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Bucs Hope OG Will Return In The Nicks Of Time

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A chronic toe injury forced Bucs OG Carl Nicks to miss most of last season, but Tampa believes he will be ready to return on opening day against the Jets. Photo by Tom Dahlin/Getty Images.
A chronic toe injury forced Bucs OG Carl Nicks to miss most of last season, but Tampa believes he will be ready to return on opening day against the Jets. Photo by Tom Dahlin/Getty Images.

Shortly after being named head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Greg Schiano set forth a plan to build a physical, run-first football team molded around a strong offensive line. With the roster lacking talent in the backfield and holes along the front line, the former Rutgers coach knew he would need to take advantage of a strong free agent market and have a solid draft to bolster a team with plenty of holes. The Buccaneers ended up going on a massive spending spree, as the team gave lucrative five-year contracts to WR Vincent Jackson, OG Carl Nicks and CB Eric Wright. These three talented veterans were supposed to be perfect fits for Schiano’s system, but the contracts have yielded mixed results as the head coach enters his second season running the team.

Overall, the Buccaneers had a decent first offseason with Schiano in charge as the team drafted budding star Doug Martin out of Boise State to become the starting running back and Jackson put together a strong first season in Tampa Bay. Martin rushed for close to 1,500 yards as a rookie and he should continue to improve, while Jackson and recently re-signed wideout Mike Williams should give the Bucs one of the NFL’s most feared receiving duos for years to come. While those moves have turned out to be quite successful, the team’s contract offer to Wright ended up being a huge mistake, as the team tried to trade him to the 49ers this summer and ended up having to release him after he failed a physical. Wright contributed just 37 tackles and one interception in his only season in Tampa, and off the field problems gave the team no choice but to release him. He eventually ended up with the 49ers as a free agent and the team ended up receiving no compensation in return, but the coaching staff sees his removal as a positive.

The Buccaneers probably would not sign Wright again if they could have a redo, but it is yet to be seen whether or not the team made a wise investment bringing Nicks on board. In order to establish a physical brand of football with his new team, Schiano knew he needed to upgrade the offensive line, especially in the interior. Nicks had developed into one of the league’s premier run blockers while playing for the New Orleans Saints, and his stock continued to skyrocket after earning All Pro recognition in 2011. As he entered free agency, multiple teams attempted to sign him away from the Saints and the competition for his services drove up the price to land the prized run blocker. Star offensive linemen rarely hit the open market, but the Saints were willing to part ways after they signed Ben Grubbs away from Baltimore as a capable replacement. With returning to New Orleans out of the picture, Nicks opted to join Tampa Bay and signed a five-year, $47.5 million deal to play alongside star guard Davin Joseph. With these two tanks playing in the interior of the line, Schiano believed his team would be able to control the line of scrimmage and successfully implement a power running game. What had been one of the team’s biggest weaknesses entering the offseason had suddenly transformed into one of its biggest strengths.

The Bucs never had a chance to see how the offense would function with both players in the lineup, however, as Joseph suffered a season-ending knee injury during the preseason. Nicks started the year off strong and played a pivotal role in paving running lanes for Martin, but he suffered a nasty turf toe injury during early October. He attempted to play through the injury for several weeks, but his condition deteriorated to the point where he could no longer play through the pain and his season came to an early end. With both Nicks and Joseph out of the lineup for the entire second half of the year, the running game struggled down the stretch and QB Josh Freeman found himself under constant pressure. The Bucs ended up losing all but one of the team’s final six contests, and an injury-battered offensive line played a critical role in the late-season swoon.

As the 2013 season quickly approaches, Schiano and his staff may finally get to see Nicks and Joseph on the field together but expectations have been tempered as both players return from serious injuries. Of the two players, Joseph appears most likely to bounce back, but neither seems to be a lock to return to pre-injury form at this point. Nicks’ condition remains concerning, as he told reporters last week that he most likely will have to deal with his toe injury for the rest of his life. As noted by former NFL offensive lineman Ross Tucker for the Sporting News, the fact that the injury has affected Nicks' ability to walk and stand correctly makes him wonder how “effective he’ll be if he can take the field” and his condition also brings potential for early retirement to the table. Management has to hope that Nicks can play through discomfort, or his contract would be deemed another failure for the organization.

Both Nicks and Joseph opened camp on the PUP list and have been limited for most of training camp, but both players have taken critical steps toward returning to the field. Nicks flew with the team and participated in joint practices against the Patriots last week, but Schiano opted to keep him inactive for last Friday’s game as a precaution while Joseph stayed in Tampa Bay to continue strengthening his surgically-repaired knee. Thanks to an infected blister on his injured toe, Nicks most likely will not be active against the Dolphins, but the staff remains hopeful he will be ready for the season opener in New York.

Quarterbacks and skill position players receive all the accolades and glory thanks to fantasy football, but offensive linemen play a crucial role in how far a team can advance in this league. Tampa Bay needs to keep its fingers crossed that Nicks can continue to perform at an All Pro level on a chronically injured toe and that Joseph can make it all the way back from an ACL tear or it will not matter how much talent management has brought in elsewhere. Play in the trenches wins Super Bowls and these two franchise cornerstones must be back at full strength for this squad to reach its maximum potential.