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Over the past two offseasons Tampa Bay has completely revamped their offensive line. In 2006 the Buccaneers drafted their right side of the future in guard Davin Joseph and tackle Jeremy Trueblood.
In 2007 the left side was addressed with signing tackles Luke Petitgout and Donald Penn, and then drafting guard Arron Sears. This offseason the Bucs needed one final piece to complete their future offensive line. That need was a new center to replace the aging free agent veteran John Wade.
Last season that group of lineman turned in good year for the Buccaneers and was the best offensive line that Tampa Bay has had in years. The line paved the way for Tampa Bay's 11th-ranked rushing attack and 16th-ranked passing offense. For the year, the Bucs' offense ranked 18th in the NFL. The line did have problems in pass protection as it ranked 18th in the NFL in sacks allowed with 36.
The Buccaneers' tackle group played very well in 2007. Trueblood started every game and was perhaps Tampa Bay's best lineman. The second-year pro out of Boston College was a force in run blocking and consistent in pass blocking. A shoulder injury down the stretch limited the 24-year-old but he stayed in the lineup and extended his consecutive games started to 29.
The left tackle position was a pleasant surprise with the combination of Petitgout and Penn. Petitgout started four games and was playing very well when he tore a ligament in his knee at Carolina on Oct. 3.
Penn, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent, replaced Petitgout in the starting lineup and was an unsung hero for the 2007 Buccaneers. Starting the remaining 12 games, Penn excelled in pass blocking and was sound in run blocking. The second-year tackle out of Utah State showed a lot of upside and potential.
Going into the 2008 season Tampa Bay has an interesting competition between Petitgout and Penn. It is already underway as Petitgout is participating fully in organized team activities. At the start of training camp Petitgout will be 32 years old and probably has only a season or two left in the NFL. With Penn as an understudy, Tampa Bay has the potential to be set at left tackle for a number of years.
The young guard tandem of Joseph and Sears was a big part of Tampa Bay's running success last year. Both players shined in pulling around the line and covering their assigned blocks. Neither player could be faulted for a lack of strength. Their physicality and athletic ability were evident throughout the season.
But the young guards have room to improve on their pass blocking. Joseph seemed to have a sophomore slump in his pass blocking and allowed too much pressure up the middle. Sears and Joseph are not alone in the blame for pressure up the middle, part of that fell on Wade.
Last year Wade did a good job snapping the ball to the quarterbacks and handled the transition to having the shotgun formation in the offense. He also did an excellent job of making line calls and audibles. The veteran Wade, 33, was a leader among the offensive lineman and his veteran presence was invaluable in helping the Tampa Bay's younger players out.
A lack of punch and physical play from Wade hurt the Buccaneers last season. There were more than a few times when he was simply overpowered by defensive players. The 6-foot-5, 299-pound Wade was partially responsible for the problems with pass protection from the middle of the line. The Buccaneers entered this offseason needing to find a young center for the upcoming seasons to replace Wade.
New Orleans center Jeff Faine was the top center available in free agency, and Tampa Bay struck quickly signing him to a six-year, $37.5 million deal just one hour into free agency.
Faine, 26, was an integral part of the success that the Saints had on offense over the past two seasons. He contributed in pass blocking as the Saints had the first- and third-ranked passing offense in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
A former first-round draft pick, Faine has earned the respect of defensive tackles around the league due to his physicality and aggressiveness. He has started all 66 games he has played since entering the league with the Browns.
Jon Gruden's offense is different from most in the NFL. Most teams have their quarterbacks give the line audibles at the line of scrimmage. In Tampa Bay's offense the line audibles are the responsibility of the center. Faine will have to use OTA's and training camp to get ready to make the correct line calls when the season opens at New Orleans, which will be a homecoming of sorts for him.
The Buccaneers seem to have quality depth behind their starters as well. Tackle Anthony Davis started at left tackle for all of the 2005 and 2006 seasons while also having the ability to play guard.
Dan Buenning has not had much playing time since his impressive rookie season in 2005 when he started all 16 regular season games and the playoff game at left guard. After two injury-impacted seasons he is healthy. Buenning has been learning the center position and could potentially be Faine's backup.
Other players that will have to battle for a roster spot include tackles Chris Denman and Dennis Roland, and guard Brian Johnson. Either player could be a candidate for the practice squad.
Currently the Buccaneers do not have a backup center. Sears and Buenning were seen by Pewter Report taking practice snaps at center at OTA's this month. It was previously reported that Tampa Bay had offered a one-year contract to Jeremy Newberry, but Pewter Report recently learned that the Bucs have no such offer on the table for Newberry and no longer have an interest in signing him.
With Newberry out of the picture it would not be surprising for Tampa Bay to sign or draft another backup center.
Pewter Report would not be surprised to see Tampa Bay draft a center in rounds 3-5 to add depth. It could be the kind of player that has the ability to play guard and be a swing offensive lineman.
Notre Dame center John Sullivan was interviewed by the Buccaneers at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine. He reminds them of a young John Wade because of his intelligence and tough play. Arizona State's Mike Pollak is a quick, powerful player that had a good showing at the Senior Bowl. Sullivan and Pollak are likely third round picks.
Texas A&M's Cody Wallace and Wake Forest's Steve Justice are both fourth-round options. Pewter Report believes that the Buccaneers favor Justice. He is undersized but makes up for it through intelligence and being a technician.
The future at guard seems to be set for Tampa Bay with Sears and Joseph. They also have depth with Davis and Buenning. If the Buccaneers select a guard it could be in rounds 3-5.
USC's Drew Radovich is a third- or fourth-round prospect. He is a leader and hard worker that plays with a mean streak. Notre Dame defensive tackle Trevor Laws said Radovich was the best lineman he went up against and that included Michigan's Jake Long. USC teammate Sedrick Ellis said Radovich will surprise people in the pros.
A fourth- or fifth-round option could be a standout from the East-West shrine game, University of Connecticut's Donald Thomas. His strengths include supreme athleticism and his stock has been rising throughout the draft process.
Many people throughout scouting circles have stated that this is one of the best tackle classes in many years. Some have gone so far as to say that it is one of the best in decades. While the Buccaneers don't have a need at tackle they may be tempted to take advantage of the supreme talent and get a left tackle of the future.
Tampa Bay would be ecstatic to have a shot at Vanderbilt's Chris Williams. He had a great Senior Bowl and is expected to be taken in the first 15 picks. Over his last two years playing left tackle in the SEC Williams allowed only two sacks. The Buccaneers are fans of Boise State's Ryan Clady, but he too is expected to go much earlier.
In the second round the Bucs would consider Kansas' Anthony Collins. The junior entry is big with great athleticism that makes him effective at pulling. Collins needs to improve his footwork. Considering the talent at tackle, he may have been better off returning for his senior year.
The third round may be the most likely point that Tampa Bay would look to draft a tackle. That player could be Virginia Tech's Duane Brown (6-4, 314). He is a fantastic athlete that shined at the East-West Shrine game. A lack of strength has hurt Brown's draft status. His 23 bench presses of 225 pounds at the Scouting Combine was one less than college teammate Eddie Royal. The 184-pound Royal only weighs 130 pounds less than Brown.
In rounds 4-5 the Buccaneers may select Rutgers tackle Jeremy Zuttah. Tampa Bay likes his athletic ability and intelligence. The Zuttah can play all three line positions and plays with a mean streak.
While the Buccaneers appear to be set along the offensive line, it would not be surprising to see them draft an offensive lineman or two for depth and competition.
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