The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been widely praised for the work they did on offense this offseason, and rightly so: they signed DeSean Jackson, drafted O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin, added Jeremy McNichols and didn’t lose any big names. They’ll even get J.R. Sweezy back.
Much of that analysis is positive and interesting, especially the concrete examples of the Bucs pushing back coverage through Mike Evans’ deep speed, which will be more pronounced with DeSean Jackson on the field.
But there’s always a but, and this but is a very common but: but, the offensive line sucks.
There is, however, an elephant in the room: the offensive line.
Last year’s unit was poor in pass protection. It finished 26th in pressure rate, conceding a pressure on 30 percent of quarterback dropbacks. Many of Winston’s best throws came with defenders draped over him or with hands in his face.
There’s concern at four spots. Ali Marpet is a stud. Everything else ranges from OK to unknown to uh-oh. Donovan Smith and J.R. Sweezy are the most worrisome. They were the two big additions in back-to-back offseasons. Sweezy somehow swindled a big contract from the Buccaneers a year ago in free agency, then subsequently missed the entire season after back surgery. Smith was a second-round pick in 2015, who has been in over his head at left tackle since.
The interesting thing about this, and we’ve noted this before, is that the Bucs simply do not agree. Not that they think the offensive line is perfect, but they don’t think Smith has been completely in over his head, they don’t think J.R. Sweezy is particularly worrisome nor the he ‘swindled’ a big contract, and they don’t think the offensive line will be a particular weak spot.
I’m less certain about that. Smith certainly improved in his second season, especially later in the season, but he was also very inconsistent. I trust that Sweezy will be able to play this year, but he wasn’t all that dominant before he came to Tampa. And while Demar Dotson used to be terrific, he took a step back and last year—and that might signal the beginning of the end.
Ultimately, a lot of the Bucs’ success will hinge on that offensive line. Both in creating space in the running game, and in providing time for the passing game to take those deep shots they’re still set up for—they do not have the personnel for a quick passing game, even if that would be a great way to mitigate any offensive line issues.
The Bucs’ passing game will stand or fall with the performance of the offensive line. I’m cautiously optimistic about it, and Dirk Koetter does know how to compensate for some line issues. But there is a realistic scenario where that all falls apart, and that could be disastrous.