Editor's note: Please welcome Gur Samuel as the latest addition to the Bucs Nation writing staff! His first piece delves into his specialty: offensive line play.
Among fans and pundits alike, there is no question that the biggest upgrade needed by the Bucs is at cornerback – to argue otherwise is absurd. If CB is widely agreed-upon as the biggest need for the team, though, there is no such consensus for what should be priority number two. There are arguments to be made for several positions – a second corner, a new free safety if Ronde Barber does not return, a tight end or slot receiver to take advantage of the underneath routes cleared out by Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, a defensive end to bolster an pass rush – all of which have merit. To me, though, the position we need to make sure is taken care of (once the corner situation is resolved) is one that seems to be relatively overlooked by the average Buc fan (at least, if Twitter is any indication) – that of right tackle.
Yes, the humble right tackle, working away in relative anonymity when compared to there often much more highly-paid blindside-protecting counterpart. Playing offensive line is a thankless task at the best of times, but it seems the right tackle is even more hard done-by than his four comrades in the trenches – only one right tackle has been voted to the Pro Bowl in the last four seasons, so infrequently do their names register on the radar of the typical NFL fan. Every Buc fan must be aware of the hole we have at the spot, yet seemingly few realize just how high a priority it should be to get that hole fixed. I'm making it a personal mission over the next few paragraphs to right this wrong, and bring to your attention just how badly we need to equip ourselves with a new tackle.
Naturally, the first step when evaluating any need for a team is to see what they already have at the position. Sadly, at right tackle, the answer for the Bucs is "not much". With Jeremy Trueblood officially off the team the moment the free agency bell rings, we're left with Demar Dotson (who, despite beating out Trueblood for the starting spot last year hardly proved himself a long term solution), Jamon Meredith (who, despite starting most games at right guard last season is actually a tackle who was forced by dire circumstances to play on the interior of the line), and Mike Remmers (who? Exactly; a nondescript practice squadder on a futures contract). Including Donald Penn, that's four tackles on the roster – and I'm sure some would hesitate to include Meredith as a tackle. On sheer numbers alone, more tackles need to be brought in, but it is a need that only intensifies when you look more closely at the play of those tackles already on the roster.
Dotson, the incumbent starter, first came to the attention of Bucs fans during the 2010 offseason, when Penn was holding out for a long-term contract, having been slapped with an RFA tag, thanks to the unusual set of rules that came into effect during the final year of the previous CBA in order to force the NFLPA to agree to a new CBA without the need for a lockout (how'd that work out, fellas?). Having only seen some spot duty as a tackle-eligible blocking tight end in his rookie 2009 year, Dotson suddenly found himself taking the starting reps at left tackle throughout the OTAs the following spring while Penn and Mark Dominik played a game of multi-million-dollar chicken. Despite the noise coming from One Buc Place about how good a job Dotson was doing, he clearly wasn't doing enough to prevent Dominik from considerably overpaying Penn in time for him to return on the first day of training camp.
Bluff called, the coaches sent Dotson back to the bench for the following season, ultimately finding himself below the now-departed James Lee on the depth chart. Dotson finally got his opportunity to shine when Jeremy Trueblood was sidelined early in the season with an ankle injury, and Dotson played well enough to keep Trueblood on the sidelines for the rest of the season. Unfortunately, playing "well enough" is not the same as playing "well". For all that he was an improvement in pass protection over Trueblood, he was still below average, and to boot was less solid in the run game. Dotson, a former basketball star in college, struggled to hold up at the point of attack, seemingly lacking the power needed to man the position, and was simply overmatched far too often. His technique, while not bad, wasn't particularly polished either, and while to a stronger or more aggressive tackle that may have been enough, in Dotson's case it was still too unrefined to compensate for his seeming physical shortcomings. He may still have a place in the NFL as someone who will do at a pinch, but if after four years in the league he still has not developed either the strength or the polished technique the position requires, he is likely doomed to the state of a career backup.
What of Jamon Meredith? Unlike Dotson, raw strength and aggression are very much part of Meredith's skillset. Having bounced around the league for a few years, Meredith joined the Bucs last offseason as a tackle; once it became clear Ted Larsen was not going to cut it as a replacement for the injured Davin Joseph, the Bucs were so bereft of depth that they had to look to the their two tackles on the bench to take over. For the second time that season, Trueblood was passed over as Meredith's number was called to take over at right guard. While his play didn't come close to making fans forget about Joseph, he proved himself relatively serviceable after a few weeks' transitioning to a new position, though he was prone to a few ugly whiffs throughout the year. Now that Joseph should be healthy for next season, where does Meredith fit in? Right tackle is a possibility, but I'm unconvinced he would be much more than a stop-gap until we find a long-term solution at the position. I have no doubt that he would be a very solid run-blocker, but ironically he may be too aggressive to be trusted in pass protection on the edges – which, to be honest, would result in the same type of unbalanced play that we've already been subjected to for years in the guise of Trueblood.
"Hold on", you may be thinking, "how on earth can an offensive lineman be too aggressive?" It may seem counter-intuitive, as an aggressive lineman is always, always better than a docile one; but the key to good line play is controlled aggression. Playing on the line is not as simple as "block this guy" - if it was, zone-blocking would have probably never been much more than a gimmick in the NFL. Pre-snap shifts, stunts, loops, gap-shooting, tilted stances, roving front sevens; even casual fans know that defenses disguise coverages to try and confuse quarterbacks, but they also posses a whole salvo of tricks and techniques designed to mess with linemen's heads, which can lead to confusion of assignments, disruption of blocking schemes, or worst of all, the dreaded "paralysis by analysis", where a lineman is so confused as to who he's meant to be blocking that he hesitates, waiting and watching for the unblocked defender making a beeline for that ball carrier – at which point he will have reacted far too late. These little defensive tricks prey on the too-aggressive lineman, especially in zone-blocking, when a lineman may be so locked in on the defender in zone that, should that defender stunt away from him, that aggressive lineman chases him, abandoning his zone responsibilities and leaving the rest of the offense to have to deal with what is effectively a busted play. I'm not saying that this is something Meredeith will definitely be guilty of, but it is something to be wary of in all offensive linemen whose aggression is more raw than controlled.
Worse yet is how over-aggressiveness affects linemen in pass protection, particularly at the tackle spots. When you're in pass-pro as a tackle, more often than not you're looking to 'wash' the defender upfield – essentially, forcing the defender to go around you to the outside, keeping with him all the way around until he's had to take such a wide angle to the quarterback that he's ended up several yards behind his target. The key to this is that the tackle must always maintain inside leverage – force the defender to keep trying to go outside, rather than inside of you. When a tackle is too aggressive, they are prone to over-committing to the outside, putting their weight on their outside foot and perhaps even stepping too far over, giving the defender some room on the inside. Should that happen, a defender will happily take the inside, leaving the over-committed lineman wrong-footed, off-balance and out of position to prevent the defender getting to the quarterback.
Unlike in the previous example of run-blocking, which was more of a general warning about overaggressive linemen, this is pass protection issue is something I feel there is legitimate concern over with Meredith – over-committing in pass-pro appeared (at least to my untrained eye) to be something Meredith did far too often for my liking, and at a tackle spot, where the lineman is effectively on an island with a pass-rusher, that will only be amplified, and become a problem more frequently. The more ignorant football fan would shrug their shoulders at this, believing that pass-pro is the domain of the left tackle, and so is not a major hindrance to a right tackle. Of course, any Buc fan who's been subjected to Trueblood's play (I really don't mean to keep ragging on the guy, I actually think he was hugely under-rated as a run blocker, but it is what it is) would be quick to shout down such an ill-informed opinion, but when looking at the LDEs and left-side pass-rushers Tampa Bay will be facing this upcoming season – Mario Williams, Ahmad Brooks and Ray McDonald, Greg Hardy, Calais Campbell and Chris Long to name a few – it becomes even more clear that whoever starts at right tackle needs to be able to handle himself in pass protection (and that's ignoring the fact that, 40% of the time, a team's top pass-rusher goes against the right tackle, not the left).
While we're on the matter of pass protection, something else to be aware of: one of the criticisms made about Mike Sullivan's scheme last year was that it too often forced Josh Freeman to be an in-the-pocket passer almost exclusively, whereas he had shown in the past that he would often have success when the so-called 'launch point' was moved to outside the pocket. If Sullivan were to adjust his scheme to allow for more roll-outs on passing plays, then that would likely require an extra skill from the right tackle in pass protection. If the QB is rolling out, it's obvious that it needs to be made sure that a pass-rusher is not in the way of the roll-out lane.
If a tackle is very good at dealing with outside pass-rush, they can typically ensure that the defender is washed upfield quickly enough that it doesn't clog up the blocking lane – and as it happens, we're safe on the left side as dealing with outside pass rush what Penn does best (and some may argue, the only thing he does well – more later). Not many tackles possess this ability, however, so a different technique is required: the seal block. Rather than maintain inside leverage, as in typical pass protection, the seal block requires the tackle to get near-instant outside leverage as soon as the ball is snapped (not the easiest of tasks, especially if the defensive end is lined up at a wide-5 or wide-9 technique), using their outside hand to 'hook' in under the outside arm of the defender (with hand placement not too far back, or else this will draw a flag for holding) while using the inside arm against the inside shoulder, sealing the defender inside of the tackle and giving the QB plenty of space to roll out.
These blocks not only require quick and balanced footwork to get outside of the defender, but the upper body strength make sure they are sealed inside. With a bit of work, Meredith can probably get his footwork to the point where he can make this seal block with relative ease, but that would still only be a relatively minor part of the techniques needed for pass-protection, as washing defenders upfield is still arguably the most needed pass-pro skill. In contrast, Dotson, who is more suited to washing defenders downfield than Meredith, is not good enough at it to consistently clear lanes for QB roll-outs, while not possessing the strength required for seal blocks. Essentially, each of the two candidates currently on the roster for right tackle can do half of the job required for pass-protection.
I believe I've given evidence enough for why we can't rely on what we have on the roster at the moment, as well as hopefully alerting you to just why dealing with our right tackle situation is so important. So, the question must be asked: what can we do about it?
The first solution is to look to free agency – there are some immediate upgrades on the market this year (Sebastian Vollmer jumps out immediately), and the Bucs do have the cap space to make another FA splash if they wished to... but they have already invested a huge amount in the offensive line – in fact, the offense as a whole. The Bucs spent more on offense than every other team in the NFL last season – and if you click here, you will see a lot of that went on the line, particularly on the interior (the proportion of guards to centers, however, is skewed – Jeremy Zuttah is included in the former, as is Meredith, who is still officially listed by the Bucs as a tackle despite what that link suggests). Do they really want to invest so much on the offensive line when there are other positions sorely lacking – and when they may well need that money to extend a few contracts over the course of the season?
The other solution is of course the draft, but there are two strategies for filling the position if we go down the draft route. With corner being such a pressing need, and, as stated in the introduction, there being plenty of other positions that need attention too, the front office may decide there are other positions more needing a high-end draft pick. If that were the case, it would be more than prudent to draft a high-ceiling but more raw tackle, a developmental prospect, further down the draft – if he lasts that long, I'd personally be wanting us to take Menelik Watson in the third or fourth (though, in the interest of full disclosure, that is in part because I'd love to see a British player in the red and pewter) or some other tackle brimming with potential but not ready to start day one, or even year one. In the spirit of Greg Schiano's philosophy of "competition everywhere", there would no doubt be an open competition between Meredith and Dotson throughout training camp, the winner being a stop-gap tackle who could man the position until the rawer prospect develops, giving us a long-term solution at right tackle for relatively low outlay.
Alternatively, and the strategy that I personally would take, is drafting a tackle early, ideally in the first round, drafting a prospect who can start from day one – especially if corner is addressed in free agency. As various quarterbacks' draft stock will inevitably rise as the draft approaches, and coaches become more desperate as they find out through OTAs what the worse teams do or don't have, there may be more quarterbacks going early in the first that the various mocks suggest right now – perhaps so much so that the Bucs may in position to grab someone like Eric Fisher, if not at 13 then maybe to a spot which wouldn't cost too much to trade up into, something that shouldn't be too much of a concern when we look at Mark Dominik's less-than-stellar uses of our fifth and sixth round picks over the past few years (only Ahmad Black really qualifies as anything resembling a 'hit'). Not only would that shore up our offensive line entirely from day one without paying nearly as much as one would for one of the top-shelf free agent tackles, but a prospect of the quality of an Eric Fisher or similar would serve as 'Penn insurance'.
Yes, Donald Penn, for all that he's highly paid and has been to the Pro Bowl, is not as good as many think he is. By all means, he is perfectly serviceable, but he is far from a complete tackle. Do not get me wrong, I used to be a huge supporter of Penn – until, during a long 2012 offseason, I decided to break down every snap of various players over the course of the previous season. While breaking down LeGarrette Blount's play, I was shocked at just how poor Penn actually was, something that I had never really noticed until I started focusing on the actions of every offensive lineman. Now, last season he did have by far the best year of his career – the first time he's actually played up to somewhere near the level that his contract would demand. I have said, and maintain, that he is very, very good at dealing with outside pass-rush, and I will add that, to my mind, he is the best in the game when it comes to dealing with the spin move, a staple of the pass-rusher's arsenal.
Outside of that, though, there isn't much to write home about. His play as a run-blocker has been, until last season, pretty damn terrible – it was a success if he managed to just stall defenders where they were rather than losing ground to them; actually driving defenders back like you'd expect was simply too big an ask for Penn. In fact, when breaking down Blount's plays in 2011, one thing I noticed was that a particularly favourite play for Greg Olson to call was a 'Power O' to the right (without getting into too much detail, most of the offensive line downblock (i.e. block away) from a specific gap, while the fullback goes up the play hole, sealing an unblocked defender to the outside, while the backside guard pulls up into the hole as a lead blocker for the ball carrier). It was probably the running one play which the Bucs had the most success with last season – but why always run to the right? Surely Davin Joseph being the better guard than Jeremy Zuttah, it would have made sense running it to the left, making Joseph that backside pulling guard to lead-block? The answer is in Donald Penn – on one occasion, they tried running to the left, but because Penn was so bad at drive-blocking, he could not push back his defender an inch, meaning the play gap was so small that Joseph had no room to get through the line and into the second level. After that, Olson never called the Power O the left for the rest of the season.
As for pass-pro, as good as he is at dealing with the outside rush, I have in the past described, not unfairly, his inside gap as being "softer than a marshmallow in an oven". (Whenever I make this criticism, the first retort is always "if that's true, why aren't pass-rushers attacking his inside gap every pass play?" - the answer is simple: outside contain. Maintaining outside contain is fundamental to a defense, especially when facing a quarterback who (at least once-upon-a-time) can have success scrambling when a pass play breaks down. On those occasions, however, when a DE is freed up from being responsible for outside contain, they do often have great success against Penn – one defender who in particular has had Penn's number is the Saints' Will Smith, who takes great advantage of Penn's soft inside every time the play each other)
Fair play to Penn, he did definitely improve considerably last season, at least in the run game – not only did he hold his own, but he actually was able to drive the defender back some of the time (though he still remained as soft as ever on his inside when it came to pass-pro). There is no doubt in my mind that this was due to the fact that he actually kept his weight under control throughout the season for the first time – it was clear in previous years that he was struggling to move comfortably, and I personally believe that part of the reason why Penn almost never got into a three-point stance previously was because he was too heavy to get that burst out of the standard lineman's stance, and instead set up in a pass-pro-style two-point stance almost every snap. There is another potential reason too – when the Bucs had success running to the left, it was because Penn always stepped back out of the two-point and set into a pass-pro look, which would naturally cause the defender to try and get outside and round Penn, even when it was a run play – essentially, for the DE matched up on Penn, he was subject to draw plays on every run to the left.
Still, this does not justify Penn always being in a pass-pro stance and setting into pass-pro looks on run plays – I believe this was not so much done because it tricked the defenders as much as it, to a certain extent, negated Penn's inability to drive defenders back by making them try and gain the outside on Penn instead. Some might not think this is particularly a big issue – it still worked enough of the time – but it does speak to the fact that Penn is not a complete tackle, since he cannot make 'all the blocks' (in the same way how quarterbacks can't make 'all the throws'), which inevitably means that Sullivan, or any other OC, would have to remove any part of their playbook which would require Penn to make blocks he is incapable of – in the same way that having either Dotson or Meredith at right tackle negates the ability to open up the entirety of the playbook by not allowing the launch point to be outside the right of the pocket. For the first time, Penn was able to do some traditional drive-blocking out of the three-point stance in 2012 – but he was very inconsistent in his ability to drive-block, and it will only get worse if he inflates back up.
Drafting a top-shelf, ready-to-go tackle prospect would not only fill the hole at right tackle, but would make Penn, whose reputation exceeds his play, a high-value tradeable asset if he does start ballooning again as seasons wear on – or if he again (allegedly) injures himself while taking part in the Venice Basketball League during the offseason (note the somewhat optimistic weight Penn gave). Trading Penn on the strength of his reputation would see this team get a very good return in picks while also offloading Penn's contract – and the high-end tackle we drafted will be there to switch sides without a drop in quality; if anything, there'll be an improvement, giving us a young guy who will man the position for a decade. In fact, given Dominik's tendencies to "double dip" at a position, I would heartily advocate drafting a developmental tackle in the later rounds who could then step into right tackle should the 'trading Penn' scenario play out. There is, however, yet another reason that drafting a tackle who will start immediately will hugely benefit the team, one that is in line with the driving motivation of Mark Dominik since he took over, which was so eloquently phrased by the previous head coach: "all about #5".
There will be no bigger storyline hanging over the Bucs during the 2013 season than what to do with Josh Freeman. The Bucs are running right out of time to decide whether or not he is "the guy" - and for that reason, Bucs fans in both the pro- and anti-Freeman camps should be calling for the right tackle spot to be filled with the best possible player. If you're pro-Freeman, you simply want to give Freeman every opportunity to prove he can be the guy – and having a tackle who can actually open up that right-side roll-out lane so that the launch point can truly be anywhere along the field will give Freeman everything any quarterback would need to succeed (assuming that a TE is found, though, to be honest, if the line is completely solid then even I, staunchly entrenched as I am in the pro-Freeman camp, could not really use that as an excuse if I want my opinions on football to be considered as anything other than the delusions of a fool).
If you're anti-Freeman, then not only do you want Freeman to have every opportunity to succeed (in the belief that he'll fail every opportunity) so that there is no way the front office can justify bringing him back, but just look at the weapons and player on offense; if our right tackle situation is sorted, then, should Freeman fail this year to prove he is "the guy", the Bucs instantly become the most attractive opportunity by far for any free agent quarterback – the front office could literally pick and choose between the quarterbacks who would no doubt be falling over themselves to have Jackson, Williams, Doug Martin and that offensive line at their disposal; alternatively, should we draft a replacement, that rookie would have everything he could need at his disposal to have immediate success.
Simply put, right tackle is the biggest hole in our offense right now (unless you're in the anti-Freeman camp, I guess), and I believe I've given strong enough arguments to claim that there is no bigger priority outside of corner than the humble right tackle. We don't have the solution to the problem on our roster right now – and we could potentially have the opportunity to not only address right tackle in the short term, but would give us a long, long-term upgrade at left tackle if Penn does slip back into bad habits. In an NFL where the most common strategy appears to increasingly be "outscore them on offense" rather than "stop them on defense", the game is still won and lost in the trenches – and we need a new soldier on our front line.