The foundation of a successful offense lies with the offensive line. A good quarterback can flounder under constant pressure (see: Andrew Luck) and a good running back won’t find running lanes without solid blocking (see: Todd Gurley). The Bucs offense finished the season ranked 18th in yards per game (346.4), right smack in the middle due in large part to the ups and downs of the offensive line.
Aside from total yards, the offense was also down yards per play (5.2) and first downs per game (21.2) but allowed more sacks (35) and QB hits (109) from 2015. While some of these figures can be attributed to the nature of Dirk Koetter’s offense and Jameis Winston’s insistence on holding the ball until a play materializes, the line still bears responsibility for a lot of the punishment he takes.
Many of the run game’s problems can also be attributed to the line. While injuries and Doug Martin’s personal problems played a role, it takes a pretty bad offensive line play to allow 11.9 percent of rushes to be stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage (per Sporting Charts).
The offensive line did make a little progress with its penalty problem, cutting it from 45 to 42. Left tackle Donovan Smith led the league’s offensive linemen with 13 penalties and with right tackle Demar Dotson accounted for over half of the Bucs offensive line fouls.
Smith’s penalty problems from 2015 may have persisted but he otherwise played well down the stretch. Tampa Bay Times film and stats guru (and Twitter must-follow) Thomas Bassinger (via Pro Football Focus) noted Smith allowed no more than three hurries in any of the Bucs last eight games. There have been questions whether Smith is cut out to be a starting left tackle, but it’s important to remember he only has two years of pro experience.
Fellow 2015 draftee Ali Marpet is faring far better and is on track to being a Pro Bowler if not an All Pro. He is the Bucs’ most consistent pass protector and is the guy you’re most likely to see at the second level making blocks.
Marpet must be the line’s anchor moving forward, largely because the rest of the line could be upgraded. Both the left guard and center positions are in flux.
JR Sweezy was just cleared to resume playing, but he was not a promising addition even before his back injury. If there’s one thing offensive linemen don’t want, it’s a back injury. They tend to linger and hinder effectiveness past the point of being able to play through them. With most of his guaranteed money washed along with his first year with Tampa Bay, Sweezy should be a candidate for preseason cuts if he doesn’t stand out against players who filled in for him in 2016.
Kevin Pamphile was an adequate fill in for Sweezy. He will challenge for the start again and at worst will return to his utility backup position. He’s not going anywhere.
Center Joe Hawley is a free agent and was good for at least one injury timeout in every game he played. Backup center/guard Evan Smith is the Bucs most overpaid offensive player if only by virtue of being a backup. Due $4.5 million in 2017, he’s likely to be cut or have his contract restructured.
It’s entirely possible the Bucs will start a center in 2017 who isn’t even on the roster. Moving Ali Marpet over from a position where he’s excelling would be foolish. The Bucs would be better served by re-signing Hawley and drafting a center to develop behind him.
RT Demar Dotson is an adequate lineman at a fair cost. While he is too prone to holding pass rushers, he’s generally reliable in pass protection. His backup, Gosder Cherilus, on the other hand was a liability whenever he filled in for Dotson. The Bucs can do better at backup tackle.
Rookie Caleb Benenoch saw limited action but looked promising in his sole start against Chicago. He projects as a guard moving forward and could be the Bucs’ next utility lineman. Backup C Ben Gottschalk should be in consideration to start next season, provided a solid training camp. T Leonard Wester will have to fight to keep a backup role.
The Bucs are unlikely to make another big free agent move, not with so much money invested in the line already and considering Jason Licht’s preference for drafting linemen. If the Bucs were to pursue an expensive free agent, it has to be Bengals G Kevin Zeitler. While Cincinnati’s offensive line wasn’t very good last year, Zeitler is still one of the best guards in the league. The Bucs could cut JR Sweezy with only a $2.5 million cap hit and more adequately fill the void left when Logan Mankins retired.
While this year’s draft isn’t well stocked with quality offensive linemen, the Bucs do have options. At center, Ohio State’s Pat Elflein would be the Bucs’ best option to fill the center position. He’s not huge but he is nasty, qualities shared by current C Hawley. If he’s available in the third round, the Bucs have to pull the trigger.
There are no clear answers for what changes the Bucs need to make at offensive line where chemistry is nearly as important as talent. It’s never as simple as adding or moving pieces around. What is clear is that changes have to be made to improve the Bucs offensive production and lay a foundation for future success.