SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. BUCS SHOW FAITH IN TAMPA BAY’S O-LINE
With Tampa Bay’s ground game stagnating in 2016 after a top 5 ranking a year earlier, Buccaneers fans have been clamoring for change along its offensive line since January.
Sign a high-priced, big name in free agency.
Draft an offensive tackle in the first two rounds.
As expected, the Bucs did neither.
Since the end of the Bucs’ 2016 campaign PewterReport.com has been reporting (over and over) that the team liked what it had and that the only free agent Tampa Bay might sign would be re-signing center Joe Hawley, which happened.
Tampa Bay’s offensive line – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Despite these reports, Bucs fans were still in disbelief. The team needed to at least draft a tackle to challenge and eventually replace either Demar Dotson or Donovan Smith, right?
The national media was a willing accomplice, fueling that fantasy by linking Alabama offensive tackle Cam Robinson to the Buccaneers in a few mock drafts. When it was all said and done, Bucs general manager Jason Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter did what I expected them to do.
They completely ignored the offensive line in the 2017 NFL Draft.
“We are confident with what we have here and once again, it was just two years ago that we were a fifth-leading rushing team and gave up whatever it was, not very many sacks,” Licht said after the second day of the draft. “It’s really just, [former Buccaneers guard] Logan Mankins is a great player, but we have the same group. In fact, we added, hopefully [guard] J.R. [Sweezy] stays on track where he is right now.
“We’re very excited about this group. Not to say that there wasn’t a point when we thought about bringing in some depth or we might here tomorrow, but we are happy. Part of the exercise you do on the draft board is you try to rank your guys into the draft of where they would fall. You have to take that into account too.”
Licht had spent five draft picks on the offensive line in his first three drafts in Tampa Bay. He selected Tennessee State guard Kadeem Edwards and Purdue left tackle Kevin Pamphile in the sixth round. In 2015 Licht drafted two linemen in the second round – Smith, a left tackle from Penn State, and Hobart College’s left tackle, Ali Marpet, who would be moved to right guard. Last year, Tampa Bay grabbed UCLA right tackle Caleb Benenoch in the fifth round, and he’s expected to play guard with an outside chance at right tackle as he grows and gains experience.
Of those five picks, Edwards is no longer on the team and three – Smith, Marpet and Pamphile – are starters. Smith and Marpet are entering their third year in the starting lineup, and Pamphile, who is entering a contract year, is entering his second season as a starter at left guard. The team likes Benenoch’s upside.
At some point, the Bucs had to stop drafting offensive linemen and give the guys they’ve drafted a chance to develop. That line of thinking coincided perfectly with an incredibly poor crop of offensive linemen in this year’s draft.
While there’s depth, I’m not sure I’ve seen a poorer collection of offensive linemen in one draft..
Offensive linemen need time to develop, and players like Smith, Marpet, Pamphile – and certainly Benenoch – are far from finished products. The only way for them to gain the needed experience to improve is to see time on the field.
In the eyes of the Bucs’ brass, the team did make some additions this offseason to its offensive line. It regained Sweezy, last year’s prized free agent addition on offense, after a back injury in offseason workouts cost him all of 2016. His insertion at right guard should help Tampa Bay’s run game.
And Marpet’s move from guard to center adds more size and physicality in the middle of the offensive line. Hawley, the team’s starter the last two years, was re-signed for depth, competition and an insurance policy at center in case Sweezy or Pamphile gets injured and Marpet has to move back to guard.
That’s two big changes as the Bucs see it, although that’s not the changes fans were necessarily hoping for.
Bucs LG Ali Marpet blocks Rams DT Aaron Donald – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“Well you know, I think versatility is a big thing,” said Jameis Winston, the quarterback Marpet will be snapping to. “When you have different linemen that can play guard, tackle and center, I think that’s huge. But Ali, I trust him. You think about the road that this guy’s [taken] – a Division III athlete to starting guard in the NFL – there’s no obstacle too big for Ali. So I’m excited for him and I know he’s excited, so I’m looking forward to it.”
I recently spoke with Pamphile and Dotson about the Bucs’ show of confidence in the existing linemen on the team by brining everyone back from a year ago and they appreciate the faith Licht, Koetter and offensive line coach George Warhop have demonstrated.
“One thing that fans need to know is that it takes some time to gain the trust of the guy next to you,” Pamphile said. “You have to play as one – five guys playing as one unit. It takes time to build that trust. Bringing in a free agent helps sometime, but if that guy is off the page then it screws up the entire chemistry of the bunch. For us to have even more time together is exciting.
“When Joe got re-signed we were all talking about keeping the gang together. We were excited because we all knew what we could do together. We trust each other, and Warhop and Dirk trust us. We’re a competitive group and we want to get as many wins as possible. We want to show the fans that. This is still a young offensive line in general. The only old guy is Demar. We’re still young and we’re still growing.”
Earlier in the offseason, Koetter said that the goal was to get Tampa Bay’s best, most talented offensive linemen on the field together. That’s something that the ever-competitive offensive linemen have embraced.
“It’s created a little uncertainty about the offensive line and what it’s going to look like, but it’s a good uncertainty,” Pamphile said. “You have so many guys that can play so many different positions. I can play all the positions. J.R. can play left or right guard. Ali can play guard, but he’s moving to center. It’s crazy how many combinations we can have. It helps the team and gives us more depth.
“We’re getting J.R. back and he’s going to be a huge asset for us. I’ve watched film to see what he can do on the field, and I saw it and said, ‘Oh man, this is going to be huge for our run game.’ For me, if they have me on the left side or the right side, it doesn’t matter. I just want to help the team win. That’s all I care about.”
Dotson said that despite fans being vocal in their desire to see new offensive linemen come to Tampa Bay this offseason he wasn’t shocked that the Bucs didn’t draft a lineman.
Bucs RT Demar Dotson – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“They want to create continuity and have the same guys playing together for a long time,” Dotson said. “I think we have a good core nucleus in Ali Marpet, Donovan Smith and Kevin Pamphile. Those three young guys and J.R. Sweezy coming into the mix, it’s going to be good for us. If you bring in another veteran and try to mix it up it might take even more time for everyone to gel. You never know what you’re going to get bringing in free agents. A lot of offensive linemen that we’ve brought in over the years – look how it’s worked out? When you bring in a guy he might have worked in one system, but he comes here and he might not pan out. At least right now you know what you’ve got. It didn’t surprise me that Dirk didn’t bring anybody else in.”
Dotson said that while the plan is to move Marpet to center, he expects Hawley Smith to not relinquish that role without a fight.
“That’s going to be quite the competition at center,” Dotson said. “There are two capable guys in Joe and Evan that can without a doubt play center. Then you gave a guy that everybody loves in Ali that is a smart guy and a tough kid. I think he can pick up center pretty quickly. He’s smart, tough and coachable. I don’t know it’s going to fare with Joe with Ali getting those reps, but we have team guys.
“Like Dirk said, he’s going to put the five best guys on the field. He wants to win and the team wants to win. I don’t think it will create any bad blood within the line. If Ali is good enough to play center then he’ll play it. He’s a draft pick and they love him. That keeps Kevin at left guard and it moves J.R. into right guard that he’s used to playing at Seattle and Ali at center. That’s the most ideal thing for the team. We’ll see how it goes. It’s going to be a fun training camp for sure.”
Actually, the most ideal thing for the Bucs offensive line is to establish the starting five as early as possible the preseason so the final five will have a few weeks to gel together prior to the start of the regular season in Miami on September 10. Marpet better be quick at mastering the center spot, and Sweezy better be on top of his game with any rust shaken off during training camp.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com
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