Protecting Jameis should be a top priority and in order to do so, the Buccaneers need to find a little help in the trenches.
The offensive line performed about as well as can be expected given the talent level. Still, too many times Jameis Winston was running for his life. The running game also struggled to provide a spark, except against some of the worst defenses against the run in the league. The Buccaneers ranked 24th in rush yards per game at just over 100 yards per game. The Bucs only had 2 individual 100+ yard performances both coming from backup running back Jacquizz Rodgers.
Jameis was sacked 35 times throughout the year, and that obviously doesn’t include all the times Jameis had to escape the rush. Although Jameis’ deceptive quickness created highlights for SportsCenter’s Top Ten – scramble against the Bears – that’s not exactly the type of plays you want to see. On that play specifically, rookie Caleb Benenoch got lost on a stunt and Jameis was under fire quickly.
Probably the strongest offensive lineman on the Bucs roster, Ali Marpet continued to improve. From D-III Hobart to one of the best offensive lineman the team has to offer is certainly impressive. Ali blocks well in the run game and is physical at the point of attack. There has even been talk of moving Marpet to Center with the return of J.R. Sweezy and Joe Hawley becoming a free agent. Marpet ranked 14th overall among guards according to Pro Football Focus.
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When Licht took Marpet in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft, there were a few people who questioned the decision. Entering his third year, those question don’t exist anymore. Marpet has the potential to be a Pro Bowler every year.
Outside of Marpet, the offensive line wasn’t horrible – but they weren’t very good either. Donovan Smith still struggles with his footwork and Demar Dotson is not living up to his contract. Joe Hawley gets injured often and Gosder Cherilus has likely seen his days in pewter and red come to an end. The offensive line does have veteran leadership but are in desperate need of a young guy to continue to solidify Jameis protection.
There are a few options in the free agency, guys like Nick Mangold, T.J. Lang, Russell Okung and possibly Eric Fisher. If Green Bay doesn’t resign Lang, he should be a target. Mangold is also someone the Bucs should look into as soon as possible considering he’s free to sign at any time, not forced to wait until the new league year on March 9.
What I think the Bucs really need, is a young Joe Hawley-like character. Hawley has been a fan favorite since signing with the Bucs due to his nasty disposition. The Bucs need an enforcer up front who will impose his will when he wants to. In addition, an all around tackle would make the Bucs offensive line much better than they are now. A couple of the offensive lineman that started last year would be more suited for a backup/ leadership role as they close out their careers.
Another move I think the Bucs should look into if they are able to sign a left tackle is moving Donovan to guard. He’s still young, but the guard position seems to suit him better than blindside blocker. His footwork has gotten him in trouble many times and led to pressure on Jameis. One more wildcard to be considered is Sweezy. We still don’t know what he has left to give.
In the draft, the Bucs have several options. The first round may go towards a bigger need, but in later rounds, guys like Dan Feeney and Cam Robinson may be available. Take a good look at the way the Cowboys snuck into the playoffs this year. Ezekiel Elliot is supremely talented, as is Dak Prescott, but that offensive line allowed for the rookies to shine even brighter. In my opinion, the Bucs have more talent at wide receiver and quarterback than the Cowboys, but they have to look into protecting Jameis sooner rather than later.