The offensive line has been a point of emphasis for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as far back as I can remember. There has never been a time that it wasn't a concern, and this offseason is no different. After the disaster that was the past few years, they have to find a way to move forward.
What happened last year
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went into the 2013 season with the highest-paid and arguably most talented offensive line in the NFL. They had Pro Bowlers at three different positions, one of them an All-Pro, while Jeremy Zuttah was a solid center and Demar Dotson an up-and-coming, young, right tackle.
And then, everything collapsed. Donald Penn entered a decline, though he was still a solid blocker, but Carl Nicks managed just two games due to a MRSA infection, while Davin Joseph turned in one of the worst starting performances in the NFL. Clearly, he was not fully recovered from the torn patellar tendon he had suffered the year before.
With Nicks sidelined, the Bucs tried out several different backups, but couldn't get a half-decent performance out of any of them. Ted Larsen continued to be a disappointment at guard, while Gabe Carimi apparently forgot all the lessons he had learned in college, and Jamon Meredith once again proved that he's a career backup, and little else.
These struggles on the offensive line had a lot to do with producing one of the worst running games in the NFL, despite a group of talented running backs. Pass protection was a problem as well, predictably, with The MMQB rating the Bucs as the fifth-worst pass protection unit in the NFL. Mike Glennon's reluctance to throw the ball had a lot to do with that ranking, but it's still an indictment of the offensive line as a whole.
Improving the offensive line is one of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' priorities this offseason. "We didn't play as well as we need to on the offensive line," Lovie Smith said at the NFL scouting combine. "We put a lot of money into our offensive line. We should have better production from it."
That about sums it up, and the Bucs will have to find ways to improve the offensive line across the board. Some of this is complicated by contracts, however. Donald Penn is still a slightly above-average NFL starter, but he's earning $6.75 (up to $7.75 million) this year. He will be 31 by the time the season starts, and finding a younger and/or cheaper option would make sense.
Similarly, Davin Joseph will not play at his $6 million salary. His performance last year was awful, and while the 30-year-old may be significantly better another year removed from surgery, players his age have usually entered the decline part of their careers.
Carl Nicks presents an entirely different problem: he may not be able to play again. A torn plantar plate kept him out of most of the 2012 season, while a MRSA toe infection saw him play just two games in 2013. Those two issues combined will leave him with pain and discomfort for life, and it's not clear whether he'll be able to resume playing football.
That leaves the Bucs with just two sure starters: Jeremy Zuttah at center and Demar Dotson at right tackle, and no backups worth naming. Even there, Zuttah's $4.5 million salary is hefty, though he's unlikely to be cut. Still, it's clear the Bucs have to find both new starters and more depth across the offensive line this offseason.
The Buccaneers will be players in free agency this offseason, especially when it comes to the offensive line. The Bucs have said they want to fill as many holes as possible in free agency, which means they will have to spend some cap space on offensive linemen.
Branden Albert and Eugene Monroe have been mentioned as possible targets for the Bucs, but neither is likely to be a cheaper option than Donald Penn -- although at least Monroe is younger. Alex Mack has been mentioned quite often due to his history with Jeff Tedford, but the Cleveland Browns used the transition tag on the center, which means he won't be available.
It's more likely the Buccaneers will target one of several starting-quality offensive guards on the market. Geoff Schwartz is the top option, while fellow Kansas City Chief Jon Asamoah could be a very good addition as well. Chad Rinehart and Willie Colon represent two other options. None of these free agents is likely to command top dollar, given the fact they're not top players. But they'd provide some solidity and reliability for the Bucs at the position, something they sorely lacked last year.
2014 NFL Draft
The Buccaneers have been linked with several offensive tackles in many mock draft. Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews and even Taylor Lewan have shown up as possible options for the Bucs at the top of the draft. Any of those players would likely be an improvement over Donald Penn, and certainly a cheaper and younger option.
Finding quality at guard and center will be more difficult, however. The Bucs' seventh overall pick is too high to select a guard, while a few of the top guards are likely to be gone by the time the Bucs' second-round pick rolls around. Top options at guard would be Cyrus Kouandjio, David Yankey, Xavier Su'a-Filo and Gabe Jackson, while Marcus Martin and Weston Richburg are seen as the top centers in the draft.
PREVIOUSLY: RUNNING BACKS