T Kenyatta Walker has started 75 games for the Buccaneers, manning right tackle since 2002
Not even the bye week could slow down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' recent run of injuries. Without even playing a game this past weekend, the Bucs learned that they will be without the services of another starter for the rest of the year, as right tackle Kenyatta Walker has been placed on injured reserve.
Walker has been battling a right knee injury for much of the last three seasons, even undergoing a pair of arthroscopic surgeries. Another 'scope' during the bye week revealed that the damage to the knee was greater than previously thought and thus Walker underwent season-ending surgery to correct it.
Head Coach Jon Gruden said the team's 0-3 record was not a factor in the decision to shut Walker down for the year.
"No, it's a bad knee," said Gruden. "It's a bad knee that needs to be fixed. It's unfortunate. It's a credit to him for playing like he did given this is what he had for the first three games. They went in there and they took a good look at it. Doctor [James] Andrews, one of the best in the world at what he does, says the best thing to do is correct this thing right now. It's a more significant surgery than what he has had in the past."
Rookie Jeremy Trueblood will take over Walker's starting job on the offensive line. To fill Walker's spot on the roster and the O-line depth chart, the team signed rookie Donald Penn off the Minnesota Vikings' practice squad.
Walker was the Buccaneers' first-round draft choice in 2001, the 14th player selected overall and the highest-drafted lineman by Tampa Bay since Charles McRae (seventh overall) a decade earlier. A right tackle at Florida, Walker started his entire rookie season at left tackle but was switched back to the right side in 2002, Gruden's first year at the helm. He opened 13 regular-season games and all three playoff contests at right tackle in '02 as the Bucs' captured the league title with a victory in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Walker started 14 games in 2003, 11 in 2004 and all 16 in 2005. He was part of a five-man group that became the first line to start all 16 games together in one season for the Buccaneers. Walker also started the first three games of this season before the bye after signing a new contract with Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason.
"His season is over and obviously that's a big loss to our football team," said Gruden. "He's paid a great price to go with the knee the way it has been. It's a credit to him. We'll miss him, but his season is over.
"It's been a serious injury for some time. He's been playing with not technically a perfect knee. As they went in there and looked at it during the bye week, which is what we normally do, it's not good enough to keep playing. So let's get it completely healed and hopefully he can return to playing."
Trueblood, the 6-8, 320-pound Boston College product impressed the Buccaneers with his performance in training camp and during the preseason. He started the first and last games of the preseason at right tackle when the team held Walker out and has played several regular-season snaps as an extra tight end when the team has run a jumbo goal-line package. His biggest hurdle has been moving from the left tackle position he played in college to the right side.
"Jeremy Trueblood will start at right tackle in New Orleans and we expect him to play well," said Gruden. "Obviously, [he] was a guy who we knew was going to take a little time to make the transition. His time has come."
Trueblood will be one of at least two 2006 draft picks making their starting debuts on Sunday in New Orleans. Sixth-round quarterback Bruce Gradkowski is the team's new starter after the spleen injury suffered by Chris Simms against Carolina. When first-round guard Davin Joseph returns from his knee injury, suffered in practice before the season opener a month ago, he could join his draft mates in the lineup.
The 6-5, 305-pound Penn first entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of Utah State this spring. The Vikings released him on their final roster cut-down before the regular season but placed him on their practice squad the next day. All practice squad players are eligible to be signed by any team at any time as long as they are being placed on the active roster.
Penn started 44 straight games at Utah State, working at both left and right tackle. He first moved into the starting lineup in his third game as a freshman, playing on the right side that year before moving to the left for the next three seasons. As a senior, he was a second-team all-conference selection.