Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Robert Hainsey (70) signs autographs for fans after an NFL football training camp practice Saturday, July 30, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Robert Hainsey (70) signs autographs for fans after an NFL football training camp practice Saturday, July 30, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — With center Ryan Jensen expected to miss “significant time” with a knee injury, second-year pro Robert Hainsey is hoping to make the most of an opportunity to earn a starting job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The second-year pro spent his rookie season making the transition to a new position after playing tackle in college at Notre Dame and is competing with another inexperienced lineman, Nick Leverett, for the open spot.

Jensen, a first-time Pro Bowl selection in 2021, was the first player the Bucs re-signed in free agency after Tom Brady unretired in March. The 31-year-old center —in his fifth season with Tampa Bay, ninth overall — hurt his left knee during practice on the second day of training camp.

“Don’t know the severity of it, per se, but I do know he’ll miss some significant time — up to a couple of months,” coach Todd Bowles said. “Whether he’ll be back later in the season — November or December — that depends on what they find in the knee. But he won’t be available anytime soon.”

While the Bucs have discussed the possibility of acquiring a veteran to add to the mix, Bowles stressed that Hainsey and Leverett are capable young players.

“Both of them are very smart, both are very tough. It’s better to happen now than in the middle of the season, so these guys can get some practice reps and prepare for it,” Bowles said this week. “I think either one of them will be fine.”

Hainsey was a third-round draft pick in 2021 and played 31 offensive snaps over four games as a rookie — all with backup Blaine Gabbert at quarterback.

The 23-year-old said he learned a lot watching Jensen practice and block for Brady last season. He feels even more comfortable with the switch to a new position after spending time in the offseason working out in Arizona with former NFL lineman and Bucs offensive assistant A.Q. Shipley.

“The way Ryan approaches every day and every game is with a mentality that he is the baddest dude on the field, and he usually is. ... In the locker room, and in locker rooms across the NFL, I think that means something. And I think that carries a certain level of respect. He’s that guy that’s not going to let you get away with anything,” Hainsey said.

“I’m not Ryan Jensen. That’s not who I’m trying to be. I have to be myself. But that chip on his shoulder that he plays with, if I’m out there, I think I want to have a little bit of that myself because I owe that to him,” Hainsey added. “And whoever’s out there owes that to him to continue that presence of the type of man, the type of player he is on the field.”

Bowles likes what he’s seen, noting Hainsey has made steady improvement since joining the team as the 95th overall selection in the draft.

“His film study is outstanding. He’s been a tough guy. He comes from Notre Dame, he’s very smart, he can see defenses, he can help the quarterback that way. He can help the offensive line,” the coach said. “He’s diligent about it and he wants to be good. There’s not a day he doesn’t come in and watch tape. So, it’s just a matter of putting it on tape and getting a chance to play.”

Leverett, 25, entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2020 and spent that season on the practice squad, learning to play several different positions. He appeared in two games as a backup guard last season.

Like Hainsey, he welcomes the challenge of competing for the job to play in front of Brady, adding the experience figures to make both candidates — as well as the Bucs — better.

“My mindset is to be the first one here and the last one out. My mindset is to be the hardest worker and to compete against myself,” Leverett said. “Honestly, for me it doesn’t matter who the quarterback is, it’s moreso of me being the best player I can be for my team and my teammates.”


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