TAMPA — Positivity has helped Oniel Cousins last for six seasons in the NFL, and as he enters the Bucs' preseason opener Friday battling for a starting job at guard, that relentless optimism is carrying him again.
"My goal is to start and help this team win," he said. "I try to think positive in every play. I like to get after it. I like to have fun with the guys. Wherever the game goes, it all depends on the offensive line."
As the Bucs look to bounce back from a 4-12 record, guard is perhaps their biggest question mark, especially after former Pro Bowl player Carl Nicks was released following his lingering toe injury. Four players of varying experience are battling for two starting spots, and their play in four preseason games will be a key.
Cousins, 30, has started just nine games in six NFL seasons, establishing himself as an injury replacement but little more. One guard spot could go to Jamon Meredith, who has 20 starts for the Bucs in the past two seasons, but none of the other potential starters has played in an NFL game.
"Training camp is a grind, but I embrace the grind and going through it with these guys," said Cousins, who was born in Jamaica and grew up in Brooklyn and later California, discovering football when he was a sophomore in high school. "Whatever my role is, I'm going to do my best to get it done here."
Last year, when Cleveland's starting right guard, Shawn Lauvao, was lost to an ankle injury in preseason, Cousins played every snap in the Browns' first four games, including two wins. But once Lauvao returned in Week 5, Cousins was relegated to the extra-point team, with 21 snaps on offense the rest of the season.
His contract with the Bucs is modest — a base salary of $730,000, the league minimum for a player of his experience, and a signing bonus reportedly worth $65,000. So while he's competing for a starting job, a poor month ahead could cost him his job, as was the case in 2011 when he was cut in preseason by the Ravens, then claimed off waivers by the Browns.
There, he spent the next three years with offensive line coach George Warhop, who joined Lovie Smith's staff this year. Warhop said familiarity will help Cousins in terms of understanding how he wants his linemen to practice and perform, but he'll have to earn a job — in the starting lineup and on the roster — with his production on the field.
He's battling two unproven players in rookie Kadeem Edwards and second-year pro Patrick Omameh, and that lack of experience gives Cousins the chance to claim the job.
"All of them have the same opportunity," Warhop said. "It's not only for (Cousins), it's for Jamon, it's for Kadeem, it's for Pat. They're all going to get reps with the first group. I'm familiar with Oniel, but his opportunity is no different than the rest of those guys."
Cousins has shown promising flashes in his NFL career — his first career start came at right tackle for Baltimore in 2009, helping Ray Rice rush for a then-career-high 166 yards in a 48-3 drubbing of Detroit. He went on to start three games, including two wins, then returned to a backup role.
The next month will see the position battles shake out, but Cousins is optimistic about the line as a whole being a Bucs strength.
"We're definitely confident — we're working as a team," he said. "We're lifting each other up, and that's what it's all about. The line plays together no matter who's in there, whether it's a starter or the sixth man or the seventh man. If you're not starting, you're one play away from being in there, so my mentality never changes."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and at (813) 226-3346. Follow @gregauman.