TAMPA — All you have to do is consider the Bucs' offensive production to know they had protection.
Tampa Bay had its first 4,000-yard passer, a 1,400-yard rusher and was 4 yards shy of two 1,000-yard receivers.
None of that can happen without the hogs up front. What's remarkable is the only offensive lineman to start all 16 games at the same position was left tackle Donald Penn, who had a bounce-back year after a subpar 2011.
The strength of the team's offensive line was supposed to be its guards — Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks, the Saints free agent. But Joseph sustained a season-ending knee injury in the third preseason game against the Patriots. Nicks played in seven games before a foot injury forced him to go on injured reserve after a big Thursday night victory at Minnesota.
The Bucs managed to function despite the loss of their two Pro Bowl guards, thanks mostly to the flexibility of center/guard Jeremy Zuttah and the emergence of depth from fill-ins Ted Larsen and Jamon Meredith. Right tackle Demar Dotson took the starting job from Jeremy Trueblood, who will become a free agent on Tuesday.
Coach Greg Schiano prefers a ground-and-pound offense that creates big-play opportunities with the play-action pass. Quarterback Josh Freeman was sacked 26 times in 558 pass attempts.
But Penn will be 30 in April and Tampa Bay could use a possible upgrade at right tackle for the inexperienced Dotson, a converted basketball player who did not play football until his senior year at Southern Miss.
Inside, the team should be solid with the return of Joseph and Nicks, with Zuttah moving back to center. The silver lining is those injuries in 2012 enabled Tampa Bay to develop a next-man-up mentality while keeping the wheels rolling.
Top of the class
Jake Long, T, Dolphins
The 2008 No. 1 overall pick of the Dolphins has not lived up to his hype. Injuries have been a factor, despite Long missing only six games in his career. Some teams may still view him as a franchise left tackle and his market should be strong. Price: $$$$
Sebastian Vollmer, T, Patriots
Arguably the best tackle in free agency, Vollmer was good enough to protect Tom Brady. The right tackle would fit nicely on the Bucs' offensive line. Price: $$$$
Andre Smith, T, Bengals
A first-round pick from Alabama who has matured since his rookie year. But word is Smith wants huge money and any team must be wary of his work habits. Price: $$$$
Brandon Moore, G, Jets $$$
Andy Levitre, G, Bills $$$
Jeremy Trueblood, T, Bucs $$$
Bucs: Best guess
The Bucs certainly have bigger needs, especially on defense. Offensively, finding a tight end or slot receiver would seem to be a priority. The team also has invested big coin in Joseph and Nicks at guard. But finding an upgrade to Dotson might be a wise investment if the value of players at the top of the class falls.
$ = Less than $2M/year
$$ = $2M to $5M/year
$$$ = $5M to $7M/year
$$$$ = $7M to $10M/year
$$$$$ = More than $10M/year