Buenning example of O-line shuffle

Dan Buenning is the latest example of the volatility of the Tampa Bay offensive line. Less than a year ago he was a starter at left guard. Now he's learning a new position — center. The entire offensive line has undergone a difficult makeover since 2005, when all five starters make it through 16 regular-season games and contributed to a NFC South title.

A year ago at this time Dan Buenning was an unquestioned starter. Now, he's fighting for his job.

And that job he's fighting for isn't even the same job he held down last year. Buenning was a starting left guard last year before an ankle injury in his final preseason game triggered an injury-riddled 2006, which ended with a season-ending knee injury.

Now his job is to learn how to play center. That's his future, head coach Jon Gruden said in April after the Buccaneers decided to select Tennessee guard Arron Sears in the second round of the draft, and signed free agent guard/center Matt Lehr in the offseason.

This week during mini-camp Buenning is working out, albeit with a brace on his knee and not in 11-on-11 drills. The extent of his work revolves around snapping the ball to the quarterback during passing drills. Buenning won't enjoy a full workout until training camp in a month.

By then he may be so far behind that it won't matter, Gruden concedes.

"He (Buenning) had a serious injury and he had a serious operation," Gruden said. "He's done some serious work in rehab on the knee and he'll be ready for training camp, and if he's not then he won't be starting. He won't be a guy that gets a chance to play."

It's a critical season for the offensive line, which, like much of the offense, has endured inconsistency since the Bucs' Super Bowl championship in early 2003. With Kenyatta Walker's release in March, the last link to that starting line (Walker, Jeff Christy, Kerry Jenkins, Roman Oben and Cosey Coleman) disappeared.

"We've had to address every position on the line (in recent seasons)," Gruden said in April.

The only consistent performance by the unit since the Super Bowl came in 2005, when all five starters (Walker, Sean Mahan, John Wade, Buenning and Anthony Davis) started all 16 games en route to a NFC South title.

Buenning was a rookie. Davis, an undrafted free agent, was practically a rookie, having never started a NFL game. Many thought that was the future of the left side of the line at guard and tackle, respectively.

Now, less than two seasons later, the line is being drastically reshaped and Buenning is a poster boy for how quickly things can change.

Second-year tackle Jeremy Trueblood (6-8, 320) has Walker's spot on the right side. He started 15 games last season as a rookie. Second-year right guard Davin Joseph (6-3, 313) has taken over for Mahan, who is now in Pittsburgh. Joseph missed the first four games of last season to injury, but returned to start the final 12 games alongside Trueblood.

Wade (6-5, 299) is still inside at center, but he'll have to fight off both Buenning (6-4, 320) and Lehr (6-2, 304) to keep his job. With Buenning in limbo, Sears (6-3, 319), who has missed the first two days of mini-camp, and Davis (6-4, 322) are competing for the left guard position. Veteran tackle Luke Petitgout (6-6, 315), signed in the offseason, is the unquestioned starter on the left side.

On opening day in Seattle, Wade may well be the only lineman left from that 2005 team playing at the same spot. Davis could be at left guard, but the Bucs seem intent on allowing Sears every opportunity to win the job.

If he does, that will give the Bucs a rookie offensive line starter for the third straight season. Plus, the Bucs would have three linemen with less than two years of NFL experience.

It's a gamble to trust that many spots up front to such young players, but Gruden believes the talent of Joseph, Trueblood and Sears justifies that. He said the Bucs are attempting to build a line that will be formidable for years, not just a season. To do that, he thinks it's smarter to draft and develop players than trying to fill the gaps with a group of free agents. Apparently he learned from the disaster of 2004, when the Bucs attempted to do just that and injuries and lack of depth contributed to a 5-11 season.

"Sometimes the best way to do that (build an offensive line) is in the draft," Gruden said. "(Eric) Steinbach just got $18 million to become a guard for the Cleveland Browns. Just going into free agency and accumulating linemen is not as easy as it appears."

Steinbach, ironically, was a player the Bucs wanted to meet with, but were unable to because Cleveland signed him less than a day after his visit.

Gruden is especially high on Joseph, who he believes will emerge as the leader of this unit, much like Derrick Brooks at linebacker or Chris Hovan at defensive tackle. It's a role he filled capably at the University of Oklahoma under head coach Bob Stoops.

"I've told him that and I expect him to do that (lead). He did it for Stoops; he ought to do it for me," Gruden said.

Gruden guarantees there will be "legitimate competition" at every position. There will be competition at most positions, but the reality of how that competition will go is less uncertain. The only way Trueblood, Joseph and Petitgout will lose their spots is if they suffer a season-ending injury or play so horribly Gruden has no choice but to make a change. The only two positions really open for debate are center and left guard.

Wade is entering his 10th season. It was thought Mahan would be the center of the future, but he was never unable to unseat Wade. Mahan's fine work at both guard positions probably contributed to that, and with the talented Notre Dame product gone, the Bucs must find an eventual replacement for Wade.

Lehr is a good stop gap, but three different teams have released him in his career. He's a swing center-guard like Mahan, only less talented. Wade will likely win that competition.

Sears will get every chance to win the job, and Davis' best chance is to prove that the Bucs cannot live without him in the starting lineup or if Sears isn't up to starting in the NFL as a rookie. Davis has always been a proficient lineman, but has never exhibited dominating skills. The Bucs believe Sears can be a dominating guard, as he was named the SEC's best interior lineman last year.

And Buenning? Well, Gruden said he'll get reps at both center and left guard. In reality he appears to be locked in a battle for just one more roster spot, likely with rookie seventh-round pick Chris Denman and second-year tackle Donald Penn.

That's a battle that difficult to win when your first practice doesn't come until July.

Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. Included among his more than two dozen writing and editing awards are national awards from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors, and state awards from the Florida Press Club and the Florida Sports Writers Association, for his coverage of the Buccaneers since 2004.

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