Here comes the big tamale: the offensive line. It’s not so much that there’s more to the line’s current state so much as there are so many players to cover.
The first of the Bucs’ two rookie offensive linemen, Donovan Smith was good enough, which is better than he was expected to be. To some, Smith was a reach when the Bucs selected him in the second round of last year’s draft especially given his projection as a right tackle.
Smith started every game at left tackle, and the results were mixed. For the times Smith dominated and mauled defenders, he had just as many where he whiffed on blocks and appeared unsure of what he was doing.
It’s important to remember that the guy was a rookie. He’s an unfinished product. That, of course, could be good or bad. Some are convinced that Smith is on track to a career filled with Pro Bowls. It’s far too early to expect him to be a perennial all-star.
The key is consistency. Not just from Smith, but from the rest of the offense and his new head coach. The left
The grizzled veteran. Or maybe the grizzly bear veteran. It can be hard to say.
No longer shaken by his sudden trade from the Patriots, the 11-year veteran led the Bucs offensive line. Mankins provided the younger linemen like Smith and Ali Marpet an example of how to be a professional, how to make it in the NFL.
Though he made a big deal of arriving to training camp in the best shape of his career, Mankins continued showing his age. He’s no longer the dominant physical force he once was. He must be feeling it too, indicating last week that he may call it a career this offseason per JoeBucsFan.
While Mankins’ leadership and experience would be missed, the Bucs absolutely could improve at left guard. Kevin Pamphile performed admirably both as the Bucs’ sixth lineman and in relief of Mankins. If he does choose to retire, the Bucs have a viable replacement already on the roster in Pamphile.
Free agency is always a viable option for finding starting interior linemen. The recently cut Jahri Evans might seem like an obvious option, but he’s only a year younger than Mankins and is also on an apparently downslide.
If indeed Mankins retires, the Bucs should consider signing Chiefs G Jeff Allen, 49ers G Alex Boone, and Ravens G Kelechi Osemele, assuming any of them even make it to the open market. All three will command decent paydays and the Bucs have cap room to spare.
Of course the draft is another avenue to consider. There aren’t any guards really worth considering with the Bucs’ ninth overall pick. To be honest, I haven’t even touched offensive linemen with my draft evaluation because, well, there are much bigger needs. Don’t roll your eyes! I’m getting to it!
Did anyone really expect Evan Smith to be in this spot?
Hawley took ownership of the center spot almost immediately after starting in Smith’s stead. He brought a sorely needed nastiness and edge to the line as well as simply being a better center than Smith.
Hawley remains under contract through 2016. Given his relationship with Dirk Koetter and impact in 2015, he’s not likely to be replaced and may even receive an extension.
From Hobart to the NFL, Marpet’s transition could not have gone much better. Despite doubts he would start until midseason, the D-III standout started all but three games he missed with an ankle injury.
Was Marpet perfect? Of course not. Like his rookie lineman compatriot Donovan Smith, Marpet struggled with consistency. He was clearly stronger run blocking than in pass protection. His annihilation at the hands of Aaron Donald was the clearest instance of this.
Marpet also shared Smith’s evident progress down the stretch. In fact, they both made the Pro Football Writer’s Association’s All Rookie team:
The future is certainly bright for Marpet, but his fate is no more certain than Smith’s. The coming season is crucial to the rest of their careers.
The longest-tenured Buccaneer saw his value within the organization take a hit following his minicamp holdout and MCL sprain. These two events brought negotiations to extend his contract to a screeching halt. It is still unclear whether the Bucs are still interested in keeping him around.
Dotson is 30 years old. He’s not likely to play right tackle any better than he has already. That’s not necessarily a knock on him. There’s a reason why the Bucs kept him around so long. He remains the most consistent pass protector on the team.
Another reason why Dotson stuck around was the bargain he provided the Bucs. He only cost the Bucs an average of $1.5 million per year since 2012. It was like buying Lexus for the price of a Kia.
Dotson will again have to compete to start at right tackle with Gosder Cherilus. While Dotson is a superior pass protector, Cherilus did bring a little bit of chemistry to the rest of the line. It have just been the result of more snaps in Koetter’s offense, but the overall results were better with Cherilus at right tackle.
Starting the last two games of 2015 bodes well for Dotson though the results of the games might not. The Bucs might already recognize that he’s the superior choice, at least for 2016. Dotson’s fate beyond next season is anything but certain.
The would-be stopgap journeyman held onto the right tackle spot for most of the 2015 season. It’s still unlikely he has a place in Tampa Bay beyond this year.
Cherilus was serviceable for the Bucs. He went unnoticed most of the time, a good sign for any offensive lineman. Too often though he was plain schooled by opposing pass rushers.
What’s most damning was the Bucs’ decision to full-on bench Cherilus at the end of the season. He was a healthy scratch in their final game, absent from the injury and active lists against Carolina:
(By the way, follow Steven on Twitter. His play breakdowns and Vines are fantastic.)
Like he did for the Colts, Cherilus filled in just when the Bucs needed him. If Dotson stays healthy through the preseason, the Bucs would get better value from a spending Cherilus’ roster spot on a younger lineman with upside.
Another of the Bucs’ less successful free agent signings from 2014, Smith needs to be done in Tampa Bay.
His benching in favor of Hawley was a cold bucket of ice water for a bad dream. Smith amounted to little more than a speed bump in the middle of the line and brought nothing to the run game.
Smith’s saving grace? His 2016 salary. He’s only owed $2.5 million. That may be just enough to keep him in Tampa Bay for another year as a swing interior lineman. Just don’t expect him to be around in 2017 when the Bucs would owe him $4.5 million.
The Bucs’ 2014 fifth-round pick built off the strong finish to his rookie year, becoming the key sixth lineman. If the Bucs needed a job done, Pamphile was up to the task.
Unless the Bucs find a bunch of quality linemen in the next few months, Pamphile isn’t going anywhere. His versatility is too valuable. His viability beyond 2016 depends on his continued maturation as more than just the heavy package tight end and fill-in guard.
And now the Too-Early Depth Chart Prediction:
Left tackle: Donovan Smith
Left guard: Kevin Pamphile
Center: Joe Hawley, Evan Smith
Right guard: Ali Marpet
Right tackle: Demar Dotson, Gosder Cherilus
The Bucs are certain to add new linemen… ok ok I’ll start my draft coverage! Golly!