by Douglas O’Connor
follow me on Twitter @Ren_Daxt
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht has a lot of decisions to make this off season in the personnel department. The Bucs are looking for speed and weapons to aid in the development of now 3rd year quarterback Jameis Winston. Upgrades for safety, wide receiver, and running back positions are also in the mix. Not to mention overall depth at tight end, defensive line, and corner back need to be addressed as well. All in all a full plate for Licht and his staff. However, no starting position has more question marks surrounding it as does the Bucs situation at center.
I’m going to cover what the Buccaneers could do with the players they have on their roster now, possible solutions in free agency and finally options in the 2017 NFL draft. First up, prospective scenario’s if Jason Licht decides to stand pat with the players the Bucs have under contract.
What The Bucs Have
If the Buccaneers ultimately decide to not to bring in a free agent center or pick one up in the draft, they still have plenty of options. Evan Smith, the 2015 opening day starter, Ben Gottschalk, a UDFA that made the team during training camp and saw some playing time at center this season because of injuries and Josh Allen another UDFA that spent most of last year on the Buccaneers practice squad.
Smith has seven years in the league and can also play guard which makes him a valuable player to have but he’s not an NFL caliber starting center. When Smith went down with injury in 2015 the Bucs went and found Joe Hawley who took over and never relinquished the starting job. If all else fails is the only way I think Buc fans see number 62 snapping the ball to Jameis in week one.
Gottschalk and Allen stories are almost the same. The Bucs like their upside and are willing to put in the time to develop their particular skill sets but unless they have the training camps of their lives, they are both looking over Smiths shoulder as the Buccaneers starter in 2017.
However there is one narrative that is gaining steam in which the Bucs put their best three interior lineman on the field. Only problem is that they are all guards.
Since the Buccaneers moved back up into the second round in the 2015 draft and selected division three guard Ali Marpet, Buc fans have been speculating that Ali was taken to be the center of the future. Marpet has been seen delivering snaps to various quarterbacks at One Buc since his first OTA’s. With the possible return of 2016 free agent signing, guard JR Sweezy and guard Kevin Pamphile playing himself into a starting job, now is the time for the Marpet move. This scenario greatly depends on the return of Sweezy. A back injury kept him out all of last year and has never even played a snap in a Buccaneers practice. If Sweezy can’t make it back, it almost forces the Bucs to look at free agency or the draft for their center need.
The Free Agents
Since Jason Licht fully took over the free agency process players over thirty are no longer off the table. CB Brent Grimes, DL Roberts Ayers, and LB Daryl Smith are all into the second half of their careers and played important roles this year for the Buccaneers. Licht has gone on record as calling these “bridge” players. Veterans that though productive aren’t the long term solution. If the Bucs feel that Gottschalk or Allen is the future there are a couple of older free agent centers that can come in as a “bridge” to either one.
Joe Hawley: It became apparent during the second half of the season that the Bucs need an upgrade at center. Hawley was constantly losing his 1 on 1 battles and was tossed around most of the season. Love the beard, not the player. Having said that, Licht is familiar with Hawley and he knows the system. I’d be surprised to see Joe back in pewter but not shocked.
A.Q. Shipley: A five year veteran that is possibly looking for his fourth team. Spending his last two seasons in Arizona, Shipley started all sixteen games for the Cards in 2016. With the recent super stardom of RB David Johnson teams are going to take a look at the players who helped him get there. Add the fact that Arizona runs a deep route passing game similar to the Buccaneers, Shipley could be good fit.
There is one young center that could start in the middle of the Bucs line for years to come, if Licht decides to go with youth in free agency.
J.C. Tretter: Spending all four years of his career in Green Bay, Tretter slowly moved up the depth chart until he won the starting job in 2016. Seven games in he suffered a scary knee injury against Atlanta. December 9th the Packers announced that Tretter had returned to practice in a limited role. Now it has been released that J.C. underwent knee surgery January 17th. If Tretter can prove to Licht and his staff that he is healthy and the Bucs are looking for a long term answer J.C. Tretter could be their guy.
The 2017 NFL draft is a terrible draft if your team needs starting offensive linemen. The player that has the best chance to be a week one starter at the center position is Ethan Pocic, LSU. Pocic is a good run and pass blocker but isn’t excellent at either. Projected by most mock drafts to go in between round one to round three. If Pocic is available to the Buccaneers near the bottom of the third round, the temptation to possibly shore up the center position for the next four years might be to great for Jason Licht to pass up.
What I Think Will Happen*
It all depends on J.R. Sweezy. If Sweezy can return to his 2015 playing ability I think the Bucs keep Sweezy at right guard, where he played in Seattle, move Ali Marpet to center and keep Kevin Pamphile in the left guard spot. I also think this new interior trio will be given every chance to succeed.
If Sweezy’s back isn’t healthy enough at the beginning of training camp, look for Licht to bring in a “bridge” center and the Pamphile, Marpet and Sweezy interior will have to wait. Maybe as long as 2018.
*Right before posting the Buccaneers announced another center signing, James Stone. Further proof that it is a position weighing on Jason Licht mind. That makes four centers on the Bucs roster, Licht is leaving no stone unturned.
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Thanks for reading and as always Go Bucs!