TAMPA — The first free agent the Bucs signed after Tom Brady ended his retirement was center Ryan Jensen.
It wasn’t a coincidence.
Brady is very particular about the player who snaps him the football and keeping Jensen was a big priority.
The 31-year-old is coming off his first Pro Bowl selection and signed a three-year, $39 million contract with $26.5 million guaranteed one day after Brady announced he was returning to the Bucs.
But on Thursday, Jensen sustained a left knee injury in the final period of practice during a two-minute drill.
Jensen had to be carted off the field, with a trainer holding his knee and ankle in place as teammates gathered around to shake his hand and wish him well.
A video of the play taken by a fan in attendance shows rookie Logan Hall taking an inside rush against left guard Aaron Stinnie while Jensen is engaged with nose tackle Vita Vea. Hall appears to be pushed by Stinnie into Jensen’s left knee.
Players must practice four days before wearing shoulder pads and are not supposed to have excessive contact during this period of training camp.
Neither coach Todd Bowles nor general manager Jason Licht had any immediate updates on Jensen’s condition, but their tones indicated the injury could be serious.
“Right now, we feel terrible for Jensen,” Licht said. “Don’t have any update on that. We won’t for some time. We have some tests you have to wait a couple days before you can get them. You have to wait for swelling and things like that to go down.”
Bowles talked about players needing to take care of each other but said he wasn’t sure how the injury occurred.
“It’s unfortunate right now because there was nothing fancy going on in there,” he said. “We’ve got to look at the tape and see what happened but it didn’t look like anything as far as how it happened. I don’t know. We’ve got to take a look at the tape and hope for the best.”
Robert Hainsey, a second-year pro from Notre Dame, finished the two-minute drill at center and could be the short-term replacement for Jensen.
But Bowles indicated they would consider other players at center as well. The Bucs already will have two new guards after the retirement of Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa signing with the Bengals in the offseason as a free agent.
The Bucs have a battle at left guard with Stinnie, rookie Luke Goedeke and Nick Leverett.
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With the center position as important as any other in the NFL — especially for a team quarterbacked by Brady — the Bucs could try to sign a veteran. Former Browns center JC Tretter, 31, was released in March to save $8.2 million from the salary cap.
Jensen is one of the first players Brady called after signing with the Bucs in 2020. In their first conversation, Brady talked Jensen out of wearing a glove when he plays. He also detailed how Jensen was to douse a towel with baby powder and double it before folding into into his waistline so Brady’s hands would remain dry.
Jensen is one of the NFL’s greatest longshots. He was a sixth-round pick out of tiny Colorado State University-Pueblo by the Baltimore Ravens in 2013. The next season, he spent most of the year on the Ravens’ practice squad before becoming a full-time starter in 2017.
The Bucs signed Jensen to a four-year, $42 million contract in 2018, making him the highest-paid center in the league at the time. His arrival allowed the Bucs to move Marpet to guard.
Jensen has been pretty durable throughout his career, playing 81 games since becoming a full-time starter. He played at least 97 percent of the offensive snaps in each season since joining the Bucs.
Jensen recently revealed that he tore his hip flexor in a Week 5 game versus the Dolphins. He didn’t think he would be able to play four days later at Philadelphia. But Brady convinced him otherwise.
Jensen never missed a game.
Bowles said the Bucs will begin looking at all their options at center with Jensen out.
“It’s early in camp,” Bowles said. “We’ll start moving some guys in there and we’ll get in pads and if he has to miss any time, we’ll go from there. We’ll have some battles going in there as well.”
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