J.R. Sweezy relishes return to field after 'hardest year of my life'

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive line struggled last year. No one took that harder than guard J.R. Sweezy, who missed the entire season with a back injury.

“It was the hardest year of my life," said Sweezy, 28. "Just not to play football and to be with a new team -- it [was] pretty much the worst possible scenario."

The Bucs signed Sweezy to a five-year deal worth $32.5 million last offseason. He was expected to solidify the starting left guard position after the retirement of Logan Mankins. But he suffered a disc-related injury that required surgery and forced him to miss everything, from OTAs on.

In addition to Sweezy's absence, the Bucs had to rely on six running backs because of injuries to Doug Martin, Charles Sims, Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith. The ground game fell from fifth in the league in 2015 (125 YPG) to 24th in 2016 (101).

Their avereage of 3.6 yards per carry was 29th in the league after averaging 4.8 the year before. Their 24 negative rush plays up the middle were a league-worst. They produced just eight rushing touchdowns last year, second-fewest.

The Bucs also surrendered 109 quarterback hits, fifth-most in the league. Quarterback Jameis Winston was pressured on 166 pass attempts last season, the most of any quarterback.

Prior to last year, when he was with the Seattle Seahawks, Sweezy had missed just one regular-season game in three years.

"It [sitting out the year] taught me a lot about patience and I got to spend a lot of time with my daughter. She was born last year. So it was a blessing in disguise. I'm just glad to be back," Sweezy said. "It's just getting back into the swing of things is the hardest part right now, but again, just super excited to be back out here."

Sweezy was given clearance to resume football at the end of last season and has had no limitations during OTAs. He's been lining up at the right side, and his replacement last year, Kevin Pamphile, is now lining up on the left, with Ali Marpet shifting to center.

Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter is pleased with what he's seeing right now and believes having Sweezy back is an instant upgrade.

"J.R. is off to a fast start," Koetter said. “Many people have said that we didn't do anything to address our O-line. I would flip that around and say one of our top free agent gets from the year before -- he was out all last year. He's looked awesome out here."