With the Bucs set to kick off training camp in 12 days, it’s time to break down the positional battles. I’ll feature a new position group every other day leading up to training camp. So far, we’ve covered the battles at wide receiver and running back. Today we’ll look at the offensive line.
The importance of continuity on the offensive line can’t be overstated. The Bucs will return their entire starting unit from last season, and their key reserves. Battles for the final spots on the roster will come down to younger players, who must show their versatility to stick around.
The Starting Five
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After a rough start, Donovan Smith really turned his play around after the bye week. In turn, he was rewarded with a 2-year, $36 million extension this offseason. Meanwhile on the right side, Tristan Wirfs stepped in and looked like a seasoned pro, allowing just one sack on the season. Ali Marpet continued his stellar play and was on an All-Pro trajectory before a concussion caused him to miss three games. Alex Cappa has shown tremendous improvement each year and at one point led all guards in fan voting for the Pro Bowl. Ryan Jensen has been one of the best centers in the league over the last three years.
The Top Reserves
Aaron Stinnie and Josh Wells acted as primary backups in 2020, and the Bucs re-signed both to one-year deals this offseason. When Cappa went down with injury, Stinnie stepped up for three critical playoff starts. He churned out impressive performances against the Saints, Packers and Chiefs, as part of a line that surrendered only three sacks during that span. Stinnie looks to fill the role as top interior lineman again this season, but now with a bit more seasoning.
When Smith had to miss a game due to injury, Wells answered the call and performed valiantly. The top reserve at tackle over the last two seasons, Wells played in 15 games for the Bucs in 2020. With a strong camp, Wells should be able to hold off the competition.
In the third round the Bucs drafted versatile lineman Robert Hainsey out of Notre Dame. Hainsey played primarily right tackle in college, but the Bucs envision him playing all across the line. Most recently, the team had him taking snaps at center in rookie mini-camp and OTAs. Having a player with his flexibility could allow the Bucs to keep fewer linemen and open up a spot elsewhere on the roster.
The Battle for the Final Spot(s)
Depending on how many linemen the team decides to keep, there are five players competing for one, possibly two spots.
The Bucs had one opt out last season, tackle Brad Seaton. He returns this year and has received praise from the coaching staff. He’ll challenge Wells directly for the top swing tackle job. Elsewhere, guards John Molchon and Nick Leverett joined the team as undrafted free agents in 2020, spending the season on the practice squad. Both players have also taken snaps at center as they try to increase their value to the roster.
They will be competing with this year’s undrafted free agent prize, guard Sadarius Hutcherson. Hutcherson got one of the bigger undrafted contracts to sign with the Bucs after the draft. He has also been working at center and showing his versatility. At 6-4, 315 pounds, he is a mountain of a man, but has the athleticism and intangibles the Bucs look for up front.
To round out the group the team brought in first-year center Donnell Stanley and undrafted rookie tackle Calvin Ashley. Stanley spent part of last season with the Miami Dolphins practice squad, but has never seen game action. With no true center on the roster other than Jensen, he will be afforded every opportunity to win the backup job. He’ll need to really stand out in camp, as the guard group tries to show they can handle snapping duties. Ashley put together a really solid showing in rookie mini-camp and OTAs, and doesn’t look out of place at tackle. But he faces an uphill battle with Wells and Seaton ahead of him. As a practice squad candidate, Ashley makes a ton of sense.
Keeping the entire offensive line intact should provide a boost to an offense looking to come out hot. Other than winning another Super Bowl, Cappa and Jensen should be extra motivated, as both are in contract years. The top reserves have gotten better each season and their progression will be key in the event of injuries.
As for the ninth and potentially tenth spot, the job will most likely go to who can show the most versatility. Having Hainsey on the roster and his ability to play anywhere along the line is a big help. It leaves me to believe the team will keep only nine linemen. My money is on Sadarius Hutcherson to be the final addition to the group.
Staying in the trenches, look for the next installment in my training camp series to move to the Bucs defensive line on Friday.
J.C. Allen is one of PewterReport.com’s newest beat writers. As a New England transplant, he has closely followed Tom Brady’s entire career and first fell in love with the game during the Patriots 1996 Super Bowl run. J.C. is in his second year covering the team after spending a year with Bucs Report as a writer, producer and show host. Some of his other interests include barbecuing, being outdoors, and spending time with family and friends. His favorite Buccaneer of all time is Simeon Rice and believes he deserves a spot in Canton. Follow J.C. Allen on Twitter @JCAllenNFL.
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