After hitting it big on a pair of offensive linemen in 2015, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went back to the draft to further bolster a unit that exceeded expectations last season.
Caleb Benenoch (6-foot-5, 305-pounds) comes to Tampa Bay via UCLA as a somewhat raw but versatile lineman experienced playing tackle and guard positions. Drafted in the fifth round, the Nigerian-born, Texas-raised rookie is beginning his NFL career in an ideal situation.
Tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet were expected to prove their second-round draft selections quickly while joining an offensive line in shambles. Both delivered in impressive fashion, cracking the starting lineup out of the preseason. Combined with the late additions of center Joe Hawley and guard Gosder Cherilus, the O-line transformed itself into an asset after years of being a damaging liability.
Tampa Bay continued its mission of securing the trenches this offseason with a free-agent signing of veteran guard J.R. Sweezy prior to the draft. Now Benenoch is added to the mix and he has the opportunity to learn the ropes and develop behind a solid core group as he competes to make the active roster and compete for playing time.
Offensive line coach George Warhop included Benenoch in a group of offseason additions that will improve the unit’s productivity and depth while speaking to the media this spring.
“You know, I have to take my hat off to [general manager] Jason [Licht],” Warhop said. “We went and signed some free agent guys that are competitive guys. They’re just not guys who are taking up a roster spot, so it’ll be competitive and it’s up to them from that standpoint. But we just added guys that we thought would bring competition and be legitimate guys in the end, if they can develop. He just did a great job of adding good players.”
This year’s selection of Benenoch continues a trend of looking to the draft for offensive line help that can be traced back to Licht’s arrival in 2014. The Bucs made Benenoch their fifth lineman picked in the last three drafts, joining Smith and Marpet last year and Kadeem Edwards and Kevin Pamphile in 2014. That run comes after four straight years of ignoring collegiate linemen. The last O-lineman drafted by the Bucs prior to Edwards and Pamphile was Xavier Fulton in the fifth round in 2009.
Benenoch missed a little time this offseason to return to Los Angeles and earn his degree at UCLA. He returned in time for the Bucs’ three-day minicamp this month and couldn’t wait to get to work.
“I’m so excited. It’s been the most fun I’ve had in a while. I’m back to football, so I’m happy,” the 21-year-old said on the final day of minicamp, adding his frustration about a rule that required him to return to school rather than stay with his new team. “The crazy thing – I’ve learned more in these three days on the field than I did in the five weeks just going over it over the phone and stuff. That’s the biggest thing for me is just getting out here and getting to run the plays with the guys.
“That’s what the thing about this rule is, that it’s just so unfair having guys who get a job, who just want to live their dream out and [don’t] let them come out here and work with their teammates. So I’m glad I was able to pick it up as fast as I did out here on the field. Every day I got better, so I’m happy about that.”