One interesting tidbit from yesterday's veteran practice session was the announcement that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be switching Matt Masifilo from defensive tackle to offensive line. In doing so, they're taking a page out of the Seattle Seahawks' book.
"Matt is hungry and he is like a sponge," offensive line coach George Warhop told the media yesterday. "Every day he comes out here he gets a little bit better. We know it's going to take some time, so we are patient with him. I like the fact that he shows up every day and wants to get better. He doesn't shrink to criticism. If you say ‘You are doing this wrong. You need to try that.' He says ‘Okay, I'm going to do it.' If he goes about it that way, he will progress quickly."
That sounds good, right? And there have been a bunch of successful conversion projects across the NFL, and even with the Bucs. Demar Dotson had only played defensive line in college for one season before being converted to offensive tackle once he got to the NFL. Now he's one of the better starting right tackles in the league -- although it did take him quite some time to become that player.
But one team tries such a conversion project this with surprising frequency: the Seattle Seahawks. They did so with J.R. Sweezy, drafted back in 2012 and now a three-year starter on a team that's been to two Super Bowls on the back of a strong running game. In addition to Sweezy, they converted Lemuel Jeanpierre and Drew Nowak, and they had a whopping six of those conversion players at rookie minicamp last week. Danny Kelly of Field Gulls wrote about the whole process just yesterday.
"It's our philosophy. We're a staff that develops people," Seattle offensive line coach Tom Cable said. "I think if you become cookie cutter, you become normal, and we're obviously not normal in what we do and how we do things. I think that we've had some success being that, being who we are. Our whole objective is to find the best football player, and then develop them. Whether he was a left tackle, and now he's playing right guard, or a d-lineman or whatever. It's just worked well for us, and it's something that we're good at."
The Seahawks tend to look for players in the 6'3"-6'5" range, with around 300 lbs. in weight -- and obviously, they want good athletes. It's no secret that most defensive linemen tend to be much more athletic than offensive linemen -- just look at Gerald McCoy against anybody. Another quote from Cable to reinforce this idea, courtesy of Field Gulls again.
"I think when you look at the history of good run players, they're the 6'4", 6'5" body," said Cable on Draft day. "Once they start getting longer and taller than that, their rear end gets a little further from the ground, and hard in terms of leverage. Yet, you can find guys that can do it once in a while. I had a guy in Oakland, Robert Gallery, who we brought here, who could do it for a little bit. You can find them once in a while, but they're rare. I think if you look at our group, regardless of where they play, they're all athletes. I think that's really the best way to look at them. We don't have a bunch of big, heavy guys, and even the ones we have that have been bigger, we found ways to get them down to where they could be more productive athletically. "
Looking at the Bucs' roster, I think you can say they're doing the same thing. Cable downplays size on the Seahawks' roster, but they're not exactly fielding the '90s Broncos line, there. It's a pretty powerful group, but the common denominator is still athleticism. And I think we can say the same for the Bucs; Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Kevin Pamphile and Kadeem Edwards are all solidly-built and certainly not small, but they're all outstanding athletes. Marpet was the most athletic lineman at the combine, while Smith is a massive human being with surprisingly light feet for his size.
Incidentally, we still don't know what the Bucs plan on doing in terms of their running game, but I would expect to see a decent mix of zone and power schemes. And the Bucs did get athletes who have both the power to simply drive people off the ball, or to stretch the field in zone-based plays.
All of that brings us back to Masifilo, who will now be asked to compete. He's bounced around the Bucs' roster and practice squad as a defensive tackle for four years now, never really sticking anywhere or earning significant playing time. At 6'3", 295 lbs he certainly has the size to be a good lineman. And he tested well, athletically: he put up a 5.02-second 40-yard dash with a 4.47-second 20-yard shuttle and 7.29-second 3-cone drill at his pro day in 2012. Those numbers are right in line with Marpet's at the combine, although that is generally an environment where athletes test a little more slowly.
Now to be clear, Masifilo doesn't really have a great shot at actually sticking on the roster. Lovie Smith's teams usually carry eight or nine linemen, and the Bucs have their five starting linemen and two second-year players they drafted last year who are likely to stick in Kevin Pamphile and Kadeem Edwards. Masifilo would have to beat out a few veterans to hang on to a roster spot, which is not the most likely thing for someone who has only played guard for a few months.
But I still like this out-of-the-box thinking, and there's no reason why we couldn't see more of these conversion projects in the future.