The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been known for a lot of things over the years, but probably not stellar offensive line play.
Draft picks like Lance Nimmo, Austin King, Jeb Terry and Chris Colmer never panned out under head coach Jon Gruden and offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Bill Muir in Tampa Bay. However, one draft pick appeared to be an exception and promising player in 2005.
That player was Dan Buenning, an offensive guard from Wisconsin. The Bucs selected him in the fourth-round of the '05 draft.
Not only did he make Tampa Bay's roster in '05, Buenning started all 16 regular season games and one playoff contest at left guard as a rookie and helped running back Cadillac Williams rush for 1,178 yards en route to winning the NFL Rookie of the Year award.
Buenning appeared to have solidified a key spot along Tampa Bay's offensive line, but his sophomore season didn't go as planned.
An ankle injury hindered Buenning during the 2006 preseason. To make matters worse, the 6-foot-4, 320-pound Buenning tore his ACL on Thanksgiving Day in '06, an injury that ended his season and required surgery.
That type of injury can take one year to recover from, sometimes longer. That proved to be the case with Buenning, who was declared inactive for all 16 regular season games in 2007.
Not only was he still recovering from ACL surgery, Buenning had essentially been replaced by Arron Sears, whom Tampa Bay used a second-round pick to select in the 2007 NFL Draft. The Bucs began working Buenning at center in hopes that he might have a future at center with Tampa Bay.
Sears started all 16 regular season games and one playoff contest for the Bucs and helped Tampa Bay's offense finish the season ranked 11th in rushing, which was the highest a Gruden-led offense had ranked in rushing yards in his six-year tenure with the Bucs.
Although Buenning had started working at center in '07, the Bucs jumped at the opportunity to upgrade the position this offseason by signing New Orleans free agent Jeff Faine, making him the highest-paid center in the NFL. John Wade was allowed to leave via free agency and eventually signed with Oakland.
To complicate matters for Buenning, the Bucs invested a third-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft in Rutgers offensive lineman Jeremy Zuttah, who can play both center and guard.
The odds have been stacked against Buenning, but he has embraced the challenge by turning in an impressive offseason and performing well thus far at training camp at both center and guard.
"Dan is a hard worker and he's one of the smartest guys we have on the football field," said Muir. "I don't think taxing him playing those adjacent positions is a problem at all. He's working hard, he's in the mix and he's trying to make his presence felt. He's competing."
This time last year, Buenning was attempting to simultaneously learn a new position and recover from a serious knee injury in training camp. But Buenning feels completely healthy and Muir believes the 26-year-old offensive lineman has proven himself at the center position.
"Yeah, of course [this camp is a lot different]," said Buenning. "It is another year removed from the surgery. I feel a 100 percent whereas last year I was 85 percent.
"I feel like I've done well. It is still different for me still at center. I think I improve on that everyday. I feel comfortable there, but there is always room to get better and I'm never going to be as good as I want to be."
Added Muir: "There's no doubt in my mind that he can play center in this league. Now, is he perfect? No, but he's a work in progress. He really gets better everyday we're out here. From the neck up, he understands totally the concepts of the position and what we're trying to do."
Even though Tampa Bay appeared to move on without Buenning after he suffered the knee injury by drafting Sears and Zuttah, the Bucs still are confident in Buenning's abilities.
"Buenning started, went wire-to-wire for an NFC South Champion as a rookie, and handled himself well against good people," Gruden said. "I feel for him. He had a serious injury, played through a real tough sophomore year and last year was hard on the kid. But here we are moving into our fourth season with Dan and he's competing with Jeremy Zuttah for the backup center position and obviously swing-guard position at this point. We think he's got the talent to be a starter in pro football."
With Faine established as the starting center and Sears and Davin Joseph penciled in as Tampa Bay's starting guards, Buenning finds himself competing for a roster spot.
There's no guarantee the Bucs will keep Buenning and Zuttah on their 53-man roster. Buenning took the first-team reps at center with Faine (back injury) out of the lineup on Thursday morning, but the team might have more invested in Zuttah now than it does Buenning in terms of draft pick status.
Despite having the odds stacked against him, Buenning has never given up, and the Bucs don't appear to be ready to give up on Buenning yet, either.
"Nobody appreciates it unless they've been through it," Muir said of Buenning's ability to work his way back from the knee injury. "It's a credit to him that he's worked as hard as he's worked. It just shows his determination to become the best NFL player he can be and make an impact on this team."
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