Late in the 2021 season, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were chasing a second consecutive Super Bowl title, injuries (and one sudden departure) started to chip away at one of the league's most stacked offenses.
Chris Godwin's season-ending knee injury in Week 15 was the biggest blow, but far from the only one. Fellow starting receiver Mike Evans and running back Leonard Fournette joined Godwin on the sideline, all within a span of about 10 plays, with hamstring injuries. With those three out in Week 16, Antonio Brown and Cyril Grayson kept the passing attack afloat and Ke'Shawn Vaughn ripped off a career-highlight 55-yard touchdown run. But Brown would walk off the field and off the team in Week 17 and Grayson would go down with an injury in Week 18.
Through it all, though, the Bucs kept scoring, averaging 31.8 points per game over their last five outings, postseason included. The offense realized it still had two utterly dependable assets that could keep their engine running evening as key contributors came and went. One, obviously, was the G.O.A.T., as quarterback Tom Brady made the most out of whomever was joining him in the huddle. The other was an offensive line that had been both healthy and dominant throughout the 2021 season. Brady said it best on December 23:
"The offensive line sets the tone every week. We've got some great guys up front who have really led the way all season and we're going to have to rely on those guys to do great things for us this week … They've been the strength of our team all season."
The 2022 Buccaneers will not have Brady to help them through the tough times. And there is genuine reason for concern that the front line will not be the same offensive cornerstone it was in 2021, when Tampa Bay allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL despite throwing the most passes.
The reasons are obvious, though they only became dire within the last week. Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen and right guard Alex Cappa are both due to become unrestricted free agents on March 16 and no matter how much the Buccaneers prioritize their return, nothing is guaranteed. The unexpected multiplier was the sudden retirement of 28-year-old left guard Ali Marpet, who was coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance. Tackles Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs, the latter also a Pro Bowler as well as a first-team Associated Press All-Pro, are under contract for 2022 but they could have three new starters in the critical space between them this season.
"It starts up front and you always want to have a strong offensive line," said General Manager Jason Licht from the NFL Scouting Combine on Tuesday. "I think our offensive line was a major key to our success – winning a Super Bowl and having a really good record this year. We want to continue to build that offensive line or retain the players that we have on that offensive line to continue that position group being strong, and we'll just have to see how it goes. Sometimes what you want to do and what happens are two different things. But we definitely, ideally, want to keep it moving forward."
So, yes, consider this a top priority for the Buccaneers in the looming 2022 offseason. Marpet's retirement only makes it more of a focus, and a particularly interesting topic as the team's scouts and coaches gather in Indianapolis to evaluate hundreds of prospects for the 2022 draft, including some potentially helpful offensive linemen.
"Yeah, it changes a lot of things as far as where we're headed in free agency with Ryan and Cap and [Aaron] Stinnie and all those things," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "Yeah, it changes it a bunch. Obviously, for us, the offensive line is huge, it's paramount. So yeah, we've got to dive into more guys here than we probably would have."
The one certainty is that Marpet won't be back, but the cupboard isn't necessarily bare. Arians indicated that Marpet's retirement could push the team to work harder to retain Jensen and/or Cappa, and there are some young linemen already on the roster who could be part of the solution. That includes Stinnie, who had an impressive run as a replacement starter in the 2020 playoffs but who is also a pending free agent. The advantage of taking this path is that it offers more continuity, something that has helped the Bucs' O-Line excel in recent years.
"We can't replace the player, but if we can get back Ryan, Alex and Stinnie – they all played together," said Arians. Nick Leverett played too. We went through seven or eight offensive linemen this year. Those five guys were ironmen for most of the year until January, but I think we're fine there.
Free agency is first and we're trying to get as many of our guys back as we possibly can. Obviously, Ali's retirement threw a little wrench into it, but we'll work through that and see how much continuity we can keep in our offensive line – that's always key. If we could possibly get Cap and Ryan and Stinnie, there's still a lot of continuity. Those guys all played together. Donnie's not going to feel like he's out there with a new guy."
Marpet's departure also leaves a little bit of a leadership void on offense, but the possible re-signing of Jensen would help ease that loss. Jensen has been a tone-setter for the Buccaneers on offense over the last four years and particularly during their recent playoff runs.
"He's been the center pivot of our offense," said Licht. "We signed him when we did to elevate and set the tone of the toughness of the team, and he's definitely done that. I think for me it's a definite priority to continue that."
Free agency will come first when it comes to every roster issue the Buccaneers are currently facing, including the offensive line. However, the setting in Indianapolis certainly leads one to think about how the draft could factor into how the front is built for 2022 and beyond. Licht obviously isn't going to divulge any strategy regarding what positions the Bucs will target in April's draft, but there's no doubt that keeping the offensive front strong is a major priority, before, during and after draft weekend.
"We'll always be looking for another Ali Marpet," said Licht. "We've found some good smaller-school offensive linemen, like Cappa, who I think is a very good player as well. It starts with the offensive line on offense, in addition to quarterback. You've got to keep the quarterback healthy and you've got to keep him upright. So it starts with the offensive line. We'll always put our emphasis on the offensive line."