There have been plenty of praise-worthy moves the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have made this offseason. But, even amidst the good change, the Bucs have been criticized for something they didn’t change. That would be their offensive line.
Last week, Brad Gagnon of Bleacher Report took a look at every team’s “biggest offseason mistake“, a signing or lack thereof. For the Bucs, he chose their offensive line and how they “failed” to improve it after a down year.
The Buccaneers went out of their way to make young franchise quarterback Jameis Winston’s life easier by giving him new weapons in three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson, rookie tight end O.J. Howard and rookie wideout Chris Godwin this offseason, but they could have done more to address an offensive line that struggled in 2016.
PFF ranked that unit 19th in the league in terms of pass-blocking efficiency last season. Left tackle Donovan Smith often resembled a turnstile, and left guard Kevin Pamphile and center Joe Hawley weren’t much better in pass protection. Despite that, the Bucs didn’t sign or draft a single offensive lineman.
They could benefit from the return of veteran guard J.R. Sweezy, but he’s been dealing with a lingering back issue and hasn’t always been effective when healthy. Smith could put it together in his third season, but it won’t be easy to recover from a year in which PFF ranked him 69th among 76 qualified offensive tackles. Hawley has solid intangibles and is the kind of veteran you want in the dressing room, but he’s still a mediocre center, and the Bucs strangely gave him a new two-year contract worth $5.5 million. They might test Ali Marpet at center, but wouldn’t that just open up a hole at right guard?
You know what they need? More talented options at every offensive line position. Too late now.
I feel like we’ve read so many of these this offseason, but this one is even a little more strange.
First, yes, Donovan Smith has to get better. But, to his defense, having a revolving door at running back with different styes in the run game didn’t help in 2016. Plus when you factor in all the injuries the receiving group had, and how that resulted in more time needed to block for less experienced or athletic receivers to get open, that also puts offensive linemen in a bad spot (the game of football is a giant chain reaction).
The writer questions Joe Hawley at center, but knows full-well that Marpet is going to start at center, and then says Marpet moving to center would open up a hole a right guard, also knowing full-well that Sweezy is scheduled to come back to fill that role as planned.
And that last part is what people need to understand about this offensive line. This is Smith’s third year. This is the year he’s really suppose to blossom. People act like he was this Top 10 pick who was suppose to be great in his first two years. It takes time for rookies. If he is actually a starting-caliber left tackle, this year is the expected timetable to prove it. Pamphile is in a contract year, something they wanted to play out in its entirety before they either gave him the money to replace an aging Demar Dotson, or let him walk. The outlook since he was drafted has been to move Marpet to center all along, and that, too, is going according to plan. And finally, Sweezy stepping in is basically like an extra free agent, as long as his back holds up.
Why would the Buccaneers give up on these players before they have to when there’s plenty of potential still there? They have the young core of players already in place in other areas of the team, and they’ve set themselves up very healthy in terms of cap space. You can’t just say, “they should have improved their offensive line.” OK, who, and at what price?
Offensive Tackle Andrew Whitworth
35-year-old Andrew Whitworth for over $10 million a year? 29-year-old T.J. Lang to the same position you’re already paying Sweezy for? Same for Kevin Zeitler, who signed a 5-year, 60-million dollar deal? And did you see the contract the Panthers gave Matt Kalil? No thanks, I’ll sit this cycle out. The offensive line market was great for the players, but bad for the teams this year, and if the Bucs would have made a big move, money would’ve been very tight for them with Mike Evans and Jameis Winston’s contracts coming up.
If there was anywhere I’d say the Bucs might “regret” not improving more, the SAM linebacker or cornerback positions were more in the realm of realism, as the team is going to rely on two first-year starters at both positions in cornerback Ryan Smith and linebacker Devonte Bond or Kendell Beckwith. Even though they’re less critical roles, both could have been improved without breaking the bank like offensive line would.
I don’t want to be too hard on national writers who are asked to correctly judge every team in the NFL – it’s hard enough to always be right on just one. But, this part of Gagnon’s article seemed like he was just finding what he could to poke holes in a mostly-stellar offseason for Tampa Bay. Some things can be quicker fixes in the NFL (with the right moves and a little luck), but others take patience. This has been the three-year plan for the Buccaneers’ offensive line all along. If they struggle, you’ll see the changes come in bunches next offseason. If they thrive, it was all according to plan. Regardless of which of those two results it is, they’ve handled it the right way.
Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for PewterReport.com. Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at: email@example.com