Offensive line prospects may entice Bucs in NFL draft

Greg Robinson, who had a breakout season in helping Auburn to a national title, is likely the first offensive lineman to go in the draft.
Greg Robinson, who had a breakout season in helping Auburn to a national title, is likely the first offensive lineman to go in the draft.
Published May 2, 2014

TAMPA — If any one position typified the upheaval and overhaul of the Bucs' offseason, it would be the offensive line, where three veteran starters from last season are gone and two newcomers are among the team's biggest additions.

With a new left tackle in Anthony Collins, signed away from the Bengals, and a new center in former Packers starter Evan Dietrich-Smith, the next task for Tampa Bay looks to be a changing of the guards.

Could the Bucs use their No. 7 overall pick in Thursday's draft on the offensive line? Doing so would likely mean drafting a prospect perceived as a tackle and sliding him inside, at least for the short-term, requiring another level of evaluation.

"You want a player that's first of all smart, because you have a lot of bullets flying around you when you go inside," first-year Bucs general manager Jason Licht said this week. "You want a player that's strong, that can bend and all those types of things."

Tackle is a deep position at the top of the draft, with Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan all seen as likely top-10 picks. Notre Dame's Zack Martin is not far behind. The Bucs see the top options as having the versatility to step inside if asked, something they made part of their interview process.

"Some players are tackles only, some tackles are left tackles only," Licht said. "It's a skill set that you look for that you can tell by the movement and the way that he plays, and then also the big important part of it is interviewing the kid and knowing his coaches and knowing how intelligent he is to make the switch."

Collins, who will be playing left tackle in the fall, has experience inside as well from his Bengals days. He said even for bigger tackles, being able to hold your own at guard is a physical challenge.

"First off, you've got to be a man," Collins said. "A lot of people are not comfortable at that position. I'm very comfortable. You have to prove it. Down in the trenches, you can't be soft. Once you're a man, everything else falls into place."

When Tampa Bay held a three-day minicamp last week, veteran guard Carl Nicks was only a spectator, still limited by the toe injury that shelved him for most of last season. Jamon Meredith, re-signed inexpensively in the offseason, can step in as one starting guard, but the Bucs almost certainly will seek another starter in the draft.

Which top tackles will be available at No. 7 when the Bucs pick? Robinson, who had a breakout season in helping the Tigers to the national title game, is likely the first to go, but if top teams take a quarterback or two, a top lineman could fall to Tampa Bay. That includes Matthews, who protected 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.

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"Matthews is pretty close to as finished as you'll see coming out of college," ESPN analyst Todd McShay said this week. "He's ready to play. He may never get a whole lot better, but if I had to bet on one guy, he'd be on a real short list of guys I'm betting are going to be really good starters in this league for a long time."

If Matthews is the sure thing, Robinson is seen as having a greater upside, less proven but with even greater potential to be an elite lineman.

"You just don't find many guys like this. … He's 6-5, 332 pounds, he runs a 4.92 in his 40. … He has 35-inch arms. It's a cab ride to get around him," McShay said. "The most impressive part of his game is explosive power. … He's the most dominant point of attack player on the offensive line I've ever evaluated."

If the Bucs address another position with their top pick, their second-round pick could line up with some of the draft's best guard prospects. Players such as UCLA's Xavier Su'a-Filo, Stanford's David Yankey and Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson could go late in the first round but might still be there when Tampa Bay picks at No. 38.

Add in a high-profile rookie, and the Bucs will have at least three new starters on the offensive line, a key position to set the tone as they rebrand themselves under new coach Lovie Smith.