G Sean Mahan's strong play has made him a candidate to start at two different spots
At one point during Friday morning's practice at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp, the offensive and defensive linemen were sent off to another field so that the rest of the team could run a no-contact passing drill. Generally during this time, the two groups of big men will engage in a spirited round of one-on-one competition, and indeed, that drill was on Friday's printed practice schedule.
This time, however, the Buccaneers' assistant coaches looked at each other, surveyed their respective troops and decided on the spot to skip the head-to-head banging. Basically, it was a matter of uneven numbers.
Tampa Bay's offensive line needed a break at that point of the hot morning workout. Due to a sudden rash of injuries and – at least in one case – sudden departure, the Bucs' O-line is suddenly the most depleted position in camp. Since it is also the most indeterminate position, in that it's eventual starting five is not yet obvious, that's a fairly significant development.
Tackle Derrick Deese tried to go on Friday after returning from a sore foot on Thursday but was soon sidelined again. Center Scott Jackson is only a few days removed from breaking a hand and can't currently handle any contact. Rookie guard Dan Buenning, who had made a nice early showing, now has a strained calf and couldn't practice on Friday, nor could tackle Kenyatta Walker, who is battling a swollen knee. Center John Wade is healthy but not a great candidate for extra work at this time as he spent much of the offseason recovering from a serious knee injury. Rookie tackle Chris Colmer was on the field, too, but still might be feeling the hip pointer that kept him out on Wednesday.
Basically, if you could line up in front of the quarterback on Friday, you were going to see a lot of snaps.
"It was a little bit like The Junction City Boys there today," said Head Coach Jon Gruden, noting the climate and the thinning ranks. "I'll say this, I'm really proud of Anthony Davis and [Matt] Stinchcomb and [Sean] Mahan and Wade. Chris Colmer, who missed practice a couple days ago with a hip pointer, is sucking it up as one of The Junction City Boys. These guys took a lot of reps."
Most surprisingly, second-year tackle Lance Nimmo has chosen to leave the squad. Nimmo first entered the NFL as a fourth-round draft choice of the Buccaneers in 2003, though he did not make the team's roster as a rookie. He later had stints with the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots, and he re-signed with Tampa this June after being released by the Patriots.
It is at Nimmo's position that the Bucs are suddenly a bit slim. Last year's starters, Deese and Walker, were out Friday, Nimmo is gone and Colmer is banged up. Another tackle, Kevin Fischer, was released earlier in the week and replaced with a rookie from Washington State named Sam Lightbody, who is still learning the offense. Of course, injuries are an expected part of training camp, and it's not unusual for one particular spot to feel it worse than others. Last year, the running backs, receivers and linebackers were often left a bit short. Still, if it appears as if the tackle shortage will last for awhile, the Bucs might have to take a look at the waiver wire.
"Well, you really can't control some things," said Gruden. "Every year you have some guys nicked up. Obviously, the tackle position is very depleted at this stage. We're concerned, obviously, with the number of men that we have out and the way we want to practice and the work we need to get done. We'll take a good look at it here over lunch and if we need to make something happen we'll try to do that."
Of course, with fewer healthy bodies on the field, some players are getting a more extensive shot to show what they can do, and that's quite an advantage when jobs have yet to be sewn up. One young lineman who has consistently drawn Gruden's praise since camp began is third-year man Sean Mahan, who came in as part of the same draft class as Nimmo. Mahan played the second half of last season at center after Wade's injury, and he is currently seeing action at that spot and at guard. He has performed well at both and has recently taken a lot of first-team snaps at right guard.
"Sean Mahan will compete at two positions, to start at center or right guard," said Gruden. "We're going to have a hard time keeping him off the field if he continues like he is."
Indeed, despite the injuries and the lineup uncertainty, not all the news regarding the offensive line is worrisome. Wade's return has definitely helped the group, and overall the line seems to be opening up some more robust holes in the running game than it did a year ago.
"[Wade] is having a good camp," said Gruden. "He's a physical run player, and I think with the addition of these two tight ends [Anthony Becht and Alex Smith] and the emergence of Mahan and Anthony Davis, we're a much better run-blocking team at this team as compared to last year. Hopefully [Wade] can remain healthy. His endurance is getting better and it won't be long before he's back to the two-a-day grind with his teammates."
Still, the Bucs would like to have as much information as possible when it comes time to nail down a starting line, and they'd like to make sure that their healthy linemen aren't getting overworked.
"Our offensive line is a work in progress," said Gruden. "Progress was a little bit derailed today because of injuries and sudden retirement and things of that nature, but we've got to get over that."
Outside the offensive line, the Buccaneers' relatively minor injury list can be summed up with one word: hamstrings.
Probably the most common of camp ailments every summer, the hamstring strain, tweak, pull or tightness has so far nabbed running backs Michael Pittman, Jacque Lewis and Rick Razzano, cornerback Juran Bolden, linebacker Jeff Gooch and wide receiver Larry Brackins. Fortunately, the Bucs and their training staff have managed to minimize the damage of these injuries, as all but Razzano were back on the playing field on Friday.
Pittman, Bolden and Gooch only missed a practice or two with their hamstring tightness, but Lewis had been out almost a week before returning on Friday morning. Lewis and Razzano both got hurt last Saturday, and the rookie fullback is still waiting to return. Brackins was on the PUP list to start camp due to his hamstring injury but is running full speed now and had his most active practice on Friday.
There was also one addition to the injury list in the middle of Friday morning's workout: first-year tight end Nate Lawrie sustained an ankle sprain and is considered a question mark for the afternoon practice.
The Buccaneers added a new player to the roster for the second straight day. Actually, in this case they brought back a familiar face: long-snapper Brian Sawyer, who had been released on the first day of camp when the team signed running back Carnell Williams.
To open a spot for Sawyer on the roster, the team released quarterback Jared Allen.
Sawyer first entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Patriots last year. He was waived at the end of the Patriots' preseason and signed by Tampa Bay in January. Sawyer handled every single one of Florida State's deep snaps during his four years on the team.
A rookie out of Florida Atlantic University, Allen first attended the Bucs' rookie tryout camp right after the draft. He was later signed to the active roster and brought to camp. By releasing Allen, the team has chosen to move forward with just three quarterbacks at this point: Brian Griese, Chris Simms and Luke McCown.