Jameis Winston continues to progress towards a return to the starting lineup. Barring a setback, that's exactly where he will be when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Packers in Green Bay this weekend.
"Jameis is going to start on Sunday," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter.
The process of Winston's return after a three-week period of rest for his injured right shoulder began on Monday when an MRI examination revealed that he was ready to start throwing. Winston was also put through a rehab session on Monday, after which Koetter said that Winston would practice this week if he experienced no soreness from the workout on Tuesday. That was the case, so Winston rejoined practice on Wednesday and took the majority of the practice reps.
"He threw the football fine, his arm strength was fine," said Koetter. "I don't think any guy that plays a skill position like that where timing is involved is going to take three weeks off and be perfect on the first day, but we'll see how the week goes. He's healthy. Jameis is healthy; he's cleared to go."
As such, there is now nothing standing between Winston and his first start since Week 11 in New Orleans. Koetter made it clear that the quarterback's health was the only determining factor on whether or not he would return to the lineup. There is no additional risk factor to Winston playing now that his shoulder is healed, and the usual game-to-game injury risk of playing in the NFL will not deter the Buccaneers from putting their starting quarterback back on the field.
"Any player that's back practicing, when have we not done that?" said Koetter of putting a starter back in his spot when he returns from an injury. "When has a player ever come back and not been a starter that week?
"It's a league where, if you're healthy you play; it's [like that] all around the league. The risk factor, that's there every week at every position. When your medical staff clears any player from any injury to play – the players' health is always the number-one thing for every football team – but if a player is at no more risk than whatever normal risk is, and in the NFL that's substantial, then they're going to play. That's what they're paid to do."
While Winston returns, 40% of the Bucs' offensive line is headed in the other direction. Demar Dotson and Ali Marpet, the team's starters at right tackle and center, respectively, were placed on injured reserve on Wednesday, which disrupts the team's starting front five for the first time this year, other than one missed game by left guard Kevin Pamphile in September. Those are tough losses for the Buccaneers, as Dotson and Marpet were playing well on a line that has provided Tampa Bay quarterbacks with good pass protection for much of the season.
"As far as Ali goes, I think he played his best football the last two weeks," said Koetter. "As far as Demar Dotson goes, I think Dot in my three seasons here had his best season overall [in 2017]. I think Dot was holding down the right tackle spot well, especially in pass protection. It's disappointing that you take two guys that are playing well on a team that needs more consistent play, and they're out. But, again, that's the worst part of this game and something that's uncontrollable."
Pictures from the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday.
Fortunately, the Buccaneers have cultivated some experienced O-Line depth over the last two years, beginning with interior blockers Evan Smith and Joe Hawley, who have a combined 100 NFL starts, including 52 with Tampa Bay. Second-year man Caleb Benenoch, who can play guard or tackle, got a cameo start in 2016 that was well-reviewed.
"You're tested at different positions on your depth at different times of the year," said Koetter. "We had not been tested on the offensive line. We felt like we do have some depth, it just hasn't been tested yet. Evan Smith and Joe Hawley have been starters before, Caleb Benenoch started a game or two last year. You're taking out two guys that were playing good for us, and our depth will certainly be tested."
Smith missed last Sunday's game in Atlanta due to a concussion and he remains in the league's concussion protocol, but he was also back on the practice field on Wednesday. Three other Buccaneers are in the same protocol: defensive end Robert Ayers, running back Doug Martin and safety T.J. Ward. Martin and Ward suffered their concussions in the Atlanta game.