TAMPA — No player works as closely with Jameis Winston as the center. Only those two touch the ball on every play. Together they make — if you will — snap judgements about defensive alignments.
So why did the Bucs take Ali Marpet, who has had two very productive seasons at right guard, and move him to center?
The easy answer is the Bucs needed to make room at right guard for J.R. Sweezy, who missed last season after back surgery.
But it's more than that.
The Bucs do have two experienced centers, Joe Hawley and Evan Smith. Marpet can provide Winston with the best of both.
At 6 feet 4 and 307 pounds, Marpet has a bigger body to spread out and keep the quarterback's feet clear. He is athletic enough to pull and do things in the run and screen games.
"Your center and your guards are responsible for solidifying the front of the pocket, and the tackles set the width of the pocket," coach Dirk Koetter said. "I'm a huge Joe Hawley fan. Joe played most of the year at 280 (pounds). And he's up into the 290s.
"But Ali is a 305-pound guy who gives you a stouter guy in the center of the line. … Every player out there has different strengths and weaknesses, but we felt we needed to get firmer, for sure. We talk about this all the time. You always want to get your best guys out there."
As a second-round draft pick in 2015 out of Division III Hobart College, Marpet faced a big transition to become an immediate NFL starter. There was no reason to further burden him with making protection calls.
"From Day 1 he's been snapping," offensive line coach George Warhop said. "It's a natural progression for him to move to center. I had told him previous to this year, 'You know eventually you're going to center,' so it was just a matter of when."
Winston can take advantage of play-action passes and throw deep with five- and seven-step drops. Though the Bucs utilize shotgun formations at times, Winston can usually be found under center.
Marpet made his first NFL snap Thursday in Jacksonville, where the Bucs beat the Jaguars 12-8.
"It was fun," said Marpet, who missed the preseason opener at Cincinnati with an ankle injury. "It's my first time getting real reps in a game center, and it felt good playing football again."
To help understand the value of a bigger center, take a look at the Falcons. Quarterback Matt Ryan does his best work from the pocket, so the Falcons were aggressive in signing former Browns Pro Bowl free agent center Alex Mack last year. At 6 feet 4 and 311 pounds, Mack brought more size and strength in front of Ryan, who enjoyed an MVP season.
Smith is in the final year of a deal that pays him $4.5 million this season. Hawley signed a one-year deal in the offseason. Marpet gives the Bucs a center who could play in front of Winston for 10 years.
How did Marpet play against the Jaguars? "At the point of attack, he did a very nice job," Koetter said. "We're very happy. He saw the defense; he made calls. … He had a couple minor mistakes, but it's just because of inexperience at that position."
Winston is sold.
"Oh, man, it was lovely," Winston said. "That was our first game together, and I cherished it. (Marpet) cherished it, and it was fun. That's all he would say. Ali is a man of few words. He said, 'It was fun.' "
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud.