Bucs hope red-headed brawler Ryan Jensen fixes O-line woes

Ryan Jensen's contract with the Bucs -- a four-year deal worth $42 million, with $22 million guaranteed -- makes him the highest-paid center in the league. Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

TAMPA, Fla. -- With his fiery-red hair, penchant for barbecuing thick slabs of meat and affinity for starting fights in training camp, center Ryan Jensen is exactly who the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wanted leading the charge this offseason in revamping their offensive line. And they're relying on him to help bring a whole new mentality.

"When they brought me in, that's one thing they wanted me to do, to push that more," said Jensen, 27. "Granted, we're in OTAs, right now, but I can tell [that] guys' mentalities are starting to get more to that vinegary-type attitude. I think it's gonna change and I think it's gonna be good."

The Bucs have wanted players who finish, who grind to the whistle and above all, guys who compete. That's something they didn't have last season, particularly in the run game. They averaged 3.74 yards per rush, ranking 27th in the league, and got pushed around way too much up front.

"You can slice and dice that any way you want to about 'piss and vinegar' and guys that chew glass and all that. It comes down to this -- either you're going to be competitive or you're not," offensive line coach George Warhop said. "There's all kinds of guys -- whether you're playing O-line, D-line, receiver or running back -- that play the game and it comes down to, 'Am I going to be a competitive guy or not?' And if you're not going to be competitive, you're not competitive [and] you're not going to survive."

That's where Jensen, whom quarterback Jameis Winston already called "one of the meanest, baddest centers out there," comes in. He's the one major change the Bucs made to their starting lineup -- aside from not re-signing Kevin Pamphile and shifting Ali Marpet from center to left guard -- but they think his presence will be widely felt.

"I am kind of a scrapper on the field," said Jensen, who has been described as a "mauler" and an "enforcer" in league circles. So much so that on the first day of training camp when he was a rookie with the Baltimore Ravens, he started a fight with 6-foot-4, 335-pound defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Jensen was a 2013 sixth-round draft pick out of Division II Colorado State-Pueblo just trying to make a name for himself. Ngata had already been to five Pro Bowls.

"I just went in and it's one of those things where you pick the fight with the biggest and baddest guy on the team and you go with it," said Jensen, who said he was forced to play that way in college when he came in as an undersized, 230-pound left tackle. "The only way I could survive was to play nasty and play physical and play through the whistle."

The two fought on more than one occasion. Jensen sees a place for the extracurricular stuff as long it's handled properly -- in practice to bump up the intensity, rather than in games -- and no one gets hurt.

"I see myself as a 'tone-setter' up front and that's the way I play the game," said Jensen, who credits Jon Runyan as one of his career's biggest influences. "Some people say I play the game like they did back in the '80s, and I take that as a compliment."

You could see that nastiness against the Oakland Raiders last season when Jensen pushed his way to the second level and knocked Marquel Lee to the ground. He then drove his shoulder into Lee's gut before standing over him.

Former teammate Mike Wallace joked that Jensen had almost four fights that day. Linebacker Terrell Suggs called him a "savage."

When Miami Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso put a vicious hit on quarterback Joe Flacco last season, resulting in a concussion, Jensen immediately knocked Alonso to the ground and ripped off his helmet in retaliation.

"He's not going to let anyone [bully] him," C.J. Mosely said. "He's always going to get the better end of it."

Despite a short fuse, which Jensen said he has learned to control more over the years, he had four total penalties in 16 starts last season. Those four penalties are fewer than all but one member of the Bucs' starting offensive line had in 2017. That's particularly important because the offense's 52 accepted penalties last season ranked as seventh most in the league, with 32 coming from the offensive line.

It's all about being smart, something the coaching staff has praised Jensen for, both in how he channels his aggressive style and in how he's picking up the offense.

"Ryan has fit right in, number one. He's fit right in with our other guys. You can tell that he's a gritty player, and that's something that we were looking for in all the guys that we added," coach Dirk Koetter said.

"Because he's got experience, he's a smart player, even though he's adjusting from the Ravens' system to our system, he's really picked things up quickly. You can just tell that he's going to make us pretty -- with him and Ali [Marpet] inside and however it ends up at right guard -- it's going to make us pretty solid inside."

Bringing his new teammates brisket at their summer cookouts is certainly helping build the chemistry they need as a unit off the field, and left tackle Donovan Smith is already starting to notice a difference in their group.

"It's great. Any time you get experience like that, a mean streak like him to come into the room and contribute, is huge," Smith said. "To be able to take all of that experience and tie that together with what we have already, the sky is the limit for us."

ESPN's Jamison Hensley contributed to this story.