TAMPA — It's hard enough to get one quarterback ready for the start of the NFL season. You have to do everything possible to protect him and make sure he gets to the starting line healthy.
It's doubly difficult to prepare two starting quarterbacks, especially considering you don't want to expose either to injury by playing behind a second- or third-team offensive line.
Now toss in some injuries at right guard and right tackle and you've got the mess the Bucs are dealing with.
The three-game suspension of Jameis Winston was bound to have ripple effects, but now the Bucs have to hope it doesn't become a tsunami in the preseason.
Ryan Fitzpatrick will start Thursday's preseason opener at Miami. Typically, he would play about a quarter and go to the sidelines with the rest of the first-team offense. The goal is to get him ready for the Sept. 9 game at New Orleans.
However, the Bucs have a considerable investment in Winston, who at 24, isn't a finished product. Winston likely will be counted on to make 13 starts when he returns for the Sept. 30 game at Chicago.
But a rash of injuries that has targeted the right side of the offensive line is suddenly a bigger concern Thursday
Starting right tackle Demar Dotson still is making a deliberately slow recovery from two knee surgeries and hasn't really been involved in 11-on-11 periods in practice. Caleb Benenoch, who was expected to start at right guard but also has played tackle, has been out since suffering an undisclosed injury late in Friday's practice.
Backup right tackle Leonard Wester has missed the past week with an injury. On Monday, his backup, Cole Gardner, missed practice with an injury.
That left Brad Seaton and Cole Boozer, an undrafted rookie from Temple, to take reps at right tackle with the starting offense Monday.
"Some of those guys are going to play with a quarterback they might not have played with,'' coach Dirk Koetter said. "We'll have to adjust accordingly and adjust the play-calling accordingly."
In other words, the Bucs would like for both Fitzpatrick and Winston to get some work Thursday, but they also can't put them in harm's way by calling too many pass plays with suspect protection.
The Bucs already could have rookie Alex Cappa starting at right guard. So playing an inexperienced right tackle may only compound the problem.
Then there's Ryan Griffin. Koetter has said he is only "one play away,'' from becoming the starter. He will have to serve as the Bucs' No. 2 quarterback the first three games.
A year ago, Gardner was beaten badly by Bengals defensive end Chris Smith, who leveled Griffin during a pass play. Griffin stayed in the game, but one play later, he was unable to throw the football and made a pass that squirted out of his hand like a bar of soap. He had suffered an AC joint sprain in his right throwing shoulder that forced him to go on injured reserve before being recalled in November.
The Bucs depth will be so severely tested on the offensive line that the second-team will consist of several third-team players.
The Bucs expect Dotson to recover in time for the regular season, but they're not going to push him to play in August.
"He's barely working back into 11-on-11, and he's improving daily,'' Koetter said of Dotson. "He looks better and better. But anybody that we think is not 100 percent long-term, they won't be out there. We're not going to take a risk with anybody. We've got plenty of guys.''
For guys like Seaton, it's a big opportunity to show what he can do against the Dolphins starters. Certainly, he's been tested each day in practice by the Bucs defensive line.
"I think our whole d-line is stacked this year,'' Seaton said. "That competition can only get guys like me better, especially when I'm working so hard to develop my craft. Going against Vinny Curry, Gerald McCoy, Jason Pierre-Paul, it does wonders for my technique because I know I can't just jump out the window, I've got to be patient and work on what I know to do.''
But Koetter was asked to describe the state of the right side of the Bucs offensive line. "I would say it's injury-riddled right now,'' Koetter said. "Again, I don't think anything on the right side of our O-line is long term. But we've just gotten hit hard at that spot. I mean, we've got three or four guy who play on the right side of the line that are not practicing right now. That tests your depth. You just have to work through it. They'll all be back before too long and that helps those other guys get better. In the meantime, we've got to tough it out.''
That may be true, but will they hold up against the Dolphins starting defense and pass rushers like Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn?
Contact Rick Stroud at email@example.com. Follow @NFLStroud