Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.
SIKKEMA’S STAT OF THE WEEK
The Buccaneers offensive line was under a good amount of scrutiny during the 2016 NFL season, and that has continued to be the case as we’ve moved on into the offseason. As the draft process really started to get off the ground back in January, and the hints began to come out that the team was most likely not going to invest a high pick or big-time free agency money into the offensive line, the fans started to express their dislike for that train of thought.
Trench play is king in the game of football. If you can’t win up front, most of the time it won’t matter who you have at the skill positions or even at the quarterback positions – just ask the Indianapolis Colts after this year. But though they’ve come with struggles, that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a plan, or long-term outlook, for Tampa Bay’s offensive line. Through bad timing, unfortunate injuries and just a need more for development, the 2016 performance by the big boys in the trenches left much to be desired. But let’s take a look at some of the numbers and see if it was more of just bad luck on a plan that was still developing, or if the writing really is on the wall for changes to be made.
When it comes to the offensive line as a whole, the people over at Pro Football Focus ranked the Buccaneers 23rd in the NFL by the time the season was finished. Their top-rated lineman on the team was right guard Ali Marpet, who scored in the Top 20 as a pass protector and was the site’s No. 5 overall RG as a run blocker this season. Here’s what they had to say about the line as a whole.
The left side of the Buccaneers’ line was a real problem area, with the play of LT Donovan Smith proving to be a real issue. Smith surrendered 57 total QB pressures and 14 penalties over his season, with Kevin Pamphile inside of him chipping in with 32 pressures of his own. Second-year player Ali Marpet continued his development with solid play, especially in the run game, while Joe Hawley and Demar Dotson were capable starters at center and right tackle, respectively. The line wasn’t helped when injury forced them to bring Gosder Cherilus into the lineup at right tackle, as he was beaten for three sacks and two hurries in just two games starting before being sent back to the bench to end the year.
Marpet, now going into his third year in the NFL, has proven to be not only versatile, but also dependable in whatever position he’s asked to play. He’s not just a guy who is masked as a “he can play guard or center” in the sense that he can’t play either at a great level so the team just labels him “flexible”. Marpet is not only good, but is great at any of the three interior spots on the offensive line, and is a player who metrics guru Ethan Young considers to be one of the more underrated prospects in all of football.
“I haven’t seen that level of play strength [very often]. He just flashes it at times and you can tell he can really move people. It’s really impressive, and he has the feet, too, for someone who can develop to pass protect. I really like him a lot. I think he’s one of the more underrated players in the league.”
Expect Marpet to be the focal point of this offensive line when it really starts to take shape for future years. What the team decides to do with Marpet, whether that’s keeping him at guard or allowing him to play center with J.R. Sweezy’s hopeful return, will speak towards where they go in acquiring offensive line talent for the future.
PFF rated Marpet as one of the best offensive guards, not only on the Buccaneers but in the NFL, but they also said Kevin Pamphile was one of the worst in Tampa’s starting five. However, at least on run plays, the statistical averages didn’t exactly line up with that. Since PFF is just one type of grading scale, I’m going to try to give as much complete information as I can to balance any kind of human grading or statistically grading there is.
On the interior, the success rate of run plays to Pamphile’s left side of the line were much more consistent than Marpet’s right side. Pamphile also had more attempts to his size, so that avoids any kind of skew in the stats. Averaging nearly 5 yards per attempt over the right guard on second down is great, but overall, running the ball to the left side proved to be more effective, for whatever reason.
PFF noted Pamphile’s struggles as a pass protector, and those concerns are still there (especially in the form of penalties), but knowing the kind of success the team had running the ball to his size, it’s clear that he’s not as much of a project offensive lineman as they portray him to be.
Floating over to the right side of the line now, right tackle Demar Dotson graded out as a top 10 right tackle in the league by B/R’s NFL1000 project. In this grading scale, writers watch every player from every team at a certain position each week. They score offensive lineman on scale that includes: pass blocking, run blocking, strength and mobility. The only right tackle in the NFL who scored a higher mobility score than Dotson was the No. 1 player, Lane Johnson. Dotson’s pass and run scores were reflecting of his lower position, but a lot of that has to do with offensive line chemistry as well – keep that in mind any time you talk about both successes and failures of players on an offensive line. Overall, at 31 years old, Dotson is certainly a serviceable-to-preferred right tackle in this league.
But now on to the important part.
PFF’s report reflected the main gripe fans seem to have with the offensive line and that is that their left tackle, Donovan Smith, is the team’s worst starting offensive lineman. In the NFL1000 project by B/R, Smith graded out as the 31st ranked left tackle in the league – which, if you’re any good at math, you know means he was one spot off being the worst at No. 32. Smith’s pass protecting and run blocking skills actually weren’t too bad, but his strength and especially mobility scores killed him.
Not only that, but Smith was the most penalized offensive tackle in the entire NFL in terms of calls against him. However, it’s worth noting that one of the best offensive tackle in the NFL, grade wise, Tennessee’s Taylor Lewan, was only one penalty behind Smith, and had even more yards from penalties than Smith did.
On the flip side, Smith is only 23 years old and Buccaneers general manager, Jason Licht, has referenced many times when asked about the criticism of Smith that, in reality, he should’ve been a rookie either last year or even this upcoming year because of how young he is. Instead, he has two NFL seasons under his belt. Smith also hasn’t missed any time due to injury, playing and starting in all 32 of his professional games. That’s pretty unusual for an offensive lineman. With availability being a key component of playing offensive line, that’s an area of Smith’s game (durability) that has to be seen as a positive.
There are many Bucs fans who are ready to give up on Smith after his two years, but the fact of the matter is the team is not in agreement with that. Smith is going to continue to start at left tackle going into the 2017 season, and that’s just the way it is. He has to be better, plain and simple, no one is saying that he doesn’t. Not the team; not the staff; not even himself. But, the Bucs are betting on his athleticism, durability and development to all catch up in his third year and see his performance jump from that bottom tier of left tackles at least into the middle-of-the-pack, serviceable starter grade – hoping that he can become a Top 10 left tackle in the league in the years to follow that. If he doesn’t progress, they’ll move on. We’ve already seen they’re not afraid to do so with other positions.
And that’s the last point about Donovan Smith: There’s a plan. The reason the Buccaneers have had the cap space to bring in players like Brent Grimes, Robert Ayers, DeSean Jackson and Chris Baker is because three of their starting five offensive linemen are currently playing on their rookie deals, and not to mention their quarterback is as well – left tackle and quarterback are usually the two highest paid players on payroll. The Bucs know that being in that situation is rare, especially for a team that is competing for the playoffs. They’re not going to be as quick to ruin that plan as fans might be. They’re going to let this play out another year, make sure they really know what they have, then make big changes next year if improvement isn’t made. There is a plan in place, and there is an escape route if it fails.
Until then, it’s just being smart financially and hoping patience in scouting and development pay off because of it. If it does, this team has set themselves up to be healthy in their cap space and in their performance on the field for years to come.
Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for PewterReport.com. Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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