TAMPA — Quarterback is the most valued position in the NFL, and the Bucs were fortunate to pluck Jameis Winston with the No. 1 selection in last year's draft.
Not surprisingly, they moved quickly to add behemoth men to protect him, taking left tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet in the second round.
But it's getting increasingly harder to evaluate those faceless bodyguards who are all smash and no flash.
Because of the evolving game in college, with spread-option offensive attacks that are so pass-happy, offensive linemen rarely, if ever, get into a three-point stance. Most of the plays are called from the sideline. The linemen's assignments are comparatively simple. That has made projecting success for them at the next level increasingly difficult.
"Well, it's even across the board," Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht said. "It's a little more challenging for every team. At the core, you want an athletic guy, a smart guy, a tough guy and a guy who can pick up what you're teaching him, which is where the value of a personal workout is at. You can learn a lot in … an hour on the field, three hours in the classroom with a guy.
"Some guys just can't pick it up, and some guys can. Some guys are playing without a playbook in college. Some guys don't know protections. It makes it a little more challenging, but it makes it a little more fun, too."
Five offensive tackles have gone either Nos. 1 or 2 overall in the past 10 drafts. But with the exception of Michigan's Jake Long in 2008, they haven't had much NFL success. Long, who had several good years as a starter with the Dolphins, is a free agent this year.
Eric Fisher, who went first overall to the Chiefs in 2013, and Greg Robinson, chosen second by the Rams in 2014, have been only average to below average at this point in their careers.
With quarterbacks expected to go Nos. 1 and 2 overall in next week's draft to the Rams and Eagles, who traded up to those spots, offensive tackles Laremy Tunsil from Mississippi and Ronnie Stanley from Notre Dame might battle it out for the first at their position taken. Michigan State's Jack Conklin, who plays right tackle, is likely the only other offensive lineman worthy of a top-10 pick.
"The way we play in the National Football League, it's always a projection," Cardinals GM Steve Keim said. "Any time you're evaluating college players, regardless of the system, it's a projection. But when you're watching offensive linemen and they've never been in a three-point stance, or a quarterback who has never been in a huddle or under center, you have to project. That's part of the business, and that's what makes it fun, difficult and challenging.
"I would say this: It's tough because you don't see as much run-taking on the (isolation block), fullbacks involved. Offensive linemen as a whole are hard to find. You look across the National Football League and you see some talented players. Yet at the same time, there's some parity, some overachievers, some tough guys with intangibles, whether (it's) their smarts, their passion for the game, their toughness."
Generally speaking, offensive line positions are considered deep in this draft.
"This group is solid. I don't know if it's any different from years past," Keim said.
The Bucs' biggest needs are on defense, having drafted only one player on that side of the ball the past two years. But rather than the Bucs reaching for a cornerback or a defensive lineman with their No. 9 overall pick, if the highest-rated player left on their board is an offensive tackle, they won't hesitate to pull the trigger.
Starting right tackle Demar Dotson, 30, is in the final year of his contract. Backup Gosder Cherilus is 31 and also set to become a free agent after 2016.
If the team doesn't take an offensive lineman in the first round, it wouldn't be surprising to see it address right tackle later in the draft.
"There are your three or four top guys, and then there are the guys who are going to end up playing in the league," Keim said. "Again, supply and demand at that position is extremely tough, because so many qualities at the position come into play."
. fast facts
April 28-30, Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, Chicago
Times: Round 1, April 28, 8 p.m. (ESPN, NFL Network); Rounds 2-3, April 29, 7 p.m. (ESPN, ESPN2, NFL); Rounds 4-7, April 30, noon (ESPN, NFL)
Draft order: 1. Rams (from Titans); 2. Eagles (from Browns); 3. Chargers; 4. Cowboys; 5. Jaguars; 6. Ravens; 7. 49ers; 8. Browns (from Dolphins via Eagles); 9. Bucs; 10. Giants; 11. Bears; 12. Saints; 13. Dolphins (from Eagles); 14. Raiders; 15. Titans (from Rams); 16. Lions; 17. Falcons; 18. Colts; 19. Bills; 20. Jets; 21. Redskins; 22. Texans; 23. Vikings; 24. Bengals; 25. Steelers; 26. Seahawks; 27. Packers; 28. Chiefs; 29. Cardinals; 30. Panthers; 31. Broncos.
Bucs draft picks: First round, ninth overall; second round, 39th overall; third round, 74th overall; fourth round, 108th overall; fifth round, 148th overall; sixth round, 183rd overall; sixth round, 197th overall, from Redskins
Greg Auman, Times staff writer