FAB 2. Bucs’ O-Line Needs Changes
Take a look at the big lead picture above. The one where Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston is getting pressured by Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan and left tackle Donovan Smith looks like he has Winston in a choke hold.
Smith is doing his job – he’s trying to keep Winston upright. It’s just a funny way of doing it, especially for a guy in a contract year that isn’t playing his best football. Yet Smith is about to be paid. Either the Bucs’ front office is going to sign him to a contract extension worth about $13 million per season, or use the franchise tag on Smith for one year that would pay him around $14 million.
In a previous SR’s Fab 5, I have suggested that the Bucs not extend Smith because he hasn’t played well in his contract year. The team was leaning towards a long-term extension around the middle of the season, but Smith’s recent play against Carolina and New Orleans has given the Bucs some pause. I think he gets franchised because despite his faults – a penchant for getting beat due to poor technique or effort a handful of times per game – he is by far the best offensive tackle that will be available in free agency, and there isn’t a great crop of left tackles in the upcoming draft. Some other team would pay Smith $13 million per year if he were to hit free agency, and his play – he’s given up a career-high 5.5 sacks, according to Stats, Inc. – seems to suggest he knows it.
The Big Takeaway
Smith’s play this year is not the only issue along Tampa Bay’s offensive line. The Bucs have some issues upfront, especially on the right side of the offensive line, and the problem may stem from the offensive line coach and running game coordinator, George Warhop. Guard Ali Marpet did receive a contract extension worth $10.825 million and he’s deserved it as he has been Tampa Bay’s best and most consistent offensive linemen by far. Marpet is the least of the Bucs’ worries.
The biggest problem has been at right guard where Caleb Benenoch has been a turnstile, giving up a team-high eight sacks and drawing four holding penalties and two false starts. Benenoch was rotating earlier in the year with Evan Smith, who was getting about one quarter of the snaps before he landed on injured reserve. Now rookie Alex Cappa, a third-round pick who was a sack waiting to happen in training camp and the preseason, is getting a series or two per game to aid in his transition from playing left tackle at Humboldt State to guard in the NFL. It’s been a difficult adjustment for Cappa so far.
At right tackle, Demar Dotson got off to a hot start last year before a knee injured prematurely ended his 2017 campaign. At age 33, Dotson hasn’t returned to last year’s pre-injury form and there’s no guarantee that he will next year at age 34. Dotson hasn’t played as well this year as he typically has, and the best in-house replacement for him is currently reserve Leonard Wester, who hasn’t proven yet that he has the capability to be an NFL starter.
Benenoch, who was a right tackle at UCLA before leaving after his junior season, filled in admirably for Dotson last year after getting a few starts at left guard as a rookie in 2016. It appears to this untrained eye that Benenoch is a better tackle than he is a guard, and the fact that he is the best the Bucs have right now at right guard – better than Cappa or veteran reserve Michael Liedtke – is borderline criminal.
I probed Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter on Benenoch’s play during Thursday’s press conference.
The Tweets You’ve Got To See
— PewterReport (@PewterReport) December 13, 2018
After my question and a follow-up from The Tampa Bay Times’ Rick Stroud, Koetter then went on the defensive about his offensive line, lamenting that he has to play the players he has on the roster at this point in the season – essentially, warts and all.
— PewterReport (@PewterReport) December 13, 2018
Koetter is right in suggesting that the offensive line gets credit for being in the Top 10 of seven NFL offensive categories, including total offense (first, 430.1 ypg), passing offense (331.4 ypg) and scoring offense (10th, 25.5 avg.). That’s true, but the offensive line is also part of a 5-8 record this year, has surrendered 36 sacks, which ranks 16th in the league, but the O-line has also allowed 94 quarterback hits, which is the fourth-most in the NFL.
I spent FAB 1 documenting how poorly the Bucs run the ball, ranking last in adjusted rushing total after removing the quarterback runs – most of which are scrambles on called pass plays that occur when protection breaks down. That’s on the offensive line, too. This unit struggles with zone blocking and on toss plays. Yet Warhop, who is the run game coordinator in addition to being the O-line coach, keeps calling those plays despite the fact they rarely work.
While Dotson has been a starter for nearly a decade and Marpet and Smith have been starting since their rookie year in 2015, the one constant when it comes to the offensive line is Warhop, who has presided over this underachieving unit for the past five years. While not every lineman that general manager Jason Licht is going to serve up via the draft and free agency is going to be a hit, Licht has given Warhop six linemen over the past five drafts, and five veterans through free agency and trades to work with in addition to re-signing Dotson, who has been a mainstay at right tackle.
Six O-Line Draft Picks
G Kadeem Edwards – 5th round, 2014
OT Kevin Pamphile – 5th round, 2014
OT Donovan Smith – 2nd round, 2015
G Ali Marpet – 2nd round, 2015
OT Caleb Benenoch – 5th round, 2016
OT Alex Cappa – 3rd round, 2018
Notable Veteran Additions
C Evan Smith, 2014, acquired via free agency
LT Anthony Collins, 2014, acquired via free agency
G Logan Mankins, 2014, acquired via trade
G J.R. Sweezy, 2016, acquired via free agency
RT Demar Dotson, 2016, re-signed
C Ryan Jensen, 2018, acquired via free agency
Mankins, who was a Pro Bowler in 2015, and Marpet have been the best, with Donovan Smith, Evan Smith and Jensen, whom Licht made the highest-paid center this offseason, being quality linemen. Edwards and Collins were immediate busts. Edwards couldn’t play in the NFL and Collins was a turd who simply collected a check. I’m not faulting Warhop for those players, nor is it his fault or Licht’s fault that Sweezy suffered a serious back injury that required surgery and essentially a two-year recovery period.
But the fact that Benenoch is playing out of position – I don’t think he’s built to play guard – and hasn’t developed, nor has Cappa and Pamphile before them, falls on the tutelage of Warhop in my opinion. The fact that Jensen and Donovan Smith are not playing up to their full potential, especially Smith in a contract year, is on the players, but also Warhop, whose duty it is to develop young linemen.
The FABulous ending
The Buccaneers seem poised to use the franchise tag on Smith, which will mean that Tampa Bay will have three of the highest-paid offensive linemen in the league in 2019 with he, Marpet and Jensen – and only one of them playing like it. That would be Marpet.
There will be some sort of change in Tampa Bay regarding the coaching staff this offseason, and it may be a complete overhaul of the staff and perhaps the front office. That’s needed, as Warhop should be replaced. He’s had five years to turn the offensive line into a team strength and hasn’t done it. It’s time to see if the Bucs’ young offensive linemen can reach their potential and new heights with a new offensive line coach in 2019.