After struggles with a shoulder injury in 2003, Jason Whittle is healthier and ready to battle for a starting guard job
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded Roman Oben to the San Diego Chargers on Wednesday yet experienced no hit to their offensive line depth during that morning's 'organized team activity' workout. That's because, on the very same day Oben headed west, the Bucs welcomed Matt O'Dwyer to the practice field.
The Bucs truly have remarkable veteran depth on their offensive line, and that has the team looking forward to a very competitive training camp and, eventually, an improved blocking front. O'Dwyer was one of four experienced linemen inked by the Buccaneers in March – joining Derrick Deese, Todd Steussie and Matt Stinchcomb – and all four could conceivably end up in the starting lineup. On the other hand, they'll have stiff competition from returning starters like Kenyatta Walker, Kerry Jenkins, Cosey Coleman and Jason Whittle.
Those battles will be won in Orlando in July and August. However, the process of shaping the 2004 offensive line is already underway, and it is one of the team's foremost concerns this season.
"It's key," agreed Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Right now, we're going to try to zoom in on the starting offensive line and have a competitive group right behind them. Derrick Deese was brought in here to play left tackle. Todd Steussie is making a transition to right tackle and Kenyatta Walker is still battling. (First-year tackle) Anthony Davis has opened some eyes and done some good things. We got Matt O'Dwyer back today on the practice field for the first time. It's going to be a competitive camp."
Given that depth, the Bucs felt as if it was a win-win situation to accept a fifth-round draft choice from the Chargers for Oben, who had been the starter at left tackle the past two years. Deese, of course, is more than equipped to hold down left tackle, having manned that spot for the San Francisco 49ers for most of the past four years. Deese has actually played every position on the offensive line during his 13-year NFL career, and that's the type of usable versatility the team sought during the free agency period.
Stinchcomb and O'Dwyer have both played multiple positions and Steussie, though he has been a left tackle throughout his career, was thought to be a natural fit on the right side. Several of the holdovers – including Jenkins, Coleman and Walker – have started at or played extensively at more than one position. So when Gruden says the team is closing in on a five-man starting combination, it is really a choice from among dozens and dozens of possibilities.
O'Dwyer's return enhances those possibilities. The former Cincinnati Bengal and New York Jet has started 102 games during his nine-year NFL career, most of them at right guard. Since joining the Buccaneers, he has been at team headquarters very frequently but hasn't participated in on-field work due to rehab from minor surgery. Now he's back in action and joining in the competition for a starting job on the interior of the line.
Coleman, a three-year starter in Tampa at guard, will do so also, but most likely not until training camp. An intestinal infection and subsequent surgery have the fifth-year veteran on a recovery regimen, one that includes an attempt to add back lost weight. Coleman has played at roughly 320 pounds in the NFL, but he currently looks as if he is trying to slim down in an effort to play tight end.
"He's just got to get back to the training table and eat again," said Gruden. "He lost some weight. He looks great. He almost looks too good. I bet he lost 15-20 pounds. He looks great. He's getting his strength back. He's going to be a quick guy to recover. We hope to just use this remainder of our offseason training program to get three square meals daily and send him a pizza twice a week and get that mass back on."
Whittle is also feeling healthier after struggling with a shoulder injury for almost all of 2003. If everyone regains full health as expected, the Bucs will have no fewer than five offensive guard candidates who have started the majority of their careers, in addition to such promising young players as Sean Mahan and Jeb Terry, fifth-round picks in the last two drafts, respectively.
That kind of depth exists across the Bucs' offensive line, giving the coaches the pleasant problem of having to sort through it to find the right combination. With several more OTA days on tap plus a late-June mandatory mini-camp, that process has already begun.
"It's awfully hard to evaluate the line really until you put the pads on," said Gruden. "But we like where we're going. We do like that we have a lot of returning players that know our system. We think Whittle is going to be a better player this year, given his health. We still have Kerry Jenkins; Kenyatta; Cosey Coleman will be back for training camp. We have some guys that are going to give us some real interesting play and hopefully make it an improved unit."