One of the better feel-good stories coming out of Tampa Bay’s 10-6 season in 2010 was the emergence of right tackle James Lee. With nine games under his belt as the Buccaneers starting right tackle, Lee is heading into the 2011 season knowing that he will have to battle to keep his starting job, but is bolstered by the confidence he attained from having success last year.
“Coming out here with the confidence level to play this game and play against some high-level guys, my confidence is up,” said Lee at the Bucs’ unofficial mini-camp last week at the IMG Performance Institute in Bradenton, Fla. “I’m excited about this year and I’m ready to go.”
A native of Belle Glade, Fla., Lee has had to fight and scrap for every bit of success he’s had in his three-year NFL career. As an undrafted free agent out of South Carolina State in 2008, Lee was first signed by the Cleveland Browns, and then added to Tampa Bay’s roster in September of that year.
The 6-foot-4, 305-pound Lee saw action in one game at Atlanta during his rookie season, but was signed to the practice squad for half of his second NFL season before being promoted to the active roster again on October 26, 2009. However, Lee didn’t see any NFL action until last year when he was inserted into the starting right tackle spot in the fourth quarter against the St. Louis Rams when Jeremy Trueblood suffered a knee injury.
Lee stepped in for Trueblood, who was the team's starter since 2006, and played well during the fourth quarter in the Bucs’ 17-16, come-from-behind victory over the Rams in the final seconds of the game.
“That feeling that I had … I can’t even explain it,” Lee said when remembering his first action at right tackle against the Rams. “We had only a few minutes to get that touchdown. We needed to get that winning score on that last drive to beat the Rams. I slept well that night. I really did, knowing that I was really a part of that winning drive and come back and win that game. We came back several times to win games last year in the last minute, but that was special to me because I was a part of it. That was one day I’ll never forget.”
Lee played so well that when Trueblood had recovered three weeks later he remained the starter. When asked what was more pressure, battling for an actual roster spot or fighting to keep a long sought-after starting job, Lee said there was no comparison.
“To have that pressure of somebody trying to get your job, that’s a whole different ballgame,” Lee said. “You have to be on your P’s and Q’s every day, every hour, every minute. It’s actually amazing and fun. I love competition and it was great to just come out and work every day and get better. Sunday it pays off. It’s definitely different from just trying to come out and make a team. It’s a different feeling.
“Having a guy like Trueblood, who is a great right tackle and started for years for us, behind me pushing me, it was a tough task. There was nothing easy about it. I just thank God for the ability to come out each day and perform.”
Trueblood is slated to become an unrestricted free agent once the new collective bargaining agreement is agreed upon by the NFL and the NFL Players Association, and there are mixed reviews on him at One Buccaneer Place. Part of the reason why some in the Bucs’ brass feel that the team can move on from Trueblood is because Lee performed so well last year, while others at the team headquarters believe that Lee was able to flourish because of the pressure Trueblood applied once he was healthy, and that Lee could benefit from that once again if Trueblood were to be re-signed.
Also factoring into the equation is the fact that Trueblood fell out of favor with former offensive line coach Pete Mangurian, who was let go earlier this offseason by the Bucs. Pat Morris, Minnesota’s former offensive line coach, was hired to replace him and prefers bigger linemen to run a power-man scheme. At 6-foot-8, 320 pounds, Trueblood has a four-inch height advantage and weighs 15 more pounds than Lee does.
Lee has been diligently working out this offseason, but has purposefully not added any weight despite Morris’ perceived preference for bigger players.
“I play between 305-310 pounds,” Lee said. “I found out that’s a good weight for me to move around and feel comfortable with. I’m just trying to maintain my weight and eat the right things and do the conditioning I need to do to be the player I want to be.
“This offseason has been going well. It’s going very well, actually. I’m enjoying the break and working out and staying in shape.”
Whether Trueblood is re-signed or not, Lee will have to fend off Demar Dotson, who is coming off a torn ACL that landed him on injured reserve last year, and former practice squad player Will Barker to keep his starting right tackle assignment. As a former practice squad player himself, Lee knows not to underestimate either Dotson or Barker because he was once in their shoes yet was able to secure a starting job.
Due to the lockout, Lee has not been able to have any contact with his new position coach yet, but hopes to make a favorable first impression with Morris once he can.
“No, I haven’t met Coach Morris yet,” Lee said. “I’m looking forward to working with him. I’ve heard a lot of great things about him. I’m looking forward to seeing what he brings to this unit and make us better and stronger.”
Without the supervision of his coaches, Lee has been doing a lot of self-evaluation based upon watching his tape from a year ago. While training on his own and during the team’s unofficial mini-camp last week, Lee has been working on improving the deficiencies in his game.
“In my run game I was a little high at times last year,” Lee said. “I’ve been working on it a lot this offseason. I’m trying to stay low coming out of my stance. I’m going to work on finishing guys off in training camp. I want to take my performance in the run game to the next level. I want to have LeGarrette and Cadillac become those dominating rushers they can be.
“After getting a taste of being a starter last year, I know I can do it. Last year really gave me the confidence that I belong in the league.”
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