Bucs’ offensive line must improve in 2014

Donald Penn (70) started 16 games for a sixth consecutive season and has developed into a leader on the Bucs' offensive line.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. —€“ If only visions became reality. How different would the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’€™ offensive line have been if guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph were healthy, present and productive at the same time?

Former coach Greg Schiano and former general manager Mark Dominik are left to wonder.

Nicks and Joseph have four Pro Bowl appearances between them, but both have struggled with injury problems the past two years. Last season, Nicks was sidelined for all but two games with a MRSA infection in his left foot, creating doubts about his NFL future. Joseph, meanwhile, fought back from a serious right knee injury that kept him out the entire 2012 season. However, his performance seemed below his standards most of last year.

Overall, the Bucs ranked 22nd in the league in rushing with an average of 100.8 yards per game. They allowed 47 sacks, which ranked 27th in the league.

The stats show that this group must improve next season, especially with Mike Glennon developing behind center. But from his initial impressions, new Bucs offensive line coach George Warhop likes what he sees.

”Davin Joseph, I thought, was a phenomenal player when he came out of Oklahoma,” Warhop said. ”Watching him in his career, he has been nothing but that. He’s a tough guy. I’m looking forward to working with him. (Jeremy) Zuttah, I was really impressed with when he came out — athletic, smart, so I’m looking forward to working with him. You look at Carl, what can you say about Carl Nicks? At the right tackle, Dotson, I think he’s a phenomenal young talent. As you look at all these guys … they were a nice group to watch play. I’m looking forward to working with them all.”

Here’s a closer look at the Bucs’ offensive line situation …

STARTERS

LT Donald Penn — One of the largest personalities in the Bucs’ locker room, he started all 16 games last season for the sixth consecutive year. He has grown into a leader on the offensive line, though he struggled at times in 2013, including allowing St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn to record six tackles and three sacks in Week 16.

LG Jamon Meredith –€“ He never started the season’s first eight weeks, but he slid into a starting role from Weeks 9 through 16. He’s usually inconsistent, but his presence was part of the reason for an uptick in rushing production during the middle of the season. The five-year veteran has started a combined 20 games the past two campaigns.

C Jeremy Zuttah — The six-year veteran started all 16 games for the third time. His durability has become an asset — he has missed only two games the past five seasons.

RG Davin Joseph –€“ He overcame a major right-knee injury to start all 16 games last season after missing the entire 2012 campaign. Joseph is still one of the leaders on the offensive line, but he didn’t look like his old self most of the season. With a $6 million base salary, he’€™s also one of Tampa Bay’€™s priciest members of the group.

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RT Demar Dotson — He started all 16 games for the first time in his career, after beating out Gabe Carimi for the position in the preseason. Solid as a pass protector, the former college basketball player signed a four-year, $7.5 million deal last March.

BACKUPS

LG Carl Nicks — To this point, his Tampa Bay career has included one issue after another. After missing nine games in 2012, he only played two last season because he contracted MRSA in his left foot. He was one of three players, along with kicker Lawrence Tynes and cornerback Johnthan Banks, to deal with the serious staph infection resistant to some antibiotics. Though there are some doubts about Nicks’ playing future, coach Lovie Smith is optimistic that rehab for the two-time Pro Bowl talent is going well.

C Ted Larsen — He started 13 games in 2012, but he only made four starts last season, just one more than his career-low total in 2011. A four-year veteran, he has settled into the reserve role.

RG Patrick Omameh –€“ He was signed off the San Francisco 49ers’ practice squad in October but never saw any game time. The rookie Michigan product was added to provide depth.

RT Gabe Carimi — The Bucs traded for the former first-round pick last June, sending a sixth-round pick to the Chicago Bears. The three-year veteran played 14 games but only started three. He offered depth, but he never established himself as a must-need on the offensive line.

POSSIBLE FREE-AGENT TARGETS

What plans do the Bucs have for Nicks and Joseph? That should be the question that drives any offseason strategy when shaping the offensive line for 2014. In addition to Joseph’€™s price tag, Nicks is scheduled to make a base salary of $7 million next season. If changes are made, there aren’€™t a lot of intriguing options in the free-agent market. Perhaps guard Wade Smith, who went to the Pro Bowl as part of the Houston Texans in 2012, could fill into the role well. At tackle, Branden Albert could be available, though it would seem unlikely that the Bucs would pursue many big names in this category unless a complete revamp is done.

BEST DRAFT OPTIONS

Again, it’s hard to see much prime talent added here unless the new regime sees the need. If the Bucs want to be aggressive, tackles Jake Matthews, Taylor Lewan and Zack Martin are first-round-quality players who should be available for the seventh pick. The guard position is a little thinner, but David Yankey, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Cyril Richardson and Gabe Jackson are names to watch in the early rounds.

FINAL THOUGHT

The potential is there, but the Bucs’ offensive line has failed to live its promise the past two seasons. It’s easy to think this collection of talent should be one of the best groups in the NFC South –€“ if not the entire NFC –€“ if Nicks and Joseph played to their potential and stayed on the field together for extended periods of time. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, that goal has been elusive, for reasons outside the former regime’s control. (Who could have seen Nicks’ toe and MRSA injuries coming? Who could have predicted Joseph’€™s knee problem?) Still, unforeseen issues are part of NFL life. This offensive line must be better in 2014.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.