Ever since free agency opened in March of this year, I’ve heard and seen remarks and comments on social media claiming that the Bucs have done “nothing” to improve an offensive line that finished the 2016 season ranked 23rd out of 32 teams according to Pro Football Focus. I beg to differ. I see plenty of things that will help improve this year’s o-line over last year’s. That being said, here’s that list of things.
The first is moving last year’s starting right guard Ali Marpet to center to replace Joe Hawley, who was a solid center and one of the vocal leaders of that offense last season which is why he was re-signed to a two year contract in this offseason. Although Hawley was pretty consistent last year, Marpet will be a big improvement both as a run blocker and in pass protection. Ali has been a pretty good guard in his first two NFL seasons, but his teammate Gerald McCoy says that he could be a “dominant center” due to his strength and ability to work in tight spaces. This move alone is improvement enough to be excited about, but it’s just the start.
Last year’s free agent acquisition J.R. Sweezy is FINALLY healthy and ready to go this year replacing Marpet at right guard. While Ali was a good guard, Sweezy brings a completely different attitude with him to this o-line. His teammates describe him as “nasty” and “mean”. Marpet says that “Once he gets his big hands on you, it’s over!”. Jameis Winston referred to him as a “beast”. In case you didn’t know, these are all great traits for an interior offensive lineman to possess. Not only is he healthy and ready to go, but he’s chomping at the bit to play after not being able to suit up all of last season. Even though he’s taking over for Marpet, he is upgrading the talent level across the entire o-line.
Kevin Pamphile will be entering his fourth season and second as the starting left guard. He went into the 2016 season as a reserve swing tackle but was thrust into the starting lineup when Sweezy, who was brought in to replace Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, was unable to play. He was much better in run blocking last year than in pass protection, but then again he was learning how to play a new position. Hopefully, with a full year of experience at guard under his belt, he will be able to improve on last season. Between him, Marpet and Sweezy, the Bucs should be able to bulldoze defenses up the middle this year.
Right tackle Demar Dotson has been in Tampa since he was signed as an undrafted free agent after the 2009 NFL Draft. He just signed a three-year contract extension last season so the Bucs must be happy with the job he’s doing over there. At 6’9″/315lbs, Dotson is athletic and strong which is good when it comes to run blocking. Being that big, he sometimes has trouble with speed rushers but can handle most defensive ends in space. Some Bucs fans take him for granted, but the Cowboys game last year opened some eyes to just how valuable he is protecting that other side. With Dotson sidelined by a concussion, reserve tackle Gosder Cherilus started in his place and got manhandled by defensive end David Irving for two sacks. In fact, Dallas sacked Winston four times and hit him nine more times, which was the second highest total of the year behind the Broncos five sacks, while also rushing for a season-low 52 yards. The big guy was missed. Hopefully, he can stay healthy for the first time since 2014 and play a full season.
Which leads us to the highly scrutinized and underappreciated left tackle Donovan Smith. He had a rough start to 2016, but improved his play and had a much better second half of the season. At only 24 years old, Smith is heading into his third season protecting Jameis Winston’s blindside. The Bucs second round pick of the 2015 NFL Draft has been criticized over the last two years for not immediately being the “franchise” left tackle that some fans expected. Bucs offensive line coach George Warhop doesn’t quite share that same opinion. “Donovan could be one of the top two or three tackles in the league. He’s quick. He’s athletic. He’s got strength. He’s an unbelievable talent” says Warhop. What some people don’t realize is that HE JUST TURNED 24 YEARS OLD LAST MONTH! He had a strong rookie year working next to Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins. Then in only his second season, he went from being teamed up with Mankins to playing next to a third year reserve swing tackle playing his first season as a starting guard. That can’t be an easy transition to make, especially as a 23 year old kid. When Smith was drafted, he was playing at almost 340lbs, but after slimming down by trimming off about 5% body fat, he entered this year’s camp at a much leaner 325lbs. Head coach Dirk Koetter says that the criticism of Smith is “unwarranted” and I happen to agree. Hopefully, the upward trend that he began in the second half of last season will continue and we’ll all see that “franchise” left tackle emerge and dominate.
In addition to the improvements to the starting five, there’s also added value in the reserve linemen as well. Last year’s starting center Joe Hawley is now the backup. Veteran guard Evan Smith is still with the team and appears as though he will be for the rest of the season after receiving a $1 million roster bonus this offseason. Guard/tackle Caleb Benenoch, the Bucs fifth round pick from last year, has a year of experience under his belt now as does tackle Leonard Wester who was signed as an undrafted free agent last year. It might not be much, but there’s value in all of that.
I realize that some of you will still be unhappy no matter what this article says because the Bucs didn’t sign some overpriced free agent lineman or pick some overrated offensive tackle out of a weak class in the draft this year and that’s fine. You’re entitled to your opinions. However, the opinions of the Bucs coaching staff is what really matters in the end and they are happy with this o-line. They’re optimistic about Donovan Smith becoming one of the best left tackles in the game. They’re excited about Ali Marpet at center. They’re thankful to see right guard J.R. Sweezy healthy and performing well so far. They have high hopes for Kevin Pamphile at left guard. And they feel like Demar Dotson is as solid as they come at right tackle. It may appear as though the Bucs did “nothing” to improve their o-line this offseason, but the reality is that it is very much improved. If this group can gel and stay healthy this season, then the Bucs expect big things and huge production from this offense…and I do too. But until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!