Robert Hainsey steps into crucial role along Buccaneers offensive line unit

Luke Easterling
Bucs Wire

Just two days into training camp, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are already facing a monumental challenge after Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen was carted off the field during Thursday’s practice with a knee injury.

Early reports suggest it won’t be good news for Jensen and the Bucs, and that a replacement might be needed for more than just a few practice reps.

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While some will be quick to round up a list of free-agent names the Bucs could consider to replace Jensen in the starting lineup, their best option is already in the building.

When the Bucs spent a third-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft on Notre Dame’s Robert Hainsey, he had played his entire college career at right tackle. But during Senior Bowl week, Hainsey proved he had the versatility and coachability to slide inside, working at both guard and center.

May 25, 2022; Tampa, FL, USA;  Tampa Bay Buccaneers  guard Luke Goedeke (67) and Robert Hainsey (70) participate in organized team activities at AdventHealth Training Center Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay took notice, and started grooming Hainsey as the backup to Jensen at center last year.

Heading into this season, Hainsey was preparing to compete for the starting left guard spot, vacated by the retired Ali Marpet. Now, he might be thrust into the starting lineup at center, to replace one of Tom Brady’s most important resources.

Can a second-year player be up to the task, as the Bucs look to make another Super Bowl run with the GOAT?

Tristan Wirfs, Tampa Bay’s All-Pro right tackle, has tons of confidence in his young teammate:

Hainsey spent part of his offseason training in Arizona with A.Q. Shipley, who spent 12 years as an NFL center. After an injury ended his final NFL season with the Bucs in 2020, Shipley moved into a coaching role in Tampa Bay for the 2021 season, Hainsey’s rookie year.

Carmen Vitali of The Draft Network paid a visit to Shipley and Hainsey this summer to see the progress first-hand. 

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"Shipley comes at Hainsey from different angles, sometimes with a padding buffer, sometimes just as if he’s a defender trying to get to the imaginary quarterback sitting behind him," Vitali wrote. "Defensive linemen are taught to hit offensive linemen’s hands as a way to throw them off. But there are counter moves an offensive lineman can react with, moves that can save his leverage and therefore, his quarterback.

"They combine technique with even more conditioning, ensuring Hainsey will hold up once camp begins in the humid Florida heat on Tuesday. It’s also ensuring Hainsey won’t have to think to deploy the lessons learned in Arizona. Rep after rep creates a muscle memory that is crucial to elite offensive line play." 

Afterwards, Shipley gave a glowing endorsement for Hainsey. 

"This kid’s gonna be good," Shipley told Vitali.

It looks like the Bucs will need him to be, and considering he’s already got a year of experience in the offense, Hainsey could end up being Tampa Bay’s best bet to replace Jensen if they want to keep their Super Bowl hopes alive.

Wirfs and Shipley aren’t the only ones who believe in Hainsey’s ability to step up in Jensen’s absence. Earl Watford, who played for the Bucs in each of the past two seasons, including Hainsey’s rookie year in 2021, gave his vote. 

While the Bucs might be tempted to look for a more veteran replacement, Hainsey has the confidence of his teammates, and he’s clearly put in the work this offseason to prepare himself to be a starting-caliber blocker.