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Last year, Tampa Bay made a conscious effort to keep its starting offensive lineman together during the offseason, and for good reason. The Bucs were coming off an 11-5 season and produced the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1,000-yard rusher Cadillac Williams.

But those five starting offensive linemen didn’t stay together long.

A preseason injury to left guard Dan Buenning and a Week 1 practice injury sustained by rookie right guard Davin Joseph immediately put this group at a disadvantage.

Reserve G Jeb Terry, who received praise from head coach Jon Gruden throughout the 2006 offseason, struggled mightily in his first professional start at right guard in place of Joseph.

To make matters worse, Tampa Bay lost starting quarterback Chris Simms to a Splenectomy in Week 3, which allowed opposing defenses to stack the box and take away the team’s running game and dare rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski to beat them with his inexperienced arm.

Sean Mahan initially filled in for Buenning at left guard and later re-entered the lineup after Buenning sustained a season-ending knee injury on Thanksgiving Day. Mahan had mixed results. His versatility was his biggest asset, but the Buccaneers didn’t value him as much as Pittsburgh, evidenced by the five-year contract the Steelers signed Mahan to in March.

Those injuries and the fact that Tampa Bay was starting two rookies – Joseph and tackle Jeremy Trueblood – on the right side, should help explain why the Bucs offensive struggled in 2006.

So this offseason the Bucs entered free agency determined to add competition and depth to this unit.

Although they missed out on Arizona tackle Leonard Davis and Cincinnati guard Eric Steinbach, both of whom received more lucrative deals elsewhere, the Bucs managed to land one of the bigger-name free agent offensive linemen in former New York Giants tackle Luke Petitgout.

Petitgout, who was released by the Giants, signed a three-year contract that included a $3 million signing bonus. He replaces Anthony Davis as Tampa Bay’s starting left tackle and is expected to help anchor the left side of Tampa Bay’s offensive line.

The Bucs have moved the 330-pound Davis inside to play left guard while Buenning continues to recover from his knee injury. Buenning is expected to be near 100 percent healthy by the time training camp rolls around.

In the meantime, the Bucs have Buenning taking reps at center in 7-on-7 drills. If he can prove to be healthy and play center, Buenning could compete with John Wade for the starting center job in training camp and preseason.

Buenning likely will also be given the opportunity to beat out Davis for the starting left guard job.

Tampa Bay also attempted to sign former Dallas C Al Johnson during free agency, but to no avail. That is one of the reasons why the Bucs signed former Atlanta Falcons G Matt Lehr, who will compete at both the center and guard positions.

One player that might be flying under the radar a bit is C Nick Mihlhauser, whom Tampa Bay signed off of San Diego’s practice squad last year. The Bucs like his upside and feel he has the potential to beat out Wade for the starting job this year.

With Tampa Bay appearing to be a bit thin at center, there’s a good chance the Bucs could select USC’s Ryan Kalil if he falls to them at the top of the second round. Kalil is considered the best center in the 2007 NFL Draft and would serve as Wade’s successor if he’s drafted by the Bucs.

Depending on how well Wade plays and handles snapping the ball to the quarterback out of the newly installed shotgun formation, Buenning or Kalil could replace Wade at center this season.

Bucs C/G Jonathan Clinkscale figures to be a training camp and preseason body, especially if the team drafts Kalil.

While the starting left guard job is up for grabs and could have Davis, Buenning and Lehr competing for it, the right guard position is pretty much settled. Joseph, who was Tampa Bay’s first-round draft pick a year ago, showed enough progress as a rookie to make the team believe he can solidify that position this year.

Lehr and Terry likely will be given the opportunity to compete for the starting job, but it’s Joseph’s to lose.

The same can be said for Trueblood, who entered the league as a second-round draft pick one year ago.

Trueblood replaced Kenyatta Walker, who underwent season-ending knee surgery during the team’s bye week in 2006, and never looked back. In fact, the Bucs released Walker in March.

The Bucs are lacking depth at right tackle. After Trueblood, the Bucs have Donald Penn, Dennis Roland and Chris Colmer. While Terry can play right tackle, the team isn’t convinced he would be a reliable backup at that spot.

Colmer, who entered the NFL as a 2005 third-round draft pick, might not ever play for the Buccaneers. Parsonage-Turner syndrome, which is the same condition that plagued him in college, cost Colmer the entire 2006 season and has put his career in jeopardy.

If Wisconsin T Joe Thomas falls to Tampa Bay at No. 4 in the 2007 NFL Draft, Tampa Bay will seriously consider drafting him.

The Bucs could use a franchise left tackle to succeed Petitgout, who turns 31 in June. They’re also in need of help at left guard and right tackle.

If they do select Thomas, the Bucs will have spent a first-round draft pick on an offensive lineman in two consecutive years, and offensive line coach Bill Muir and Gruden will have fewer excuses as their projected starting O-linemen would feature three former first-round picks in Petitgout, Thomas and Joseph and a second-round selection in Trueblood.

The Bucs will have their eye on several offensive linemen next weekend, including T James Marten (Boston College), C Scott Stephenson (Iowa State) and Gs Josh Beekman (Boston College) and Dan Santucci (Notre Dame).

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