Photos from G Ali Marpet's 2016 campaign.
Ali Marpet played left tackle in college and has spent his first two NFL seasons at right guard, but there was always the possibility that he would end up at center. As the 2017 season approaches, that's now looking like a lot more than just a possibility.
Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht first floated the idea of Marpet playing center the very first time he spoke about him, after the draft two years ago. The idea came up again during Head Coach Dirk Koetter's end-of-season press conference this past January, though Koetter simply answered by saying the goal was to get the five best linemen on the field.
The idea was fully germinating at One Buccaneer Place by springtime, at which point Offensive Line Coach George Warhop was viewing it as the fulfillment of an inevitability.
"It goes way back to the evaluation process of when we were thinking about drafting Ali," said Warhop at the time. "The thought was that he could play guard but we thought he really would be a very good center at some point. From day one, since he's been here, he's been snapping, so the process started two years ago. So, to us, to me, it was just a natural progression for him to move to center. And I had told him even previous to this year, I said, 'You know, eventually you're going to center, it's just a matter of when,' you know?"
Finally, as the Buccaneers' 2017 offseason program was coming to an end with a three-day mini-camp in mid-June, Koetter made it clear that Marpet's move had transitioned from experiment to, essentially, Plan A. Or as Koetter described it, this was now "an experiment that we fully expect to work."
Thus, barring some sort of setback during training camp and the preseason, Marpet is expected to open the season as the Buccaneers' starting center. That in turn means that J.R. Sweezy, a key 2016 free agency acquisition who lost last season to back problems, will step in at right guard and Kevin Pamphile will remain at left guard. Incumbent tackles Donovan Smith on the left and Demar Dotson on the right fill out the front five. All five will be subject to competition in the weeks ahead, and the team has good depth with the likes of Evan Smith, Joe Hawley, Caleb Benenoch and Leonard Wester, but that's now the default lineup.
For the experiment to really work, though, that starting five will need to produce better results than what the offensive line showed in 2016. The unit as a whole and several individual players were notably improved in the second half of the season, but overall the Buccaneers ranked 16th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play, 24th in rushing yards per game and 29th in yards per carry.
That's our latest topic as we continue with our One Dozen Debates, looking at the issues that will define this year's training camp. From the uncertain depth chart at safety to the presence of *Hard Knocks *to the next step in the development of Jameis Winston, we'll look at one question a day, and that will take us right into the start of football on July 28.
We may not have all the answers just yet, but we'll try to define the issues. Read along with us and each day you can let us know where you stand on each debate.
- Monday, July 17: How will the depth chart at safety shake out?
- Tuesday, July 18: Can the Bucs improve in the red zone?
- Wednesday, July 19: Which Buc can break the 10-sack drought?
- Thursday, July 20: Who will emerge as the Buccaneers' kicker in 2017?
- Friday, July 21: Will the presence of the Hard Knocks crew affect the Bucs' preparations?
- Saturday, July 22: Is the new offensive line alignment going to work?
- Sunday, July 23: Is there enough depth at cornerback?
- Monday, July 24: How will Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard co-exist?
- Tuesday, July 25: Can the defense repeat its 2017 turnover magic?
- Wednesday, July 26: What will the running game look like during Doug Martin's absence?
- Thursday, July 27: What's the next step for Jameis Winston?
- Friday, July 28: Is Tampa Bay going back to the playoffs in 2017?
Debate #6: Is the new offensive line alignment going to work?
Pictures of the Buccaneers' offensive linemen.
First, Marpet will have to successfully handle a couple new responsibilities. The most obvious one is snapping the football, but that's also probably the easiest part of the transition. The Buccaneers essentially work with all of their interior linemen on snapping the ball throughout each season, in the service of versatility, and as Warhop noted Marpet has had plenty of practice in that regard.*The tougher transition is taking over as the quarterback of the offensive line. As Marpet himself said in June, the challenge is "being able to process a lot of information in a really short amount of time and then get the information out and communicate it out to everybody." At the same time, he indicated that he had already made a lot of progress in that regard since starting the move to the middle earlier in the offseason. He will get plenty of work in training camp and the preseason games and should be much more comfortable by Week One, even if the transition remains a work in progress throughout the season. Sweezy, of course, faces more of a physical challenge, returning to action after missing an entire season. But he had five seasons as a starter under his belt before arriving in Tampa and, moreover, he's now going to man the position he did in Seattle. When they first signed him in 2016, the Buccaneers anticipated playing him at left guard in place of the retired Logan Mankins. Pamphile proved capable of handling that job in 2016, so Marpet's move allows Sweezy to stay on the right side. In the process, the Buccaneers will be getting bigger in the middle and the entire line now averages a height of about 6-6 and a weight of about 315. Sweezy was considered a very good run-blocker in Seattle and Marpet is a rising star, so the Buccaneers' running game has a chance to be better than it was in 2016. *
On the edges, Dotson is a known commodity who figures to be as solid as he has been for years on the right side. The opportunity for big improvement comes from the much younger Donovan Smith, a 2015 second-round draft pick who is well-regarded within One Buccaneer Place. Tampa Bay coaches see a very talented player with a lot of potential who simply needs to cut down on penalties and play more consistently.*If the Buccaneers do not find the results they want with their current O-Line arrangement, or if injuries factor into the equation at some point, they have plenty of options. Evan Smith has started at all three interior-line spots for the Buccaneers since arriving in 2014. Hawley has started most of the last two seasons at center and is a trusted player. Benenoch was a fifth-round draft pick in 2016 who can play both guard and tackle and appears to have a future in Tampa. Pamphile can move out to tackle if need be, as he did for one start late last season. *As noted by Koetter at the very beginning, the goal is to get the best five linemen on the field, and positional versatility like the one Marpet is showing helps make that happen. We know how the starting O-Line is going to be arranged when training camp begins; by Week One we will hopefully be confident it is the Buccaneers' best option.