INDIANAPOLIS — It was supposed to be the strength of the team, an offensive line that kept its quarterback clean and escorted running backs to the end zone like prom queens.
They were a collection mostly of high draft picks that would thump with one heartbeat.
But now the Bucs have two important questions to ask about their offensive line: How long can they keep it together? And do they want to?
Both tackles, Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood, are restricted free agents.
Penn is furious the team slapped a first- and third-round tender — the highest possible — on him last week rather than sign him to a long-term extension.
Arron Sears left a big leak at left guard when his personal issues landed him on the nonfootball injury list. Right guard Davin Joseph has the most recent Pro Bowl appearance, in 2008.
There are as many as six offensive tackles projected to go in the first round of April's draft. Some might slip to the second round, and the Bucs own three of the top 42 choices.
"I think every draft takes on an identity. I'm not saying this is a real deep year on the offensive line, but there are good football players out there," 49ers general manager Scott McCloughan said. "The one thing about the offensive line nowadays is the game's changed a lot in college with the spread offense. The big power guys, the guys that come off (the line) and drive block and all that, you don't see that anymore in college.
"You see more finesse, more pass protection. From (the NFL's) standpoint, the O-line is always going to be important. It's the deepest position numbers-wise (on the roster). You're always looking in the draft, first round through seventh round, for guys who can come in and … play a role for you."
As the Bucs contingent arrived at the scouting combine last week, offensive coordinator Greg Olson said he was eager to "find some offensive linemen."
Coach Raheem Morris admitted he might have been too critical of the group last season but added much was expected.
"You're really hard on those guys during the season," Morris said. "Then you go back and watch the tape, and it's not as bad as you think.
"(Jeremy) Zuttah, I've got to apologize for cussing you out so much. Trueblood, I know you made a couple mistakes here and a stupid penalty there. But when you're on a double-team block and you're driving the guy off the ball, there may not be a better tackle in the league. Penn, I know I dog-cussed you for this and you gained weight there. But I matched you one-on-one with some of the best pass rushers in the league."
Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said he won't focus too much on any one position early in the draft, but taking an offensive lineman or two is possible.
All six elite tackles are projected to play on Penn's side. Under the circumstances, it's unlikely Penn will participate in the offseason program, and the residue over the high tender might complicate getting a deal done at all.
Protecting the blindside of franchise quarterback Josh Freeman might be the most important job on the team, so getting a player with pedigree to take over in a year might make sense.
Oklahoma State's Russell Okung is regarded by most as the top tackle in the draft. If the elite defensive tackles, Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy, didn't fall to them at No. 3, it will be because the Rams did not take Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford or Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen No. 1 overall.
The Redskins, who pick after Tampa Bay at No. 4, are believed to be interested in a quarterback.
That means teams needing a quarterback might call the Bucs to move ahead of the Redskins. If the Bucs move down in the first round, more offensive linemen would be in range.
"You talk about anyone being a franchise. They're obviously going to be a cornerstone for the team and for the franchise," Okung said. "It's a compliment just to be considered that. But right now, I've got to get to work. That's not for me to decide."
Other likely first-round tackles are Iowa's Bryan Bulaga, Rutgers' Anthony Davis, Oklahoma's Trent Williams, Maryland's Bruce Campbell and Idaho's Mike Iupati, whom many project as a guard.
"Being versatile will hopefully put me up the draft," Iupati said. "But I think I will do a great job as an offensive guard."
But no matter the position, revamping the offensive line now is at least cause for pause in the draft for the Bucs.