Robert Hainsey started at right tackle for three seasons at Notre Dame and was part of an offensive line that saw three of its members drafted in the first two days of the 2021 NFL Draft. Hainsey never spent any time at a different spot on the line during that span, not even practice. But when he went to the Senior Bowl in January the assembled NFL coaches wanted him to try his hand at the three interior line spots and he didn't hesitate to comply.
It went well.
"I think it's a huge advantage for me," said Hainsey of the positional flexibility he so clearly demonstrated in Mobile, Alabama. "I went down to the Senior Bowl not having played those positions before … but I'm confident in my abilities as a football player and what I could do. So I was really excited to get down there and showcase that. I knew people wanted to see it and I had a lot of fun doing it. That was a great experience for me and I think it helped me a ton to get me where I'm at."
There's little doubt that Hainsey's successful debuts at right guard, left guard and center helped raise his stock in the draft. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected him near the end of the third round, with the 95th pick overall, and what they saw at the Senior Bowl was definitely a factor in keeping the Fighting Irish standout from slipping into Day Three of the drat.
View pictures of Notre Dame T Robert Hainsey, who Tampa Bay selected in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
"We see him as a real versatile guy," said General Manager Jason Licht, who noted that the Buccaneers liked what they saw of Hainsey as a tackle. "It's not that we don't think that he can play right tackle, but we do think that he has a big upside at guard or center, which he also played at the Senior Bowl and kind of caught our attention, just the versatility aspect. He's a captain, he's a tough guy, he's very smart. He's got all the traits that our current group has. I think he's going to fit in great. He's going to be a guy that hopefully we can plug in at several positions, be a four-spot guy possibly at some point."
The Buccaneers are returning all five of their 2020 O-Line starters in 2021, as well as playoff stand-in Aaron Stinnie. There isn't an obvious opening for Hainsey this coming season, but the situation could become more fluid after that with some possibly expiring contracts in the years to follow. Hainsey and the Buccaneers can take their time to find out where he helps the team most in the long run.
"Yeah, I think it's really up to him," said Head Coach Bruce Arians about Hainsey's eventual fit. "He was obviously a hell of a right tackle, and then when he went down to the Senior Bowl…some guys will balk at going to a different position but he was more then willing to go left guard, right guard, center. And he showed position flexibility against some of the best guys in the draft. So I think for him it's just coming in and finding what's the best niche for him, and for us to find that niche. We feel like he could play outside or inside."
Hainsey was a three-year starter at Notre Dame and a team captain in both 2019 and 2020. He was the team's Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2019 and a second-team All-ACC selection in 2020 by the Associated Press.
The Buccaneers have had good success with Day Two offensive line picks in recent years, including selections that currently comprise 60% of their starting group. Tampa Bay took tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet in the second round in 2015 and then selected guard Alex Cappa in the third round in 2018.
Marpet and Cappa were small-school guys for whom the Bucs actually traded up. Hainsey came from a powerhouse program and the Buccaneers stayed put on Friday night to let him fall to them at the end of the third round. In all three cases, though, the Bucs were impressed with the players' natural talents and ability to handle different situations.
"He's got really strong hands," said Licht. "He's a very instinctive player. He plays with tremendous effort. He's a good athlete. He does a great job of getting to the second level. And then, like I said, at the Senior Bowl, just putting him in there at guard and center and it was as if he'd been playing that position for a long time. He's just a natural in terms of his instincts."