The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have spent the past six seasons building an offensive line. After the 2008 season, the Bucs were widely considered to have one of the best young offensive lines in the league, anchored by right guard Davin Joseph. But the line never played up to that billing as left guard Arron Sears struggled with his mental health and had to bow out. Jeremy Trueblood got stuck in "I can't stop a traffic cone from getting to the quarterback" mode, while Jeff Faine never turned into an elite center and Jeremy Zuttah struggled to be a consistent performer at left guard. What looked like a strength at one point turned into a weakness over time.
This offseason, the Bucs are looking to retool their offensive line once again. Building around the long-term contracts of left tackle Donald Penn and Davin Joseph, the Bucs re-signed versatile center/guard Jeremy Zuttah and added two-time All-Pro guard Carl Nicks. With the release of Jeff Faine, which should clear up some $4 million in cap space this year and $9 million in 2013, the Bucs have clearly established their offensive line of the future: Donald Penn, Carl Nicks, Jeremy Zuttah, Davin Joseph and....well, hopefully someone not named Jeremy Trueblood.
Over the past three seasons the Buccaneers have invested a lot of money in this offensive line, yet the return has been middling at best. Donald Penn was given a six-year, $41.7 million contract in 2010 - a good, but not great contract for a left tackle, and Penn has played at that level. Davin Joseph was given a seven-year, $52.5 million contract with $19 million in guaranteed money - a very good (though not elite) contract for an offensive guard, and he rewarded the Bucs with a very good 2011 season. The Bucs have now re-signed Jeremy Zuttah to a four-year, $16.3 million contract - a decent contract for a center. Finally, they signed Carl Nicks to a five-year, $47.5 million contract with $31 million in guarantees: a truly elite contract for an elite player.
Overall, the Bucs have spent $168 million in contracts on starting offensive linemen the past two seasons, including Jeremy Trueblood's contract. Every position has been filled for the long term. Now it's time for those players to come together and perform. There's only so much you can invest in one area of a team, and the Bucs can't realistically invest much more in the offensive line without crippling other areas of their team - and they have a lot of other areas of need.
The problem the Bucs face is molding this group into a coherent unit. Offensive line play is not just about individual dominance, it's about team work. The best offensive lines stick together for a long time and create a chemistry, allowing them to perform at a high level. The Bucs, however, have consistently turned over their offensive line from season to season. How long will it take for that chemistry to develop?
The last time the Bucs' offensive line looked this promising, it was 2008. Can the team get better production out of their supposedly promising unit this time, or will the line continue to struggle?