Much time has been spent by draft pundits, local media, and fans alike about what the Buccaneers will do with the first few picks. There's no doubt there are glaring needs on this roster. Pocket-collapsing DT. Lockdown CB. Rush DE. Playmaking WR. However, one area that's been glossed over by many fans and "experts" alike is offensive line.
The Buccaneer front office might not agree.
Recently, the Buccaneers have brought in a couple of offensive line prospects for visits in super-duper consensus #1 o-line prospect Russell Okung and highly-touted interior lineman Mike Iupati. Okung would clearly have to be taken at 3, if he even manages to make it that far, and Iupati is projected to be a mid-to-late 1st-rounder. While neither could make it to the Bucs at either the 3rd or 35th picks, it does show the Bucs aren't writing off the positional group.
Really, when you put the current line under the microscope, there's good reason to consider an impact player near the top of the draft.
First, the Buccaneer offensive line was supposedly considered the strength of this football team coming into the season. Although LG Arron Sears missed the year, Jeremy Zuttah had shown flashes of ability and gave everyone reason to believe he could be at least nearly as effective. Unfortunately, the line as a whole disappointed for much of the year despite being healthy for the most part. The rushing game ranked tied for 24th in the league in RuYds/Att at 4.0 and tied for 24th in rushing first downs with 80. This is reflective of what we saw on the field for much of 2009....an inability to hit 5+ yds on first down and open up the playbook, as well as difficulty pounding the ball from inside 4 yards against good defenses and tallying first downs. Also, although the unit ranked 13th-best in the league in QB sacks allowed with 33, this stat is somewhat deceiving, as they allowed the 6th-most QB hits in the NFL with 95. To be fair, the line started off the year with a bang against a good Dallas defense and showed some toughness and a collective motor in the last quarter of the season, dominating the interior of the Seahawk and Saint defenses and carrying the Bucs to a rare West Coast victory and a win over the eventual Super Bowl champs.
So what do we have coming into this season? A physical unit that can take over a game or a group that happened to get hot late in the season? Time will tell, but based on their body of work prior to 2009, I'll optimistically pick the former.
However, how much of this unit can we count on as long-term solutions? Both tackles are operating under RFA tenders and are undoubtedly looking for long-term deals somewhere. Arron Sears, at this point, can't be counted on as a definite starter, as he's missed an entire season of football and will have to get his body and his head right to regain his starting job this offseason...although I'd say he regains his starting gig if you put me on the spot. Current starter Jeremy Zuttah seems like an effective, quality backup, but hasn't shown the nastiness and physicality you want in a starting, mauling interior lineman. T Xavier Fulton has stuck around on the roster as 2009 5th rd pick, but he hasn't done much to push for playing time, much less a starting spot. T Delmar Dotson has the size (6-9, 315 lbs) and raw potential to become a good player, but he's woefully inexperienced, having only 2 years of organized football under his belt....this year included. Shawn Murphy has played in only one game in 3 season with the Bucs and Miami Dolphins.
As such, there's plenty of room for improvement up front. I love the Bucs taking a look at Iupati because he's a rare combination of size, speed, and great feet that you can plug into almost any position on the line. A fast T like Bruce Campbell could be there in the second round and has the tools to be successful in both zone blocking, due to his speed, and assignment blocking-based schemes.