went to Washington with the third pick and immediately stepped into a starting role. Also as usual, the players projected as premier tackles are the highest-rated collegians, followed by guards and then centers.
Among the tackles earning the most pre-draft publicity are Florida's Kenyatta Walker, Texas' Leonard Davis, Purdue's Matt Light, Michigan's Jeff Backus and Maurice Williams and Illinois' Marques Sullivan.
The guards most often mentioned in connection with the first round include another Michigan product, Steve Hutchinson, as well as Notre Dame's Mike Gandy and Washington's Chad Ward. Dominic Raiola of Nebraska appears to be the most coveted center.
Last year, despite Samuels' high pick, only three offensive linemen went in the first round, all tackles. Twice that many were taken in the opening round in 1999, however. Early indications are that the 2001 draft will more closely resemble 1999 than 2000. For any team looking to strengthen its unit up front with rookies this year, that potential depth has to be good to see.