Pictures of fans at the Buccaneers' training camp practice on Wednesday.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have two players who have started at center for them the past two seasons, and a third who is expected to fill that spot this year. On Tuesday and Wednesday, all three of those men worked together on the same unit.
The experienced depth and versatility the Buccaneers have cultivated on their offensive line in recent years is being put to test early, as the team has shuffled up the lineup this week in order to develop contingency plans for the regular season. It's very nearly a necessity – the Atlanta Falcons were the only team in the league to have all five men start every game on their O-Line last season.
The current lineup shuffling began with the groin injury that right tackle Demar Dotson suffered in practice prior to the second preseason game in Jacksonville. Dotson tried to play through the minor
injury against the Jaguars but quickly left the low-stakes game, replaced by first Caleb Benenoch and then Leonard Wester.
With more time to prepare for Dotson's absence in Saturday's preseason game – an absence that is not expected to stretch into the regular season, the team has taken a different approach. Starting left guard Kevin Pamphile has moved out to right tackle, a spot at which he started one game last year, and veteran center/guard Evan Smith has taken over in Pamphile's vacated position. Because the Buccaneers are also currently resting starting right guard J.R. Sweezy, another experienced veteran, Joe Hawley, is filling in at that spot.
Hawley has mostly played center in his NFL career, but the Bucs are apparently keen to keep recently-converted guard Ali Marpet on the pivot. Marpet's first career start at center came in Jacksonville and another extended outing against the Cleveland Browns on Saturday would help prepare him for his likely role in the regular season. Still that depth provided by Smith and Hawley is quite useful; the former has 47 NFL starts across all three interior-line spots, 22 with the Buccaneers, while the latter has 52 starts at center including 29 the past two seasons in Tampa.
Head Coach Dirk Koetter has not revealed the game status of most of the players who have recently missed time, though he has confirmed that Dotson will be out and labeled cornerback Brent Grimes as doubtful. Linebacker Kwon Alexander and wide receiver Mike Evans, two key Buccaneers who missed practice on Wednesday, could be held out on Saturday as well in the service of common-sense preseason caution.
For the offensive line, that means Wednesday's first-team alignment, which also had the stalwart Donovan Smith at left tackle, might be the one that gets two play two-plus quarters against the Browns.
"You've got to work your rotations," said Koetter. "You can't wait for game day and say, 'Oh, what are we going to do?' So getting Kevin work at right tackle is a good thing. As you would expect, he started off…it's different, it's a different game at tackle than it is at guard. So, some nice plays, some not-so-nice plays for him. It's important because there's a chance it might come up. We had to move several other guys around as well."
Pamphile started his pro career as a tackle but found his way into the starting lineup by moving to guard, where he was able to step up last year when the recently-signed Sweezy was shelved by a back ailment. His ability to move back out to the edge gives the Bucs an option with more experience than Benenoch and Wester, two promising young players who have combined for one start in eight regular-season games played.
- Mike Evans has 238 receptions in his first three seasons – not to mention a team-leading nine grabs for 115 yards through the first two games this summer – so he has little to prove in this preseason. If the Buccaneers do choose to hold him out on Sunday, that would likely mean greater exposure for rookie wideout Chris Godwin.
That was certainly the case on Wednesday morning, when Godwin picked up a lot of Evans's snaps and was one of the bright spots in a team practice that, overall, disappointed Koetter. Godwin had been one of the obvious standouts of the first week of training camp, praised by Koetter for his consistency and veteran demeanor, but he had ceded the spotlight to others in recent days.
Pictures of fans at the Buccaneers' training camp practice on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, Godwin took advantage of that extra work to once again stand out. He was targeted frequently by Jameis Winston and his top moments included a one-hand catch in the back corner of the end zone in a one-on-one drill and an improbable stretching grab over the middle in a full-team period.
"He looked good," said Koetter. "Mike was out today so Chris got to work with the first group. Chris has had a couple of quieter days, more because he hasn't gotten many opportunities. It was good to see him get some chances with Jameis today."
It's an open question what sort of role awaits the third-round draft pick in this year's offense, with the three main receiver jobs quite ably filled by Evans, DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries. One reasonable guess is that Godwin will get his share of work by filling in at all three spots, particularly if one of the above three is unavailable for any length of time. If Wednesday's practice was an indication, he will be ready to take advantage of those opportunities.
- The third episode of Hard Knocks, which aired Tuesday night,took a long lookat undrafted rookie cornerback Maurice Fleming's effort to make the team, which is a staple of the long-running training-camp reality show.
It was ultimately an unsuccessful effort for Fleming, though not due to any failing on the field. Fleming actually impressed the team with his dedication, but a knee injury suffered in Jacksonville ended his camp prematurely. The rookie out of West Virginia continued to play after getting hurt in last Thursday's game and even made a game-saving play in the end zone.
WATCH: TRAINING CAMP HIGHLIGHTS
The emotional behind-the-scenes footage captured by the Hard Knocks crew included several shots of teammates who understood what Fleming was going through and wanted to offer encouragement. Veteran cornerback Robert McClain, who talks to the rookie while he's awaiting the results of his X-ray exam, was one of those concerned teammates. McClain would meet with Koetter later that day and be informed that he was being waived/injured.
"I've been with Flem since May when I first got here and I saw how hard the kid works," said McClain. "I saw everything he did to prepare himself for the game. I miss the kid. He's a good dude. I wish him the best for everything. I'm going to keep in touch with him. He'll get another shot."
McClain hadn't seen the latest Hard Knocks episode before the team's Wednesday morning practice, but he didn't need the insider footage to know what had happened. Like everyone who did see the show, he was impressed by the toughness Fleming displayed in Jacksonville.
"I didn't know he did that to his knee as he pushed through the rest of the reps in the game, and that's not easy," said McClain. "To hurt his knee and be out there in an NFL game, giving it all so he can try to make the team, it shows what players go through every day in camp. People don't see that a lot. Players get dinged up and people think guys aren't pushing to get back. Fans see it differently than we do. This is our career. This could be our fifth opportunity, this could be our last opportunity. You never know."