As of now, they are his two best friends.
They are supposed to protect his back. They are supposed to keep him safe. They are supposed to block out the sun.
They are Jameis Winston’s new offensive linemen. This time, you can only hope that the Bucs and coach Lovie Smith got it right.
The Bucs, hours after signing Winston to a contract, spent second-round choices on offensive tackle Donovan Smith from Penn State and guard Ali Marpet of Hobart to help take care of him. Their job? Block out everything but the criticism.
As a draft pick, it was essential. Last year, the Bucs were abysmal across the offensive line, ranking 29th in the league against the run and 29th in sacks allowed with 52. It was obvious that no matter which direction the Bucs went on offense, they were going to have to recast the offensive line.
They tried that last year, of course, throwing out the incumbent line for new faces. It didn’t work.
Suddenly, the Bucs have a lot to mold. Smith is 6-5 and 325, which gives the Bucs a chance to get that anchor offensive lineman at left tackle they need so badly. Marpet is a 6-4 and 310-pound guard, a prospect the Bucs thought enough of to trade up in the late stages of the second round.
For Winston to succeed, the Bucs have to be better on the line. If you look back over the history of quarterbacks taken No. 1, they have a few things in common. One, they usually are going to a terrible football team. Two, they don’t win often as rookies. And three, they spend much of their rookie season buried under opponents.
As much as Bucs fans may expect Winston to turn their fortunes around, it rarely happens quickly. Teams draft No. 1 because historically, they aren’t very good. And bad teams don’t often have good lines.
Think about this: Since 1975, there have been 18 quarterbacks drafted No.1 overall. They have averaged 3.5 wins per rookie season. Hall of Famer Troy Aikman didn’t win any. Neither did JaMarcus Russell or Vinny Testaverde. Eli Manning won one. Michael Vick won one.
And the sacks? It was like a cave-in. Remember David Carr, taken first by the Texans in 2002? He suffered 76 sacks his first year and 68 his second, and before long, the competitiveness had been beaten from him. Tim Couch of Cleveland gave up 56 in only 14 games in 1999.
Jeff George gave up 37 as a rookie and 56 in his second year. Testaverde gave up 18 in only six appearances as a rookie, then gave up more than 30 in five straight seasons with the Bucs.
In other words, defenses can drive a quarterback right out of this league.
The gold standard for rookie quarterbacks is the Colts’ Andrew Luck, who won 11 games as a rookie although he was sacked 41 times. Of course, the Colts had been a regular to the post-season before losing enough to win the No. 1 draft pick in 2012.
“I’m never going to say my teammates struggled,” Winston said of the offensive line. “I look forward to working with those guys and maybe I can make them better. Take them out for a couple of steak dinners maybe.”
Will that do it? Will a baked potato make Logan Mankins young again? Will it make Garrett Gilkey powerful?
From here, reinforcements seem like a good idea.
One thing that Smith does insist on that is that, despite questions, he does love the game.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I don’t think anyone who picks the draft doesn’t love the game as much as someone may say they don’t. It’s definitely a game where have to be pretty much crazy to play. The amount of hours you have to take care of your body, and work out and lift. You have to eat, sleep and breathe it. I definitely love the game. Anybody who’s questioning that, I just take it with a grain of salt and just look them off because I definitely do love the game.”
If Penn State is a familiar place for NFL scouts to look, it’s hard to say the same thing about Hobart
For instance, the Bucs knew about Smith early. It was the Senior Bowl when general manager Jason Licht and Smith really started to study Marpet.
Marpet showed at the Senior Bowl and in the Combine that he had the ability to take his game to a higher level. On a Bucs team that needed help, it was worth a look. They’ll play Marpet at guard even though he can also play center.
“We took two guys in the second round, and we moved up to get one,” Licht said. “I think it was pretty important. A lot of times, and we’ve seen it, these guys grow together and build something special.”
“I can’t tell you how excited we are about these two guys. We came into the draft knowing we had to shore up our offensive line. We got a big athletic guy who jumped out at us in Smith. Ali was the small school guy you rooted for.”
If the Bucs were right this time, they have added 40 percent of a line that should spend a lot of game days with Winston.
“Offensive line play is everything,” said Marpet, who ended up at Hobart because he weighed 235 as a high school senior.
Said Lovie: “We added two good football players.”