Over the coming months we'll be going through the different positions on the team, analyzing how they performed last year and what needs to improve for next year. To get a couple of different points of view I've asked the other Bucs Nation writers to contribute for these pieces as well.
This week: Interior Offensive Line
The interior offensive line was easily the least stable unit on the field this autumn. It started in the offseason, when Keydrick Vincent was brought in to replace Jeremy Zuttah on the offensive line amid reports that Zuttah wasn't training and practicing with the right intensity. But Vincent was released midseason after suffering an injury, and seeing Jeremy Zuttah and rookie guard Ted Larsen outperforming him. Center Jeff Faine missed time throughout the season and was eventually put on injured reserve, as Zuttah filled in well for him. Starting RG Davin Joseph also was placed on injured reserve late in the season, and rookie Derek Hardman filled in for him for the rest of the season.
With all that turmoil, you would think the offensive line would start to fall apart late in the year. But, surprisingly, that was not the case as the line performed at a higher level toward the end of the season than it did at the beginning of the season. That's a tribute to the coaching of Pete Mangurian, who got inexperienced players ready to play every Sunday. His clashes with Greg Olson were reputedly the reason for his firing last week, and while the O-Line improved during the season it still was playing at a below-average level, at least in run-blocking.
Davin Joseph provides an interesting problem for the Bucs. While he's been the best player on the O-line in previous years and is a former first-round pick, his play this year was not up to his usual high standard and at times simply poor. In pass protection he was beaten regularly, and the fact that the team didn't seem to skip a beat when Hardman went in doesn't speak well for him. At the same time, I've seen some reports that he was playing most of the year on a sprained or torn knee ligament, and that would certainly explain his performance. In previous years, Davin Joseph's play absolutely warranted an extension, and if his play this year was caused solely by an injury that will not prove to be a problem in the future I would expect him to be back as well.
Jeff Faine also presents a problem. While he isn't scheduled to be a free agent, he is signed to an expensive contract and Zuttah filled in very well for him. Despite some erratic snaps, a problem that shouldn't be terribly hard to correct, Zuttah's blocking was about at the same level as Jeff Faine's. Faine could be cut for salary reasons because of that, although the team may need to keep him on to reach a possible salary floor in a new CBA.
Ted Larsen and Derek Hardman were both very similar. Neither of them performed at a particularly high level, but Larsen played adequately as he replaced Vincent and Zuttah at LG. If Larsen can improve his play this offseason he can be a legitimate starting guard, but he was definitely a below-average option this year. Hardman was similar, although he performed worse than Larsen. A starting offensive line with both Hardman and Larsen in isn't disastrous, but it can and should be easily upgraded.
Finally, there's Jeremy Zuttah. Zuttah's strength is pass blocking, and I thought he played better at center than he did at guard. I can see a future for him at that position or at either guard spot, but most of his value may come as a very versatile backup for 3 positions.