Jason Licht was hired as the Bucs General Manager back in 2014. He immediately identified that the offensive line was a critical area needing improvement. He drafted such talent as Donovan Smith (whom just recently signed a 3 year deal in 2019) and Ali Marpet, which both were picked up in the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Buccaneers.
Since then, he’s focused on adding credible depth, and appears to have had an eye for offensive line talent by adding center Ryan Jensen (who was actually drafted as a guard) in 2018 and then more recently signing former Indianapolis Colts unrestricted free agent, Joe Haeg.
Then there’s the No. 13 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. The Iowa ‘iron man’ was toted as being, “a blue-chip prospect,” according to Sports Illustrated columnist, Luke Easterling. Offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs currently weighs in at about 320 lbs. at 6’ 5” with an impressive 4.85 40, and a 36.5 inch vertical jump.
The Bucs rookie went viral over the spring with his incredible out-of-the-pool jumps. Although he raised a lot of eyebrows with his athleticism, some would say it just doesn’t matter. It isn’t any indication of how well the team’s overall protection will be. It’s great to have herculean feats of strength, but does it honestly prove to be the answer to the Bucs front line woes?
The re-signing of Donovan Smith, the signing of veteran Joe Haeg, and going after a lineman in the first round does seem to be a clear sign that the GM is locked and loaded with this year’s offensive squad. He’s found his apparent starters and now has solid depth. Now, it’s up to the coaches to put it altogether.
Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss doesn’t seem to be convinced though. He doesn’t think they found the magic sauce yet. Moss made an appearance on ESPN’s “Get Up” and shared his concerns about his former teammates protection:
“I think my biggest concern for Tom — you’ve seen what he has, as far as his weapons. I’m not concerned about the running game. I’m concerned about Tom’s protection”
The rhetorical question still remains, why have the Buccaneers offensive line continued to struggle and ultimately disappoint? Jameis Winston was sacked a total of 47 times in 2019. He’s actually a fairly mobile quarterback. At the very least he’s way more mobile than Tom Brady has ever been.
If a returning offensive line couldn’t protect a younger, more nimble quarterback like Winston, what makes you think they can come into the 2020 season and magically protect a less mobile quarterback such as Tom Brady? Saints defensive end, Cameron Jordan, who was credited for 2.5 sacks against the former Bucs QB in 2019, is anxiously awaiting to exploit a line he knows all too well, especially from the outside.
Let’s throw a wrench into things and play devil’s advocate. Winston’s major drawbacks were his slow release and inability to read progression quick enough. He always seemed to want the big play to his top receivers instead of completing the short check down to Howard, Brate or any of his pass-catching running backs (which they all were) to pick up the quick 3-5 yards on a 2nd and 10 or even a 1st and long situation.
The Bucs new leader happens to be one of the fastest ball-slingers in the game with a pass velocity of 61 mph. Brady is also rated as having one of the quickest ball releases at 2.2 seconds. Combine that with his progression reading skills and the team may just have something to help keep the offensive line from being finger-pointed at. Give ‘em time to start gelling and work on filling the gaps on the outside.
There may just be something into the quick reads and release - Luke Easterling of Sports Illustrated also touches on Brady’s quick release, saying that is one of the things the future Hall of Famer does best.
One thing that should encourage Bucs fans is the fact that throughout his legendary 20-year career with the Pats, Brady proved that getting the ball out quickly was among his best traits, something that Winston struggled with throughout his five seasons in Tampa Bay.
So, while the offensive line itself should indeed be a concern for Bucs fans, Brady’s quick trigger is likely to mitigate a good bit of that risk now that he’s the one throwing passes in Tampa Bay.
The risk can be further mitigated with the addition of tight end Rob Gronkowski, and the significant depth at tight end that Brady now has at his disposal. The key is going to be a lot of throws out to the flats, quick dumps over center, screens and slants.
Despite the doubts, there is no doubt the offensive line has their work cut out for them. Wirfs, Smith, Jensen and Marpet are the wall being built to protect the Bucs ageless prize. Skepticism may remain, but overall it’s very possible there could be something big in store for fans in 2020.
Perhaps with another year notched in Joe Gilbert’s belt as the offensive lineman coach, we’ll start seeing some stability and progress. It’s up to him to find the recipe and start making that special sauce out on the field to keep Brady upright.