TAMPA — He was lined up to the left of the quarterback, as he will be on the field in the fall, a hulking new blindside bodyguard for the Bucs.
Anthony Collins had just signed a five-year, $30 million contract with Tampa Bay earlier Thursday, replacing left tackle Donald Penn, who was released as the team continued its house-cleaning of the offensive line.
"I have to protect this man right here with all my might," Collins said, glancing toward quarterback Josh McCown, seated next to him at an introductory news conference. "With all my might. Man up. I have to protect that man. That man got four kids over there."
Indeed, seated directly in front of McCown was his wife, Natalie, and their two girls and two boys ranging in age from 6 to 15.
For McCown, 34, becoming the team's starting quarterback under new coach Lovie Smith at this stage of his career is an unexpected consequence of his out-of-nowhere performance with the Bears last season. He went 3-2 and threw 13 touchdowns with only one interception in place of injured starter Jay Cutler.
"More than anything, there was just a peace," McCown said. "I'm a confident person. But you go, 'When am I going to put it all together?' Life is all these slices of moments, and it's just this moment that came together."
In his eighth stop in the NFL, McCown has found a job as a starter ahead of second-year pro Mike Glennon. Despite all his experience, over the past six years McCown actually has thrown for fewer touchdowns (19-15) and fewer yards (2,608-2,243) than Glennon did as a rookie.
"I had the privilege a couple years ago to coach high school football, and at the end of that season play on Christmas night at (Green Bay's) Lambeau Field with (the Bears)," McCown said. "I kind of started thinking then, you never know. For me to be sitting here, I understand why a lot of people say this is a surprise. But in our world, in my family's world, this is par for the course to have something relatively unusual happen. We're excited about this opportunity."
Though only 28, Collins had to wait six years for a team to believe he is a starting left tackle.
During his time with the Bengals, Collins started 25 games, many at guard and right tackle. It was only because of an injury to starter Andrew Whitworth last season that Collins got an opportunity to show his stuff in eight games at left tackle.
"Watching all the tackles this year, he's the one that jumped out the most to me," Bucs general manager Jason Licht said of Collins. "Because it was such a surprise to see a guy thrown into the starting lineup and to actually see their team perform better."
Evidently, Smith and Licht liked him much better than Penn, who had started 108 straight games for the team at left tackle.
Penn thanked Bucs fans for their support on Twitter shortly after his release and visited the Raiders later Thursday.
"Message 2 #bucnation thank u 4 all your support over the past 8yrs even when things were bad n good I will never 4get my time with the bucs," Penn tweeted. "I gave my all every single snap and put my heart in2 my team 108 straight games will always luv my bucs fans good luck in the future #70 OUT."
Penn's release saved the club about $7.5 million in salary cap, leaving it about $15 million under after three days of aggressive spending on six free agents.
"We knew we were going to be very active, extremely active," Licht said. "I can't say we knew we were going to get all these guys. If I had known that, I would've popped bubbly then because we're very excited about the guys we land."
Collins, the Bengals' 2008 fourth-round pick out of Kansas, said he was excited too, although he was all business when talking about becoming a full-time starter for the first time in his pro career.
"A lot of people get uncomfortable when they're put in certain positions," he said. "I'm very confident under pressure."