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Putting faith in novice center could be a bold move for Bucs. Or it’s nuts.

John Romano | Tampa Bay does not seem inclined to chase a big-name center such as J.C. Tretter to replace the injured Ryan Jensen.
Ryan Jensen has been Tom Brady's bodyguard in the middle of the Bucs offensive line the past two seasons. Now, just months after being selected for the Pro Bowl and signing a fat new contract, the injured Jensen could be replaced by converted tackle Robert Hainsey, who has never played a full game at center in his career.
Ryan Jensen has been Tom Brady's bodyguard in the middle of the Bucs offensive line the past two seasons. Now, just months after being selected for the Pro Bowl and signing a fat new contract, the injured Jensen could be replaced by converted tackle Robert Hainsey, who has never played a full game at center in his career. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jul. 30

TAMPA — So to recap Day 3 of Bucs training camp:

No Ryan Jensen, no word on a veteran replacement, no joy in Bucs-ville.

Losing Jensen to a knee injury on Thursday may not be a catastrophe for the Bucs, but it has the potential to undermine a lot of meticulous planning that went into the offseason.

There is nothing more important to Tampa Bay’s fortunes in 2022 than keeping Tom Brady safe, and Jensen is a huge part of that equation.

So that means alarm bells, right? That means the Bucs need to sign a proven replacement, right? That means Brady should be on the phone recruiting former Browns center J.C. Tretter, right?

For the moment, apparently not.

The Bucs say they have not ruled out the idea of bringing in a veteran, but they seem willing to give second-year player Robert Hainsey a crack at replacing Jensen in the starting lineup.

Right or wrong, it’s a gutsy move. The easy choice would be chasing Tretter, who has started every game for the past five years in Cleveland and was graded as one of the top half-dozen centers in the NFL by Pro Football Focus last season.

FILE - Cleveland Browns center JC Tretter plays against the Houston Texans during the second half of an NFL football game Sept. 19, 2021, in Cleveland. Tretter has been re-elected for a second term as president of the NFL Players Association. The union announced Tretter's unanimous re-election on Friday, March 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane, File)
FILE - Cleveland Browns center JC Tretter plays against the Houston Texans during the second half of an NFL football game Sept. 19, 2021, in Cleveland. Tretter has been re-elected for a second term as president of the NFL Players Association. The union announced Tretter's unanimous re-election on Friday, March 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane, File) [ RON SCHWANE | AP ]

He was cut loose by the Browns in March when they needed to clear salary-cap space to acquire quarterback Deshaun Watson, and he is easily the most recognizable name on the open market.

Considering the Bucs are in a Super Bowl-or-bust mode in 2022, why wouldn’t they immediately begin chasing Tretter?

There could be several reasons. Maybe they don’t think Tretter, 31, was as good as his press clippings in 2021. Maybe they have concerns Tretter is a product of Cleveland’s zone blocking schemes and would not fare as well in Tampa Bay’s system. Maybe they’re completely sold on Hainsey’s potential.

Those would all be plausible explanations, but it would still be a curious move for a franchise that spent a lot of money in the offseason plugging holes with veteran free agents.

Shaq Mason (98 career starts) was signed to replace guard Alex Cappa, Akiem Hicks (110 starts) replaced defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Rudolph (145 starts) replaced tight end Rob Gronkowski, Logan Ryan (115 starts) replaced safety Jordan Whitehead, and Russell Gage (21 starts) and Julio Jones (144 starts) replaced receiver Antonio Brown.

Considering Hainsey, who was a tackle at Notre Dame, has only 31 snaps as a center in his college and pro career, wouldn’t it make sense to sign a veteran center?

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“It makes sense, but it’s got to be the right guy,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said. “We just can’t sign a center because he has experience. He’s got to fit us, he’s got to be able to play.”

To be fair, the Bucs know their business better than any armchair analysts. And general manager Jason Licht has an excellent track record when it comes to finding offensive line talent in the draft. He’s picked Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Tristan Wirfs and Cappa in the first three rounds since 2015 and all four became fixtures. Hainsey, by the way, was a third-round pick.

You might also ask yourself why Tretter is still on the open market more than four months after being released by the Browns. Maybe he’s just being picky, maybe he’s priced himself out of the market, maybe he wanted to avoid training camp. But that’s a lot of time for a supposedly top-tier offensive lineman to be sitting on the sidelines.

Of course, you could play the same kind of guessing game with Hainsey. If the Bucs really did have that much faith in his potential, why did they re-sign the 31-year-old Jensen to a three-year, $39 million deal in March?

The bottom line is the Bucs were planning on going with younger, in-house candidates at only two positions this season. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka is replacing outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul and Aaron Stinnie is the likely replacement for Marpet at left guard.

Now, they’ll potentially have two first-time starters playing side by side on the interior of the offensive line with a 45-year-old quarterback standing behind them.

Robert Hainsey (70), left, squares off with Nick Leverett. Hainsey appears to have the edge in replacing an injured Ryan Jensen under center.
Robert Hainsey (70), left, squares off with Nick Leverett. Hainsey appears to have the edge in replacing an injured Ryan Jensen under center. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“The team has to do what they have to do,” said lineman Nick Leverett, who is currently behind Hainsey on the depth chart. “But you have a whole bunch of great guys who put in the time and effort to not only play one position but play multiple positions. So we all work hard, we all learned our playbooks and we work hard in the weight room. We have a whole bunch of great candidates here.

“But, like I said, I’m an unselfish guy. So the team has to do what they have to do.”

Even before they had played a game this season, it felt like the Bucs had been on a four-month winning streak. They had gotten Brady back, they had signed most of their key free agents, and they added Jones after the start of training camp.

It seemed all that was left was prime time highlights and postseason redemption. You looked around the rest of the NFC and could not help but wonder if this team was destined for the Super Bowl.

Then Jensen was carted off the practice field at the end of one practice, and doubt made its first appearance before the start of the next one.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabaycom. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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