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Is it guard or bust for the Buccaneers in the NFL Draft?

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Why the Bucs and Dirk Koetter need to draft a guard.

NFL Combine - Day 2 Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Bucs, according to tons of stats, had an average offensive line last season. Run blocking and pass protection both ranked 16th using Football Outsiders stats. Unfortunately, this offense needs its offensive line to be better than just average, at least in one area of protection, to consistently put points on the board — especially in the red zone. With the NFL Draft 2 days away, addressing the guard position will be paramount.

I’ll write more in depth about this at a later date, but Dirk Koetter has been an offensive coordinator for 11 seasons and has only had 4 teams in the top 10 of red zone scoring percentage (touchdowns only) according to Team Rankings website. They are as follows:

In every year but 2007, Dirk had an offensive line that ranked in the Top 11 in either pass protection or run blocking when his offenses ranked inside the Top 10 in red zone TD scoring. In 2010, the Jaguars were second in run blocking. In 2012 the Falcons were 8th in pass protection (Dirk’s most productive year as an OC). In 2014, the Falcons finished 11th in pass protection. 2007 was a bit of an outlier as the Jaguars OL ranked 18th in run blocking and 17th in pass pro, but ranked 8th in red zone TD scoring. Now having a top ranked OL in run blocking or pass protection doesn’t guarantee red zone scoring. The Falcons had the 7th ranked pass pro OL in 2013 and they finished 22nd (51%) that year. We all know the Bucs have had difficulties scoring touchdowns inside the red zone and the offensive line has played a part in those struggles. The team has ranked 22nd (52%), 20th (51%), and 24th (49%) in red zone TD scoring under Dirk. The offensive lines have mostly been average the last three years, with 2015 being the best unit ranking 9th in run blocking and 14th in pass protection. Which brings me to the heart of this article. With the addition of Ryan Jensen at center, Ali Marpet moving back to guard, Demar Dotson (hopefully) coming back from injury and Donovan Smith’s hopeful steady improvements, a new guard (LG or RG) will be the final piece to finally (fingers crossed) let the offense function like Dirk wants it to function.

Getting grades or rankings on offensive linemen can be difficult, because so much info happens on each play that we just don’t have access to or understand. For this article I’m using PFF’s grades from the 2017 season. I do take issue with some of PFF’s grading and methods, and they’re not perfect, but they do A LOT of research and to dismiss them outright would be foolish. The grades for the Bucs OL backs up the earlier mention of them being just an average unit as a collective.

  • D Smith - 51.9 Overall (Poor) 42.0 Run Blocking (Poor) 65.9 Pass Pro (Below Avg)
  • Sweezy - 43.9 Overall (Poor) 38.2 Run Blocking (Poor) 69.1 Pass Pro (Below Avg)
  • Marpet - 79.0 Overall (Avg) 81.4 Run Blocking (Above Avg) 63.6 Pass Pro (Below Avg)
  • Dotson - 85.0 Overall (High Quality) 76.8 Run Blocking (Avg) 87.4 Pass Pro (HQ)
  • E. Smith - 72.9 Overall (Avg) 79.0 Run Blocking (Avg) 53.5 Pass Pro (Poor)
  • Benenoch - 42.5 Overall (Poor) 44.4 Run Blocking (Poor) 41.2 Pass Pro (Poor)

As you can see, Dotson was our best offensive lineman last year. What hurt the OL was the play at guard, LT and the overall lack of pass protection from four linemen who had significant playing time/started. Shifting Marpet back to guard is an immediate upgrade, but with the recently resigned Evan Smith, Benenoch and still injured Sweezy slotted to compete for the remaining guard position, the Bucs would be wise to draft from a deep pool of interior prospects. The earlier the better in my opinion. Getting grades on the college prospects was a bit tougher than I thought, but I managed to get numbers on some of the top guys.

  • Nelson - 95.1 Overall (Elite) 96.4 Run Blocking (Elite) 87.5 Pass Pro (High Quality)
  • Ragnow - 93.7 Overall (Elite) 92.5 Run Blocking (Elite) 88.3 Pass Pro (HQ)
  • Wynn - 88.0 Overall (High Quality) 88.6 Run Blocking (HQ) 85.5 Pass Pro (HQ)
  • Hernandez - 90.3 Overall (Elite) 86.1 Run Blocking (HQ) 90.1 Pass Pro (Elite)
  • Teller - 86.8 Overall (High Quality) 85.4 Run Blocking (HQ) 84.8 Pass Pro (HQ)

Clearly Nelson is the best offensive lineman prospect in the draft, and the Bucs would love to get him with the 7th pick, but there are also a lot of really great/good guys to consider as well. That is why I think trading back would be ideal. Pick up an extra first, two seconds or second/third and be able to grab one of the top interior guys to finally solidify the line, without neglecting running back, safety or cornerback until late.

Hopefully I’ve highlighted why I feel guard is such a big need going into the 2018 season. I’d put it just below cornerback and slightly above running back. It’s a pass happy league and Dirk is one of the most aggressive play callers in the NFL. There have been 1,718 pass attempts in the three years he’s been OC. Completing the OL might finally unleash the offense (loaded with talent) everyone expected to see last season.