Members of an offensive line often talk about getting an opportunity to “jell” as a complete unit. When the lineup remains the same for an extended period of time, blockers become familiar with the way the men next to them will respond to certain situations, and they are more confident in focusing on their own specific assignments.
The Buccaneers’ offensive line should have an excellent opportunity to jell in the years ahead.
Tampa Bay’s presumptive starting five heading into 2013 would be left tackle Donald Penn, left guard Carl Nicks, center Jeremy Zuttah, right guard Davin Joseph and right tackle Demar Dotson. Every position is open to competition, of course, and versatile blockers Ted Larsen and Jamon Meredith started roughly a dozen games each last year in the wake of several injuries, but those first five should be expected to lead the way.
On Thursday, the Buccaneers signed Dotson to a new four-year deal that covers the 2013-16 seasons. With that, the team has every member of that presumptive starting five under contract through at least the end of 2015, and not one of those players has had his 30th birthday yet. Dotson is 27.
Penn (29 as of Friday), who has been the team’s starter on the left edge since the fourth game of the 2007 campaign, got the long-term deal he wanted just prior to the start of training camp in 2010. To celebrate the six-year deal, he immediately went out and put together his first Pro Bowl campaign that fall. Penn’s deal is good through 2015.
Nicks (27) is the newest member of the group, joining the Buccaneers last year as one of the biggest free agency signings – in more ways than one – across the entire NFL. He, too, got a six-year deal, tying him to the Buccaneers through the 2016 season. Nicks fought through a painful toe injury for seven games last season but eventually had to move to injured reserve; the team is eager to get a full season out of their all-pro blocker in the middle.
Zuttah (26), who spent his first four seasons filling in absolutely anywhere the team needed him on the offensive front, was due to become an unrestricted free agent last March. Before that could happen, he re-signed with Tampa Bay, agreeing to a four-year deal that would reunite him with his college coach at Rutgers, Greg Schiano. Zuttah was then slotted in as the starter at the position both he and the team believed was his top strength (among many), center. Of course, injuries to Nicks and Joseph eventually scuttled that plan and he took one for the team again, moving to left guard. Zuttah is signed through 2015 and should get another crack at sticking at center this year.
Joseph (29) missed all of last season due to a knee injury suffered in the third preseason game, but he’s well into his recovery and ready to form that talented guard duo with Nicks the Bucs envisioned last spring. The two-time Pro Bowler is working under the longest contract of all, a seven-year pact he signed on the eve of training camp in 2011 that will keep him with the Bucs through 2017.
Of course, there is always the “barring injury” caveat, which can’t be ignored. Still, one wouldn’t expect a repeat of the team’s terrible luck in that regard last year, with Joseph and Nicks combining to play only seven games, and Nicks having to grit it out just to get that far. The Bucs certainly can’t fear that sort of luck when planning for the future, and they haven’t when it comes to the front line. This group will have every opportunity to jell, and if that process goes well, the team will benefit for years to come.