TAMPA — They do the grunt work and rarely hear their names mentioned until a pass rusher is towering over their downed quarterback, celebrating a sack.
But when the first round of the 2014 NFL draft commences Thursday, the men in the trenches will receive their due respect. Scouts and executives are impressed with the quality and depth of the offensive line prospects, particularly at the left tackle position that has developed into a priority for all 32 teams.
“Every position obviously has value, but the offensive line is always interesting because it’s not predicated necessarily on talent,” said former Bucs personnel executive Jerry Angelo, who was Chicago’s general manager in 2004 when Lovie Smith was hired as coach of the Bears. “Coaching is a key to offensive line play, and they have to work well together. You need the five guys who play the best with each other to be successful.”
Tampa Bay’s plunge from ninth to No. 32 in total offense last season can be attributed in large measure to the failures up front, where injuries and ineffectiveness crippled the attack.
The Bucs added two starters to the group in free agency — tackle Anthony Collins and center Evan Dietrich-Smith. Undrafted Demar Dotson has emerged as a solid starter at right tackle, but the situation at guard is unsettled.
Veteran Davin Joseph was released and left guard Carl Nicks, a former All-Pro with the Saints, has played only nine of 32 games the past two years because of an array of health issues.
“You want a player that’s first of all smart, because you have a lot of bullets flying around you when you go inside,” new Bucs GM Jason Licht said of the guard position. “Some players are tackles only, some tackles are left tackles only. It’s a skill set you look for that you can tell by movement and the way he plays.”
Offensive line coaches crave versatility, and this year’s class of prospects hardly disappoints.
Auburn’s 332-pound Greg Robinson, the most powerful run blocker available, projects at left tackle, but he could start his NFL career inside. Tackle Zack Martin of Notre Dame has the tools to suit up on NFL game days and provide teams with insurance all across the line.
“To me, there’s no real mystery to Martin,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “He’s one of the safer players in the draft. He can play tackle, he can slide inside and play guard, and I think he’s definitely somebody that’s on the move.”
If the Bucs trade back from the No. 7 spot in the first round, an offensive lineman with Martin’s versatility could be in play for them.
“I think it’s easier to go from tackle to guard than guard to tackle,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “As a matter of fact, I have a history of taking tackles in the draft and moving them to guard and center. So if something were to happen at your tackle position, you can just take those guys and move them outside, even though their best position might be guard or center.”
Robinson isn’t the only tackle expected to be off the board early. Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan are massive linemen well suited to protect the quarterback’s blind side at the pro level.
“They’re not always great athletes,” Angelo said of the worker bees up front, “but they’re playing against great athletes.”
The Bucs haven’t exactly focused on the position in recent drafts.
During Mark Dominik’s five-year reign as GM, Tampa Bay chose only one offensive lineman. Xavier Fulton, a tackle out of Illinois selected in the fifth round in 2009, never played a snap in the NFL and is currently on Saskatchewan’s roster in the Canadian Football League.
The Bucs aren’t the only NFL franchise seeking help up front — they’ve got plenty of company right in the NFC South.
The Falcons crave a dominant left tackle to protect Matt Ryan, and the Panthers must replace Jordan Gross, their former rock at left tackle who retired.
Outside the division, Reid’s Chiefs lost three linemen in free agency, while the Colts are looking for upgrades in front of star quarterback Andrew Luck.
Continuity up front is vital for a five-man unit that must function as a synchronized group. After an injury-ravaged 2012 season, the Eagles boasted the NFC’s No. 1 offense last year as their starting offensive line remained relatively intact.
“It’s unbelievable how important it is to have the same five guys communicating,” Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said. “Most mistakes are because of communication, not because a guy gets beat.”