Tampa Bay Buccaneers The Buccaneers have three returning starters on the interior line in 2021, plus a fourth player who excelled in the postseason and possibly a rookie contributor, all of which could lead to some overdue all-star recognition Scott Smith
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers knew they had an offensive line playing at a high level heading into the 2020 playoffs. In that postseason, they found out suddenly and unexpectedly that they had some very valuable depth on the interior line. As a result, they feel even better about their guards and centers heading into 2021.
The Buccaneers enjoyed relatively good injury fortune in 2021 - something that is true in retrospect of most Super Bowl winners - and that included the offensive line. In the regular season, three of the five men up front started all 16 games while another started 15 and the fifth started 13. That final player who missed three games was left guard Ali Marpet, who was sidelined for several weeks in the season's second half by a concussion. At that point, the Bucs found that they had some versatility on the interior line, with center Ryan Jensen moving to Marpet's start and veteran reserve A.Q. Shipley handling center. Shipley, however, was subsequently injured and has since retired and joined the Bucs' coaching staff.
The change in the postseason had the potential to be more damaging but instead proved revealing. Alex Cappa, who started the first 17 games, including the Wild Card matchup in Washington, sustained an ankle fracture in that first playoff game and missed the rest of the postseason. Aaron Stinnie, then a third-year player with zero career NFL starts, stepped in for the last three games and played very well, helping the line hold opponents to three total sacks in that span. Stinnie was set to become a restricted free agent after the Super Bowl but was re-signed by the Buccaneers.
Cappa returned to the practice field for this week's full-team mini-camp, which means the team's starting interior-line trio for most of 2020 is intact again, though both Cappa and Jensen are entering the final years of their respective contracts with the Buccaneers. That group also now has another trusted starter in Aaron Stinnie and could get some more depth from versatile third-round pick Robert Hainsey, who played tackle at Notre Dame.
The Buccaneers wrapped up their mini-camp on Thursday and players and coaches rushed to the AdventHealth Training Center exit to begin their last vacations before training camp. That camp is six weeks away, and while the 90-man roster could see a tweak or two that span it is mostly set at this point. The draft was conducted more than a month ago and there is little left in free agency, so the Bucs have the group from which they will produce a 53-man roster to take on their Super Bowl title defense. Thus, this is a good time to do a position-by-position review of the Bucs' depth chart heading into training camp, a process we started in May. This week has been focused on the offensive line, with the tackles getting their review on Tuesday and the guards and centers up now. Below is a full schedule of those positional reviews, including the ones already completed:
Tuesday, May 25: Quarterbacks Friday, May 28: Running Backs Tuesday, June 1: Wide Receivers Friday, June 4: Tight Ends Tuesday, June 8: Offensive Tackles Friday, June 11: Guards & Centers Tuesday, June 15: Defensive Linemen Friday, June 18: Outside Linebackers Tuesday, June 22: Inside Linebackers Friday, June 25: Cornerbacks Tuesday, June 29: Safeties Friday, July 2: Specialists
This bears repeating from our review of the offensive tackles: both Jensen and Donovan Smith were viewed by some analysts as potential cap casualties due to their high salaries in 2021 and low potential dead-cap hits. The Bucs had a lot of work to do in free agency to keep some of their key contributors from the Super Bowl run, which led to speculation that the Bucs would create some space by moving on from one of those two. That was never in Tampa Bay's plans and Jensen will now complete the lucrative four-year deal he signed in 2018. That alone is an indication of how well that signing has worked out.
"We love Ryan and Donovan," said General Manager Jason Licht in February. "They played a pivotal role in our offense - in their protection, in the run game. We envision Ryan and Donovan both being on this team. We expect them, not just envision them."
Marpet, on the other hand, is still in the middle of an extension he got in 2018 that runs through 2023. The Buccaneers already felt like he was one of the league's best guards when they made that deal and he has only improved since. According to Pro Football Focus, Marpet allowed zero sacks and just 10 pressures all season and also finished with a dominant run-blocking grade. At this point, he may be one of the NFL's most underappreciated players.
Tampa Bay's interior starting line has a decidedly small-school origin. Jensen played at Colorado State-Pueblo, Marpet at Division III Hobart and Cappa at Humboldt State. The Bucs' very positive experience with Marpet, who they drafted late in the second round in 2015 after trading up four spots, may have increased their confidence in doing the same thing three years later, when they traded up eight spots before taking Cappa. Cappa has had a steady progression from a reserve as a rookie to a starter in 2019 and a more effective blocker in 2020. He may take yet another big step forward in 2021.
"I think it just takes time to develop sometimes - got to put in a lot of work," said Cappa. "Get stronger, get more sound technically. And I'm always trying to get better and then obviously having Tom [Brady] helps quite a bit on that one."
Head Coach Bruce Arians said at the start of OTAs that he wasn't sure if Cappa would be back on the field in time for this week's mini-camp. The fact that Cappa was able to practice is encouraging as the team prepares for training camp.
Alex Cappa...Entering the final year of his original rookie deal after being a third-round pick in the 2018 draft; Has started 30 games at right guard over the past two seasons, including the playoffs. Ryan Jensen...Headed into the final season of the four-year deal he signed with the Buccaneers in 2018 as an unrestricted free agent from the Baltimore Ravens; Has started all 52 games since arriving in Tampa, 50 at center and two at left guard, and has developed into the line's emotional leader. Nick Leverett...Signed a two-year deal with the Buccaneers on February 10 after initially arriving as an undrafted free agent last May; Spent the entire 2020 season, including the playoffs, on the Buccaneers' practice squad. Ali Marpet...Entering the third season of the five-year contract extension he signed in 2018 that covers the 2019-23 seasons; Started 17 games at left guard in 2020 and has also previously started at center and right guard. John Molchon...Signed a new one-year deal with the Bucs on February 10 after first arriving as an undrafted free agent last May; Started the regular season on injured reserve due to a training camp knee injury but eventually returned to spend the last 13 weeks on the practice squad. Aaron Stinnie...Signed a new one-year deal on March 17 prior to becoming a restricted free agent; Spent the second half of the regular season as the team's primary active interior lineman before getting the starts at right guard for the last three playoff games.
Ted Larsen...Was not re-signed after finishing the season on the Bucs' practice squad; Was elevated from the practice squad to be eligible on game day five times and saw action in the first two playoff games. A.Q. Shipley...Elected to retire after sustaining a neck injury in Week 11 and has since joined the Bucs' staff as the assistant offensive line coach; Started two games at center after joining the team late in training camp.
Donell Stanley...Signed with the Buccaneers on February 12; Went to training camp with the Miami Dolphins in 2020 after signing as an undrafted free agent.
Robert Hainsey... Selected in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft; Started three seasons at right tackle for Notre Dame but has position flexibility. Sadarius Hutcherson...Signed as an undrafted free agent on May 13; Played four different positions on South Carolina's line but spent all of 2020 campaign at left guard.
Hainsey is the only player who will appear in two different installments of this series of positional reviews, mainly because he could factor into the Bucs' depth decisions at both tackle and interior line. He played tackle at Notre Dame and could be one of the four the team usually keeps at that spot in the regular season. But he also impressed at guard during the Senior Bowl week and was actually working at center during the Bucs' offseason program. There is currently not an obvious backup to Jensen at the pivot. Hainsey's versatility could quickly earn him a helmet on game days.
"He was obviously a hell of a right tackle [at Notre Dame]," said Arians. "Then when he went down to the Senior Bowl - some guys will balk at going to different positions. He was more than willing to go left guard, right guard, center. He showed position flexibility against some of the best guys in the draft. I think for him, it's just coming in and finding what's the best niche for him and for us to find that niche. But we feel like he could play outside or inside."
The biggest learning curve for a player new to the center position is the obvious one: getting the ball back to the quarterback. Hainsey understandably had some errant snaps in OTAs as he started trying to learn the position but the Buccaneers think he can potentially play all five spots on the front line.
"There is no doubt," said Arians. "He's a five-position player - he can play right and left. He's got to quit snapping that thing to the quarterback's fingertips though - too many balls were on the ground today. But yeah, he's a great position flexibility guy."
The Buccaneers kept two undrafted free agents, Nick Leverett and John Molchon, around for the entire 2020 season and even valued Molchon enough to initially give him a spot on the 53-man roster so they could use their return-from-IR option on him after his recovery. Now there's another undrafted free agent in the mix in South Carolina's Sadarius Hutcherson.
"Another big, strong-looking guy," said Arians of Hutcherson. "I can't say that I'm displeased with any of those guys. They all look the part and I can't wait to see them in pads to tell you the truth."
Jensen and Cappa each started every game in the regular season though, as noted, Cappa missed most of the postseason. Marpet had to deal with a concussion for three weeks but came back very strong afterwards. His dominance at the left guard spot is noted above.
As we discussed earlier in the week in the tackles review, Tampa Bays' offensive line did a very good job of protecting Tom Brady in 2020, which is a significant reason that the team ranked third in the NFL with 30.8 points per game. The Bucs allowed a sack on just 3.51% of their pass plays, second in the league only to Pittsburgh (2.13%). The Bucs gave up one or fewer sacks in nine of their last 12 games, including just one in each of the last three postseason outings.
According to Football Outsiders, the Buccaneers' line ranked ninth in the NFL in run blocking and sixth in pass blocking. They were one of only three teams to land in the top 10 in both categories. The Buccaneers ranked in the lower half of the league in rushing yards per game but had an effective rushing attack in the final month of the regular season and especially in the postseason.
Three Key Questions:
Can the Buccaneers' build a power rushing attack up the middle?
The Bucs have at least two backs who can be effective running between the tackles in Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette, and Fournette in particular showed off his power game in the playoffs. However, Tampa Bay also ran the ball on the third-lowest percentage of plays during the 2020 regular season (that percentage went up significantly in the playoffs) and could probably benefit from a more balanced approach.
Marpet is a powerful run-blocker, Jensen plays with an appropriately nasty attitude and Cappa is an ascending player. Those three could form one of the NFL's most effective interior trios when it comes to moving defenders off their spots and opening up running lanes between the tackles. Last year, Football Outsiders measured the Buccaneers as the seventh-best run-blocking team on plays up the middle or behind the guards.
Will Aaron Stinnie get a chance to prove that his strong playoff performance is indicative of how he would fare as a long-term starter?
In the first game of the playoffs, the Buccaneers kept Ted Larsen active over Stinnie mainly because they thought Larsen offered a little more versatility as the main interior reserve. However, after Larsen finished the Wild Card game following Cappa's injury, the team turned to Stinnie at right guard for the remainder of the playoffs. It went quite well.
Stinnie's strong playoff turn probably isn't enough to get him the starting spot headed into training camp, given that the team was pleased with Cappa's play, as well. On the final day of mini-camp, Arians said there were a number of fierce battles shaping up for backup spots on the depth chart but did not sound as if he expected many of the starting spots to be in contention. Still, there is always competition and Stinnie will certainly be doing his best to move up the ranks in training camp.
And, of course, there is always the possibility of injury, as much as we'd like to avoid that discussion. Stinnie is on track to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time next March and he could be looking for a more clear starting opportunity, either in Tampa or elsewhere. It will be interesting to see if he gets a more extended opportunity to play in 2021, for one reason or another, and what he does with that opportunity.
Will the Bucs' interior offensive linemen get some long-awaited Pro Bowl/All-Pro attention?
Pro Football Focus called Marpet one of the NFL's biggest Associated Press All-Pro snubs of the 2020 season, valuing his season above that of the Colts' Quenton Nelson. Marpet has possibly been Pro Bowl/All-Pro worthy for several years now but hasn't been helped by a Buccaneers team that had been in the throes of a lengthy playoff drought.
That drought is over and now the NFL's spotlight is squarely on the Buccaneers as defending champs. Marpet may have been toiling in obscurity before but that won't be the case in 2021. The Bucs' 1997 season is instructive in this regard. After breaking another long playoff drought that year, Tampa Bay saw stalwart center Tony Mayberry get his first Pro Bowl berth in his eighth NFL season. That started a run of three straight Pro Bowls for Mayberry. He just needed to break through.
The intensified spotlight could help Jensen, too. It's worth noting that the NFC's first-team All-Pro center from 2020, Green Bay's Corey Linsley, is now with the AFC's Chargers. That doesn't matter in All-Pro voting but could help in the NFC Pro Bowl battle. As for Marpet's Pro Bowl aspirations, they could be helped by a potential position change by Green Bay's Elgton Jenkins, who might end up as a tackle for the Packers this year. Either way, the Bucs' Super Bowl win in February and possibly another very strong regular season in 2021 may be just what Marpet and Jensen need to get some serious all-star support.