The Bucs are holding their breath as they await firm details on the severity of the knee injury suffered by center Ryan Jensen Thursday morning during the second practice of training camp.
A major injury would be a blow to the Bucs’ offense, as Jensen is the tone on an offensive line that gave up the fewest sacks in the NFL last season, earning his first Pro Bowl nod last year. for his protection of Tom. Brady. When Brady came out of retirement, Jensen was the first free agent to re-sign with Tampa Bay (on a three-year, $39 million deal).
When Jensen fell during drills and was carried off the field, what had been exciting practice for spectators with the debut of receiver Julio Jones went quiet in the final minutes, with genuine concern over a potentially serious loss. .
“That usually happens when you have a player like Ryan, who is obviously a really good player, but also a great person and a leader,” general manager Jason Licht said. “His tenacity, things like that about him that define him. When a player like that gets injured and has suffered several injuries during his career without running out of time, it deflates everyone. We’ll wait to find out what it is, and hope for the best.
It could be that Jensen just has a sprain, and there are still six weeks until Week 1, so the Bucs could dodge such a big loss. It may be a few days before the swelling goes down enough for an MRI to conclusively show the damage to his left knee.
But for now, we can lay out the contingency plans of a Bucs team that has Super Bowl aspirations but a sudden hole in the middle of its offensive line. Ali Marpet is not coming out of retirement. Trading for an existing starter would be difficult, as any team that sees itself as a competitor is not going to part with a solid center on the cheap. The Bucs’ existing depth at center is largely unproven, but their flexibility to add an established veteran is limited due to the salary cap and the addition of Jones and Kyle Rudolph already this week.
Observations from Bucs Day 2 camp, from Julio Jones looking “very good” to praise for backups Anthony Nelson and Fred Johnson and a quality nod Jerry Reed from Jason Licht. https://t.co/sMVass9IIH
— Greg Auman (@gregauman) July 28, 2022
Stay Home: Play Robert Hainsey
The Bucs drafted Robert Hainsey in the third round from Notre Dame last year, and although he only played tackle in college, they moved him to center as a potential successor to Jensen. . If they hadn’t re-signed Jensen in March, Hainsey might have had the starting job up for grabs, but it’s a big downgrade for Brady to go from a Pro Bowl center to a guy who doesn’t. only played 31 offensive snaps, all out of the way. -duty with backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert at the end of four lopsided wins.
Hainsey is also in competition for the starting left guard position, but would likely be the starting center if the Bucs didn’t make any signings.
“We took Robert in the third round for a reason, because we saw a lot of potential in him,” Licht said. “We liked everything about Robert’s progress since we drafted him. We trust him.
Licht also mentioned versatile backup Nick Leverett as an option, but he hasn’t broken in a game and also has limited NFL experience with 60 offensive snaps, filling in at guard when Aaron Stinnie was injured in the middle of the game last season. If Jensen isn’t around, the three inside offensive line positions would be new this season.
Go out and sign an established veteran
If Jensen is lost for the season or even much of it, the Bucs are unlikely to move forward without at least signing a rookie-caliber veteran who can compete with Hainsey and add depth if injured again. Fortunately, there are several options among unsigned free agents with starting experience, even after the start of NFL training camps.
JC Tretter, 31, free agent (last with the Browns): He’s arguably the best option available, having started 16 games in five straight years at Cleveland. He is also president of the NFL Players Association. Pro Football Focus rated him the sixth-best center in the league last season — he had Jensen at No. 14, by comparison — but he’s also just signed a three-year, $32 million deal, so he’d probably be pretty dear at the end- July signing standards. He’s the same age as Jensen with roughly the same level of starting experience, so the Bucs could add him on a one-year deal, lowering his cap number with voidable years to drop him below the ceiling.
In theory, there should be as much urgency in replacing a starting center as there is in improving receiver depth with Jones, so there could be a similar budget and drive to free up needed cap space. . Much like Jones and Rudolph and other recent additions to the Bucs, Tretter has been in the league for nine years and has never been to a Super Bowl, so the allure of joining Brady and chasing a ring could help reduce its costs.
Matt Paradis, 32, free agent (last with the Panthers): Paradis is coming off an injury himself, having suffered a season-ending ACL tear last November, so we don’t know where he is in his recovery. Between four years in Denver and three with Carolina, he had 98 career starts, and was ranked 16th center in the league by PFF last year, near Jensen. He was the starting center for a Super Bowl championship team with Denver in 2016. But for the Bucs, responding to a sudden injury by signing a player who just underwent major surgery is a risky move. That said, Paradis just finished a three-year, $29 million deal with the Panthers and, with the injury factor, could be cheaper than Tretter.
Trey Hopkins, 30, free agent (last with the Bengals): He was Cincinnati’s starting center for the past three years, but the Bengals gave up the third-most sacks in the NFL last season, so one of their rejects might not be the the wisest investment, even in these circumstances. PFF ranked Hopkins 35th out of 39 eligible centers last year after a three-year, $20 million deal. He would be a cheaper and more experienced option to partner with Hainsey.
Billy Price, 27, giants: Price is younger and started 15 games last season for the Giants after spending his first three seasons with the Bengals, totaling 19 starts (eight guard) after being drafted in the first round in 2018. But then again, Cincinnati had a bad offensive line last year and traded Price before the season, so he wouldn’t have the proven level of play like Tretter or Paradis. He would be a cheaper option if the Bucs just wanted a veteran to partner Hainsey.
(Photo by Robert Hainsey and Luke Goedeke: Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA Today)