TAMPA ― Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen is the leader of a Bucs offensive line that has struggled since he suffered a significant knee injury on the second day of training camp.
Without their tone setter, the Bucs plummeted to last in the league in rushing and have had trouble protecting quarterback Tom Brady.
But Jensen, who was placed on injured reserve Sept. 1, has never given up on his hope of rejoining the team, even if only for the postseason.
That may become reality as Jensen began his 21-day practice window Wednesday with the team. He is eligible to rejoin the Bucs active roster as soon as Sunday with the Bucs needing a win over Carolina to clinch a second straight NFC South.
During the media’s limited viewing window Wednesday, Jensen was seen engaging in one-on-one drills with fellow center Robert Hainsey and guard John Molchon.
The Bucs have not made a determination when Jensen will be cleared to play and plan to evaluate his progress one day at a time. Nonetheless, it’s a huge step for Jensen, who missed 15 regular-season games but didn’t require surgery.
The sight of Jensen suited up was hardly the only encouraging image Wednesday.
Several other notables from recent injury reports also were participating to varying degrees as the team (7-8) embarked on preparations for the Panthers (6-9).
Left tackle Donovan Smith, inactive for Sunday night’s overtime win against the Cardinals with a foot injury, was suited up. So was Pro Bowl right tackle Tristan Wirfs, who played for the first time in a month Sunday evening (ankle), but was noticeably limping by game’s end.
Others practicing were cornerback Jamel Dean (toe) and outside linebacker Carl Nassib (pectoral), both of whom have missed the last two games. Tailback Leonard Fournette, who indicated Monday on social media that he’s dealing with a Lisfranc injury, also was practicing.
The only notable no-show was nose tackle Vita Vea, who has missed the last two games with a calf injury.
Coach Todd Bowles is expected to provide an update on Jensen, and perhaps the others, when he meets with reporters after practice.
After making the Pro Bowl in 2021, Jensen signed a three-year, $39 million contract with the Bucs in the spring. The deal included $26.5 million guaranteed. He was the first agent the Bucs re-signed after Brady announced he was ending his retirement and returning to play.
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But on the second day of training camp, just a few plays before the end of a non-contact practice, Jensen injured his left knee when rookie Logan Hall was pushed into his knee by guard Aaron Stinnie. Jensen was carted off the field with trainers holding his knee as players gathered to shake his hand and wish him well.
Since then, the status of Jensen’s injury has been cloaked in some mystery. No update of his status was ever given, but he was a regular in the Bucs’ training room and had been wearing a knee brace.
Even though Jensen injured his knee July 28, the Bucs kept him on the 53-man roster before moving him to injured reserve on the slim chance that he could make it back some time in 2022.
Two weeks ago, before the Bucs’ 34-23 loss to Cincinnati, Jensen was snapping the football to Brady during warmups.
He still faces a tough road back. He hasn’t played football in five months and his conditioning will likely be an issue. But if he can make it all the way back, it would provide a huge emotional lift as well as improve the offense.
The best-case scenario has been that Jensen could give the Bucs a lift perhaps as late as the postseason. Although a much different injury, Vea returned from a broken leg he suffered early in the season in time to play in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl 55.