In a break from recent years, and even most of franchise history as a whole, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive line is the most decorated position group on the roster in 2021. That became true on Wednesday when center Ryan Jensen, left guard Ali Marpet and right tackle Tristan Wirfs all got their first career invitations to the Pro Bowl. Those were three of the Buccaneers' five Pro Bowl selections overall and it marked the first time in team history that a trio of offensive linemen will be going to the all-star game together.
Actually, Jensen, Marpet and Wirfs hope they won't be going to the actual Pro Bowl, as they would rather be still competing for a second straight Super Bowl championships. If that is going to happen, it may be because those three – as well as right guard Alex Cappa and left tackle Donovan Smith – are playing at such a high level.
As the Buccaneers try to figure out how to complete their quest for a division title and chase that second Lombardi Trophy, they have to figure out how to move forward on offense after a brutal run of injuries in their Week 15 loss to New Orleans. Wide receiver Chris Godwin is out for the year due to a knee injury, running back Leonard Fournette is on injured reserve with a hamstring strain and wide receiver Mike Evans is currently sidelined by another hamstring ailment. Those are Tampa Bay's three top players in terms of yards from scrimmage; they've accounted for 58.6% of the team's yards, 56.2% of its catches and 51.9% of its touchdowns.
In addition to being the Bucs' most feted group in 2021, the offensive line has also been one of its most fortunate in terms of injuries. Marpet missed one game in Week 12 due to an abdomen injury but otherwise the front five has been intact for every contest. They've clearly jelled into one of the league's best lines – Tampa Bay leads the league in sacks allowed per pass play and has averaged 4.4 yards per run – and they are in position to finish the season very strong. With the sudden uncertainty everywhere else on offense, the Buccaneers will lean on that steady group up front. Quarterback Tom Brady says it is critical that group leads the way, starting this week against a very good Carolina defense in Charlotte.
"Yeah, [it's] very important," said Brady. "The offensive line sets the tone every week. We've got some great guys up front who have really led the way all season and we're going to have to rely on those guys to do great things for us this week, especially going against the front that we're going against. Big powerful guys inside, very athletic rushers on the outside – this is a very, very good defense we're facing. Again, we're just going to have to keep adapting."
Though Wirfs impressively got a starting spot in the Pro Bowl in just his second NFL season, the wait was a lot longer for Marpet and Jensen. That recognition felt particularly good for two players who had been operating at a high level, but without much of a spotlight, for many seasons, but it won't lead to them getting complacent.
"There's five great linemen we have that all play, and three of those guys got selected," said Brady. "They've been the strength of our team all season. I love playing with those guys. They take a lot of pride in what they do. Everyone loves that they got the recognition because they deserve it, and at the same time they want to go earn it and make sure they're playing their best football at this time of the year."
Marpet and his linemates are more than ready to take on the responsibility of keeping the Bucs' offense moving in the right direction. He agrees that it is now their time to lead the way.
"I feel like for us, it really is," said Marpet. "We feel like we've got to be the reason this thing goes – always, but especially when guys are down. We've got to step up and play a big role and we know that, so I think that we can rise to that occasion."
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.