G Frank Middleton, a restricted free agent, has started the last 32 games at right guard for Tampa Bay
Six weeks ago, any draft pundit in America would have bet his toupee that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would use at least one of their two first-round draft picks on an offensive lineman. Since then, the Bucs' offensive front has undergone a dramatic makeover with the additions of former Vikings Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel and their combined 13 Pro Bowl appearances, not to mention the re-signing of versatile T Jason Odom. Of course, that does not necessarily mean the Buccaneers are finished with their O-line tinkering; the issue, in fact, remains as difficult to call as that position is to draft successfully.
The Buccaneers, in fact, have experienced both ends of the spectrum in attempts to bolster the offensive line in the first round of the draft. T Paul Gruber, the sixth overall selection in 1988, stands as one of the most successful draft picks in team history in terms of sustained excellence, rivaled only by DE Lee Roy Selmon in 1976 and, one would eventually suspect, the 1995 pair of DT Warren Sapp and LB Derrick Brooks. Three years later, the Buccaneers selected T Charles McRae with the seventh overall pick to pair up with Gruber, but gained much less of a return. The team has not used a first-round pick on an offensive lineman since.
However, under the guidance of General Manager Rich McKay, the Buccaneers have emerged as one of the most successful teams on draft day in the last half-decade. McKay's player personnel department is understandably guarded about its strategies and leanings concerning the upcoming draft, and Buccaneers.com will not speculate on these issues. This article, the fourth in a series of position-by-position analyses, will focus on the team's offensive line as it stands in the days before the 2000 draft. First, some numbers that we will apply to each position (contract situations as of 3/22):
Starting spots/Returning starters under contract: 5/2
Total players under contract: 10
Unrestricted/Restricted free agents: 2/2
Relevant 1999 NFL rankings: Tampa Bay ranked 15th in rushing yards per game, 22nd in per-carry average, 24th in sacks allowed per pass play
1999 Pro Bowlers/AP All Pros: 1/0 (not including recent signings)
First-round draft picks spent on the position in team history: 4
Overall draft picks spent on the position in the last five years: 6
The above numbers, which refer to the team's 1999 roster in relation to the current situation, are a bit misleading. Inserting Christy and McDaniel into the equation gives the Bucs' four starters under contract and a pair of 1999 Pro Bowlers. The Buccaneer Pro Bowl player indicated above is C Tony Mayberry, who will be playing elsewhere after Tampa Bay brought Christy aboard. The remainder of the team's offensive line hit the 2000 offseason as free agents and only Odom has re-signed so far. He could start at either left or right tackle. T Jerry Wunsch, who did not enter 1999 as a starter but took over at right tackle after Odom sustained a season-ending back injury, is under contract.
Guard Frank Middleton and Gruber are not. Middleton is a restricted free agent who has started every game at right guard over the past two seasons and is expected to remain in that spot in 2000. Gruber is an unrestricted free agent but he is not shopping his services around the league. What Gruber is using the offseason for is the rehabilitation of his right leg, which he broke in the team's 1999 regular-season finale, and his decision whether or not to retire. Though he has strangely never been selected to a Pro Bowl, Gruber is recognized as the top offensive lineman in Buccaneer history and has been one of the most dependable left tackles in the NFL for the past 12 years.
Until the signings of Christy and McDaniel, all of the Bucs' offensive line starters over the past three years had been players drafted by Tampa Bay or, in some cases, signed as a college free agent after the draft. That indicates a fairly good success rate, considering the team has used just six picks of any variety on offensive linemen since 1995.
Wunsch, as a second-rounder in 1997, represents the earliest drafted lineman for Tampa Bay since McRae in 1991. Before the hit and miss of Gruber and McRae, the Buccaneers had previously spent first-round picks on offensive linemen in 1982 (G Sean Farrell) and 1980 (G Ray Snell). Farrell went on to play five seasons as a Buc, starting 59 games at guard and tackle and earning all-rookie honors in '82. Snell lasted four seasons in Tampa Bay and started 35 contests.
Though it is purely coincidental, an interesting note ties several of those high-round Buccaneer picks together: Snell, Gruber and Wunsch all played collegiately at Wisconsin. This year's anticipated early-rounders also includes a Wisconsin product: T Chris McIntosh. Again, Buccaneers.com offers no speculation on which players or positions the team is actually considering, but the names most often mentioned along with McIntosh as potential early picks are Alabama T Chris Samuels, Oklahoma T Stocker McDougle, Arizona State T Marvel Smith, Tennessee G Cosey Coleman, Mississippi T Todd Wade and USC G Travis Claridge.
Many of those players are expected to be drafted in the first round, where teams have had varied results on offensive linemen in recent years. Linemen drafted in 1998 and '99 probably have not had enough time to provide a clear picture of their futures, but those taken from 1995-97 have proven to be a mixed bag. Of the 19 offensive linemen taken in the those three first rounds, 14 are primary starters for their teams when healthy. However, only five of those draftees have played in a Pro Bowl, and all five were taken among the first 14 picks in their draft. In fact, four of those five – tackles Orlando Pace, Tony Boselli, Jonathan Ogden and Walter Jones – were selected no lower than sixth overall.
Of those 19 linemen studied above, 16 were tackles, representing a longstanding first-round bias for that position over interior linemen. However, all three guards taken in the first round in those three drafts – Buffalo's Ruben Brown, Detroit's Jeff Hartings and New Orleans' Chris Naeole – are considered outstanding players.
Though it can be difficult to get an immediate impact from rookie offensive linemen, it is not out of the question. Of the six linemen taken in the first round last year, two missed the entire season with injuries but the other four all made it into the starting lineup for at least part of the campaign. And, of course, Buc fans are familiar with the ultimate example of instant impact in the case of Paul Gruber. Gruber started the first game of his 1988 rookie season and didn't miss a single offensive snap until 1993. He has started all but nine of the 192 regular season games played by Tampa Bay since 1988, a string he may choose to end or continue this spring. And that answer could affect the Bucs' offensive line plans on draft day 2000.