The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' deck of offensive linemen is almost the same in 2017 as it was a year ago. However, when it's all said and done, they may be dealt out in a very different manner.
The truth is, as the calendar gets ready to flip to April and not September, the Buccaneers' coaching staff doesn't really know yet what its starting offensive line will be this season. There are plenty of options, including the exact same starting five the team used last year, and now is the time to explore those options.
And if Tampa Bay's offensive front does get shuffled, the catalyst will be a player who didn't take a single snap last year. Speaking at the NFL's Annual Meeting in Phoenix on Tuesday, Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter referred to J.R. Sweezy as the 'wild card' in the team's O-Line hand.
The Buccaneers signed Sweezy, the former Seahawk, as an unrestricted free agent last March. It was the one move in an otherwise strong free agency class that didn't pay off in 2016…but it might still do so in 2017. A year ago, Sweezy was looked at as the probable replacement for the retiring Mankins at left guard, but he spent the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list after undergoing back surgery. Thus, the Bucs put converted tackle Kevin Pamphile at left guard and he handled the job well. With Sweezy back in the picture, the team is considering different ways to align Pamphile, Sweezy, third-year right guard standout Ali Marpet and centers Joe Hawley and Evan Smith.
"We're going to get the best five on the field," said Koetter. "J.R., when he first comes back, is probably going to work at right guard. He'll also be playing some left guard, but right guard was his position in Seattle. We're going to experiment with Ali playing some center, but we also have two other capable centers in Joe and Evan. Evan can also play guard. Joe will be the one guy that only plays center, but Ali will play both. Kevin will need to be able to play a little bit of right tackle but we'll see how that all shakes out over time. But in the end, we'll get the five best guys out there."
Last year, the Buccaneers made a point of working with Marpet and Pamphile at the center position, for the purpose of contingency plans and possible lineup changes down the road. If Marpet proves to be the team's best option at center, that could lead to a bigger interior-line trio that would match up with some of the large defensive tackles in the NFC South. All three of Marpet, Pamphile and Sweezy are at least 6-4 and 300 pounds.
The idea of trying out Marpet at center has been bounced around since he arrived in Tampa as a second-round draft pick in 2015. The Buccaneers traded up to make sure they got the intriguing small-school prospect, who played offensive tackle at Division III. The team was duly pleased when Marpet made a quick enough transition to the NFL to start on opening day. Some of the things he has done well would translate well to center.
Pictures of the Buccaneers' offensive linemen.
"[He's a] tremendous run-blocker, communicator, good in the screen game," said Koetter of Marpet. "I'm not saying he's going to end up being our center. Ali played every snap at right guard last year, one of two O-Linemen we had to play every snap of the season. And Ali's had two solid, solid seasons for his first two years as a guard. But we're just [using] the flexibility of getting your first five out there. If our best five includes Ali at center and that lets us get a little bit bigger with Sweezy and Pamphile at guard…but you never know if something happens. Pamphile might have to move, Sweezy might have to flip over to left. We feel good with either Joe or Evan playing center as well. We've won games with both those guys playing center for us."
If Sweezy is the wild card in the Bucs' O-Line deal, Pamphile is that lower card that completes a straight. That is to say, as a fifth-round pick in 2014, the size of his value to the O-Line wasn't immediately obvious on draft day. His development into an NFL-caliber starter and a player capable of thriving at multiple positions is one of the main reasons the Bucs have so many potential combinations up front.
"You've got a fifth-round pick that is hopefully in Tampa for a long time," said Koetter. "In 2015, he was primarily our jumbo tight end, got a couple starts. He started for us at left guard last year. He can play right guard, he can play right tackle, he can also play center. We've trained him some at center, as well.
"We drafted Ali and Donovan in the second round, Dot's been around forever, we brought Sweezy in as the free agent last year…I think Kevin's the guy that's never talked about and he's just a real solid player. A lot of those O-Linemen like it that way, they don't want to be talked about. They just want to get their jobs done. We're real happy with Kevin."
Even if the Buccaneers end up with the same primary starting line as a year ago – LT Donovan Smith, LG Kevin Pamphile, C Joe Hawley, RG Ali Marpet and RT Demar Dotson – the different combinations they try in the coming months could end up being relevant during a long season.
"When we were watching our cut-ups, we went through some games last year all of a sudden we were beat up and we had some strange combinations at guard and center last year," said Koetter. "Because on game day, you've only got seven guys. So if one guy gets hurt in a game, your combinations are going to start moving. So anything we experiment with now, in the offseason, through the preseason, that's just that: That's experimentation to find the best five and give guys experience at different spots. In the real 16-game schedule, you've only got seven of them.
"We've said all along, we believe in cross-training our guys and we've shown that in the past. Guys are going to learn multiple positions and eventually – when it all comes down to September – we're going to put who we think are our best five out on the field."