With the expected start of training camp approaching, we’re going to dive into the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers position by position. Today, we continue with the offensive linemen.
There may not be a position group on the Buccaneers’ roster that is more frequently scrutinized than the offensive linemen. That can be said in almost any year, with the defensive backs perhaps being the next-closest in terms of criticism. But that’s just the nature of the position, it seems, as most will only notice the offensive line at all when someone—or the unit as a whole—messes up. Whether it’s a penalty, a quarterback pressure, or a sack, mistakes from the guys up front are magnified. And yes, mistakes across all positions get a lot of attention, sure. But the successes of the offensive line typically go unnoticed by many, which is why the failures are harped on so much.
So, when it comes to evaluating the men on Tampa Bay’s roster tasked with protecting Tom Brady during the 2020 season, it would be easy to feel some pessimism or uncertainty about the unit. But when you really break things down, there’s plenty to like about the group that the Bucs have assembled. We’ll get to a deeper look at those guys in a bit, but first, let’s take a look back at the 2019 season.
When looking at the 2019 Buccaneer offensive line, coming to a concrete opinion on the unit can be tough. The group wasn’t all that bad, really, but many seem to feel that it was. With 40 sacks allowed, Tampa Bay was right around the middle of the league. And, not to pile too much onto Jameis Winston, but there were a fair share of those 40 sacks that can be attributed to him. Then again, his ability to extend plays likely saved the o-line from allowing some sacks. So, let’s call it even and move on.
Being around the league average in sacks allowed isn’t wonderful, sure, but things could’ve been worse. Their 7.8% adjusted sack rate, per Football Outsiders, was a little bit worse than the league average and their No. 22 ranking in adjusted line yards isn’t great, but there was still plenty to love about the group’s performance throughout the year. Donovan Smith had one of his better years as a pro, Ali Marpet and Ryan Jensen held things down exceptionally well on the interior and Alex Cappa made some major strides at right guard in his first full year of action. The weakest link was likely Demar Dotson, who the team has moved on from after 11 years.
On the whole, the Buccaneer offensive line is probably best-described as decent in 2019. Heading into the year, Pro Football Focus had the unit ranked as the NFL’s 24th-best. After the season, it was ranked by PFF as the league’s seventh-best. That ranking fell to No. 13 in the pre-2020 season rankings, but that kind of year-to-year improvement is still pretty significant.
Meet The Group
The majority of Tampa Bay’s starting group is the same. Smith, Marpet, Jensen and Cappa are all returning to the spots they held last year, while the right tackle position undergoes a change. With the departure of Dotson, filling that spot was one of the Bucs’ bigger needs this offseason. And they certainly filled it, trading up one spot in April’s NFL Draft to select Tristan Wirfs out of the University of Iowa. So, Wirfs rounds out the starting o-line that will be even more of a spotlight with Brady as the team’s new signal-caller.
As far as depth options go, the Bucs have some familiar faces there as well. Guards Zack Bailey and Aaron Stinnie, center Anthony Fabiano and tackles Brad Seaton and Josh Wells are all back in 2020. Not to mention, Marpet can play both guard positions and center if someone else goes down. And then there’s one of the more under-the-radar moves this offseason for the Bucs, which was the addition of Joe Haeg. He signed with the team in free agency after four years with the Indianapolis Colts, and his versatility was a big reason why Tampa Bay decided to bring him on board.
Beyond the aforementioned names, there are some undrafted free agents hoping to crack the roster out of camp.
Wirfs is the most notable newcomer by far, as he projects as the team’s starting right tackle from day one. Tampa Bay moved up in the first round of the draft to select him for a reason and that’s not just because he filled its biggest need. He’s an athletic freak, displaying a combination of quickness, agility, and strength that seems unreal for a 6-foot-5, 320-pound offensive lineman. His versatility—he can play both tackle positions if there’s a need—should help the Bucs should an injury arise. And while this offseason hasn’t been normal by any means, Wirfs has surely been doing his part to be ready for training camp, which should be a very valuable time for the rookie.
The other notable newcomer along the offensive line is Haeg, as he provides the group with some much-needed depth. He is extremely versatile in his own right, as he can line up at guard or tackle on either side of the center. That should be a huge plus for the Bucs, especially considering the uncertain times we’re in regarding COVID-19.
Beyond Wirfs and Haeg, the rest of the newcomers on the o-line are undrafted rookies who will be competing for a depth role. Among them are guards Nick Leverett and John Molchon, as well as center Zach Shackelford.
Biggest Question: Will This Group Effectively Protect Tom Brady?
Do you see that? That picture, right there. The one above. Tom Brady is on the ground. That’s a sight that the Bucs do not want to see very often in 2020. Brady is about to turn 43 years old, and while he is in impeccable shape for a quarterback of his age, the fewer hits he takes, the better. That can be said of any quarterback, but for a guy in his 21st NFL season? Keeping him upright isn’t just a priority for Tampa Bay’s offense—it’s THE priority. So, the big question has to be: Can this group effectively protect its quarterback?
While last year’s metrics may not favor this Buccaneer offensive line, the group does look a little different in 2020, at least. Adding Tristan Wirfs to replace Demar Dotson at right tackle should help a great deal, for one. But beyond that, it’s not a stretch to expect the unit to be better this season simply because it is playing in front of Brady. Not only will Brady typically get the ball out quicker than Jameis Winston often did, but if you’ve watched the six-time Super Bowl champion over the last 20 years, you’ve seen him get after his offensive linemen. He won’t be afraid to jump on someone if they’re not performing. That’s not to say that Winston didn’t have that side to him, but there’s a difference with the way Brady does it. He will get the best out of his offensive linemen—there’s no doubt about that.
And yes, this o-line’s best is good enough. Donovan Smith gets a lot of flak, but he is more than capable of being a solid left tackle. He’s shown plenty in the past five seasons to make people believe that. As for the interior, you won’t find many guard-center duos better than Ali Marpet and Ryan Jensen. And on the right side, there’s plenty of reason to be hopeful that Alex Cappa continues to develop in 2020 and there’s definitely a ton to like about what Tristan Wirfs can provide for this group as a rookie. Depth is still a little iffy behind the starting five, but this group looks to have enough to be effective for Brady and the Tampa Bay offense.