Job security is something not many NFL football players enjoy.
For most, training camp isn’t just a time to get back into playing condition. It’s like a month-long game of King of the Hill at every position on the field. Returning starters and members of last year’s active roster fend off challenges from the up-and-comers and new arrivals constantly trying to send them tumbling.
“Unless you’re getting $100-million deal you’re going to have to come in and fight because there’s always a younger guy that’s more athletic with fresher legs that’s out to try and take your job,” said Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Joe Hawley. “So you’ve got to come in and try to get better every year or you’re not going to be on the field.”
Hawley’s time with the Bucs, much like his entire career, has been a battle to win and retain starting playing time. This year will be no different.
“My whole career – this is my seventh year – I’ve never been the starting center going in,” he said after practice Monday. “I’ve always had to fight for my job and I think that’s with every position.”
Hawley came to Tampa Bay via NFC South rival Atlanta a day after the Bucs endured their Week 1 trouncing by Tennessee and replaced incumbent Evan Smith by Week 3. The veteran out of UNLV held the starting center position throughout the rest of the season, relegating Smith mostly to a backup role.
But that was 2015 and this is a new year, new coaching staff and new offensive line.
Considering the overall play of the unit last year, many expected Hawley’s name to remain atop all others at the center position when camp began Thursday. Tampa Bay finished last year fifth in the NFL in average yards per game (375.9) and rushing yards per game (135.1), and kept then-rookie quarterback Jameis Winston’s jersey relatively clean (only 27 sacks).
Bucs C Joe Hawley – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Hawley may still be the frontrunner, but that early depth chart positioning is written in pencil, not ink. That became more clear the last two days of training camp before Tuesday’s off-day. Sunday it was Smith working all morning long with the first unit and Monday it was Hawley.
That’s a back-and-forth fans attending camp can expect to see moving forward and throughout the early preseason schedule that begins with road dates Aug. 11 at Philadelphia and Aug. 20 at Jacksonville.
“We’re alternating Evan and Joe every couple of days, so, as we said, there’s competition there,” first-year head coach Dirk Koetter said. “We want competition like that at every position if we can get it.”
While a little job security would be preferable for both Hawley and Smith, they understand and accept the situation and are focused on trying to crack the starting lineup.
“It’s good,” Smith said of the competition. “Me and Joe are good friends. We talk a lot; we see a lot of the same stuff. That’s just football. It’s competition. You’ve got to go out here and play, you’ve got to compete and at the end of the day they want the best five [linemen] on the field.”
Part of becoming not only one of five starters, but surviving final cut-downs among 16 current linemen in camp, may hinge upon versatility. The ability to capably play multiple positions along the line was stressed during an offseason media session in May with offensive line coach George Warhop. Hawley and Smith both have experience playing guard, including Smith’s three starts last year at right guard when Ali Marpet was sidelined.
“I’m coming into my eighth year in the league and I’ve kind of done it all since then,” said Smith, who is in his third year with Tampa Bay after spending his first five primarily in Green Bay. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. I’m a professional. If I had to go play tackle, it wouldn’t be pretty but I’d go try.”
Hawley remains one of two Bucs listed on the team’s official roster as a center, along with 24-year-old Ben Gottschalk. Smith has the more generic listing of Offensive Lineman. Tampa Bay brought Gottschalk onto the practice squad late last November and he’s performed well in scrimmage time with the third team and in 1-on-1 drills against defensive linemen since pads came on Sunday and Monday.
In the May interview with Warhop, the veteran coach singled out the center position as the one he wants almost everybody accustomed to playing.
Bucs C Joe Hawley – Photo courtesy of Tampa Bay Buccaneers
“Any of our guards – they are all learning how to snap,” Warhop said. “Kevin Pamphile, Caleb [Benenoch] can snap, Ali [Marpet] can snap and the guys that haven’t been able to snap – who haven’t snapped yet – will learn to snap by the end of the year. That’s always a process.
“There’s never enough guys who can pull the ball and most guys in college are undersized, so you have to develop your centers. At the end of the day we’ll probably have five guys that can snap. By the time we get through the preseason, once they become capable, you’ll see them all in the game at some point in time playing center.”