TAMPA — Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp was holding court at One Buc Place the other day, talking all things football. Among the topics he touched on was the current state of guard play in the NFL.
It’s not good, Sapp said.
“I don’t see any guards in the league,’’ Sapp said. “There are no guards. The Seattle Seahawks took J.R. Sweezy, a defensive end, and made him a guard and won a Super Bowl. He had never blocked in his life. That’s how bad it is.”
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can relate.
If there is one position group the Bucs’ hierarchy admits it is a little anxious about, it’s the guard spot. And their anxiety was in place even before two-time Pro Bowl left guard Carl Nicks retired a day into training camp.
Speaking on the eve of training camp last week, Bucs general manager Jason Licht said he felt very good about left tackle Anthony Collins, center Evan Dietrich-Smith and right tackle Demar Dotson.
As for the guards, the best Licht could say was there would be an open competition for the two starter’s jobs. But he also planned to continue scouring the league, even the streets, for better options.
He has good reason to keep looking. The Bucs opened camp last week with sixth-year veteran Jamon Meredith and seventh-year veteran Oneil Cousins at the top of the depth chart at left and right guard, respectively.
Neither seems like an ideal fit. Both came to the Bucs as free agents this offseason — Meredith was re-signed, while Cousins came from Cleveland — but neither was at the top of the class of available players.
In its free-agent rankings compiled by former Indianapolis Colts president and general manager Bill Polian, ESPN gave Meredith a grade of C, while Cousins received a D.
Their hold on those jobs, then, would seem tenuous at best. Indeed, it didn’t take long before the Bucs started to take a look at two other potential starters in those spots.
On Monday, the team’s second day in pads, rookie Kadeem Edwards took all of the first-team reps at left guard, while second-year pro Patrick Omameh took all but three of the first-team reps at right guard.
“They’re all going to get reps right now,’’ said Bucs coach Lovie Smith, who added over the weekend that it is largely due to their experience that Meredith and Cousins started camp at the top of the depth chart.
They are the team’s most experienced candidates, after all. In a group consisting of Meredith, Cousins, two rookies, two first-year pros and one second-year pro, Meredith’s 23 career starts, including seven at left guard last year, are tops.
Cousins is next with nine career NFL starts. And while two of those came in season openers, he has never been able to hold onto a starter’s job for longer than a month.
Whether he and Meredith hold onto their current jobs will depend primarily on how they perform in padded training camp workouts and preseason games. It will also depend on how the players behind them perform in the same settings.
“The thing about it is, you never know who’s going to start,’’ Meredith said. “That’s why you always have to prepare like you’re going to be the starter. It’s just like being the quarterback. All it takes is one play and you’re in there.
“We know this is not a set group. The next time out there it may be someone else in those spots. Eventually, out of the (seven) candidates, two will start. So, we all have to be ready.’’
Licht is readying himself for any possibility, including that the Bucs will fall back on Meredith and Cousins as their starters and go with them the entire season.
“You can look across the league and find a lot of guys who found their niche or their groove later in their careers, and that could happen here with some of the guys we have,’’ Licht said.
“If not, there are going to be a lot of avenues for us to add to this mix. And one of them is right here on our own roster, because I really do think we’re going have some options there.
“We have some guys there that have really taken a good step from June until now just in terms of their technique and knowing what they’re supposed to be doing. We’re excited about that so let’s just see how this works out.’’