Though the Bucs' offensive line is largely rebuilt, Middleton will remain in his customary right guard spot
There will be new men at center and left guard. Stalwart left tackle Paul Gruber may or may not resume his career after a season-ending broken leg in 1999. Right tackle Jason Odom missed most of '99 with a back injury and could switch to the left side.
And at right guard: Frank Middleton, still. The Bucs' massive and gregarious fourth-year lineman may be the only familiar sight on Tampa Bay's rebuilt offensive line in 2000, a likelihood made possible when Middleton re-signed with the team that drafted him in the third round in 1997. Middleton had become a restricted free agent in February when his original three-year contract expired; on Friday he signed the one-year tender offer extended to him by the Buccaneers at the onset of the free agency period.
Middleton has started every game at right guard for the Buccaneers since December 21, 1997, a string of 33 consecutive regular-season contests and four playoff tilts. The Bucs are 20-13 in that span, 2-2 in the postseason.
On a team that has seen remarkable consecutive-starts streaks from the likes of Gruber and recently-departed center Tony Mayberry, Middleton's run is not yet momentous, but it is a sign of both his talent and his durability. Despite an aggressive and physical style of play borne of his former college days as a defensive linemen, Middleton has managed to stay in the lineup for virtually every snap the past two years and consistently open holes for a strong running game. Tampa Bay's rushing attack ranked fourth in the league in 1998 and 15th in '99, and Middleton was on the field for 97.8% of the offensive snaps over those two years, second only to Gruber's 98.6%.
As a restricted free agent, Middleton was free to negotiate with other teams, but the Bucs were entitled to match any contract offer or receive draft pick compensation if they chose not to match. When Middleton did not sign with another team by April 10, the Bucs regained exclusive negotiating rights. Signing the one-year tender means Middleton will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2000 season. It also means that the Buccaneers will head into the coming campaign with at least four starting offensive linemen under new contracts; if Gruber, who is an unrestricted free agent, chooses to return and is in the starting lineup, he also would have to agree to a new pact. The other likely scenario is the return of Jerry Wunsch, who started the last 13 games of 1999 at right tackle in Odom's place.
Though the Buccaneers running game dipped out of the top 10 last year, it operated in high gear in 1998, Middleton's first season as a full-time starter. The former Arizona Wildcat star was considered one of the team's most consistent offensive players that year, and the Bucs often ran behind him en route to 2,148 rushing yards, the second-best total in franchise history. Tampa Bay's offensive line also allowed just 28 sacks that season, its lowest total in 16 years.
With new offensive coordinator on board and the Bucs two additions to the interior line – C Jeff Christy and G Randall McDaniel – Tampa Bay fully expects to move back into the upper ranks of NFL running attacks. At 6-3, 334 pounds and with the mobility to be effective when pulling off the line, Middleton should remain a large part of that effort.
Middleton was one of seven Buccaneer players to enter the 2000 offseason as restricted free agents, and he is the first to re-sign with the team. None of the other six – CB Ronde Barber, G Kevin Dogins, TE Patrick Hape, QB Scott Milanovich, S Damien Robinson and CB Floyd Young – signed elsewhere before April 10.