Last year at the Senior Bowl, PewterReport.com broke the news that Tampa Bay would be moving Ali Marpet from right guard to center for the 2017 season.
This year at the Senior Bowl, Marpet might be on the move again – back to guard.
In a conversation with PewterReport.com at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala., Bucs general manager Jason Licht discussed the future of Marpet and Tampa Bay’s offensive line.
It’s still early and the Bucs’ roster for 2018 isn’t even close to being set, but the Buccaneers are considering any move to get the five best offensive linemen on the field together. One thing is for certain regarding Marpet, he will be starting at either guard or center along with offensive tackles Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson.
But, whether Marpet will be lining up at center or guard will be determined by what the team does during free agency and the draft. If Tampa Bay decides to sign a free agent center like Baltimore’s Ryan Jensen or draft a center like Ohio State’s Billy Price, LSU’s Will Clapp or Arkansas’ Frank Ragnow, Marpet would move back to guard.
But, if the Bucs sign a free agent guard like Andrew Norwell or spend a premium pick on a guard like Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson, there’s a strong chance that Marpet remains at center.
“As of right now I would say he’s our center, but we will always put our best five out there,” Licht said. “We were happy with his play towards the end of the season before Ali went on IR. Ali is a really, really smart guy, as we all know, but it’s an experience thing when it comes to directing traffic, making the calls, seeing different alignments and fronts and different blitzes and stunts and all those things. It comes with experience and at the end, he was really starting to get that and take a leadership role, which is what the great centers do.
“With that said, we will put our best five out there whatever the combination is. Whether we bring in guys through the draft or free agency, it’s going to be the best five.”
The Bucs are having internal discussions about whether to let both players that platooned at left guard last year, Kevin Pamphile and Evan Smith, go in free agency or make an offer to keep one or both of them. Tampa Bay is also considering playing offensive tackle Caleb Benenoch, who is entering his third year with the team, at guard as he did as a rookie to help solidify the interior of the offensive line. Benenoch graded out as one of the Bucs’ best run-blockers last year, and with Tampa Bay’s running game ranking 27th last year, averaging just 90.6 yards per game, there could be a push within the organization to get him on the field in 2018.
At right guard, J.R. Sweezy has been a disappointment for two years in Tampa Bay. Sweezy signed a five-year deal worth $32.5 million in 2016 and missed that season due to a back injury that required surgery. Sweezy’s contract got reworked last year as he returned to action, but he certainly wasn’t the player the Bucs thought they were getting from his play in Seattle in 2015.
The big question will be whether Sweezy’s sub-par performance in 2017 was just him getting used to football again after being out for the 2016 campaign, or if he’ll never return to the form he displayed in 2015 due to the ramifications of his back surgery.
“J.R. is coming off an injury and he’s going to need some time to heal,” Licht said. “We’ll have to see how that rehab goes and where he is at that point. He hurt his leg at the end of the season. We love J.R.’s mentality. He’s one of our toughest guys and that’s the kind of guy that we want to fill our locker room with. We’ll have to see how it goes with him. It’s just a physical thing with him.”
Despite being in line to make $5.25 million in base salary in 2018, Sweezy will remain a Buccaneer, but his starting job does not appear to be guaranteed.