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Tampa Bay would love to upgrade both guard positions, but its salary cap challenges won’t allow it to do that. That said, look for the Bucs to attempt to do the upgrading from within and through the draft.

Until he dislocated his knee last season, Bucs center John Wade (6-5, 299) was the team’s most consistent offensive lineman. The team expects Wade to make a full recovery, and Wade even helped the Bucs this offseason by agreeing to restructure his contract, which has two more years left on it.

Sean Mahan (6-3, 301) started at center in place of Wade after the injury and performed admirably when considering the fact that he was drafted to play guard and had limited playing experience in the pros. The Bucs are quietly hoping that Mahan can seriously push Wade for the starting job this season, and although he probably won’t win it, improved play could make the team feel more comfortable with parting ways with Wade after the 2005 or 2006 seasons.

Even if he doesn’t beat out Wade at center, Mahan could still compete for a starting job at right guard, where the Bucs lost Cosey Coleman in free agency last month. The team didn’t care to have Coleman, who was extremely inconsistent as a starter, back for anything more than a contract that paid him league minimum, which was why he accepted Cleveland’s two-year deal that included a $500,000 signing bonus. The Bucs would’ve liked to have had Matt O’Dwyer back to compete for a starting job at right guard, but he opted to sign a one-year deal with the Packers instead.

Mahan and second-year G Jeb Terry are expected to compete for the starting right guard position, and Terry is considered the front-runner, although he needs to improve his pass protection quite a bit.

On the left side, Matt Stinchcomb, who started all 16 games at left guard for the Bucs last season, could become a cap casualty before or after June 1. The team has reportedly approached his agent about restructuring his contract. The Bucs would like to keep Stinchcomb, who is quite versatile, around, but his $1.1 million cap value might be too pricey.

Should they be forced to cut Stinchcomb, the Bucs will seriously consider moving last year’s starting left tackle, Derrick Deese, inside to play left guard, a position the 34-year-old versatile lineman has played before. Such a move would likely serve as an upgrade over Stinchcomb and would allow the Bucs to move Anthony Davis into the starting lineup at left tackle.

The Bucs also have Scott Jackson (6-4, 300) and Mitch White (6-4, 311) under contract for the 2005 season, although they’ll likely just serve as training camp and preseason bodies. However, Tampa Bay’s lack of depth at both guard positions could give both players a legitimate chance to earn roster 53-man spots.

The Bucs appear to be set at the center position, although that’s assuming Wade will fully recover from the serious knee injury. The Bucs probably won’t draft a center, but Ole Miss’ Chris Spencer (6-2, 308) is a player they are interested in.

Should Deese (6-3, 289) move inside to play left guard and Terry start at right guard, the Bucs will likely have an upgraded unit in terms of run blocking. That would be good news for the Bucs, who finished the 2004 season ranked 29th in rushing offense.

Tampa Bay does have its eyes on some of the guards entering the NFL Draft, including Virginia’s Elton Brown (6-4, 330), who is one helluva run blocker, and Fresno State’s Logan Mankins (6-4, 307), who isn’t a great athlete but plays with a mean streak and can play left guard or left tackle. Both players are expected to first-day draft picks.

The Bucs also like Alabama’s Evan Mathis (6-5, 304), who is athletic, tough and versatile, and should be an early second-day pick.

Although the team is keeping an eye on the free agent market, where Oakland G Frank Middleton (6-3, 300) remains, expect the Bucs to draft a guard in April.

Current Position Grade: D+

Buc Update Publishing Schedule (Dates Subject To Change)
April 4 – Defensive Ends
April 6 – Defensive Tackles
April 8 – Linebackers
April 12 – Cornerbacks
April 14 – Safeties
April 16 – Kickers/Punters

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