TAMPA — In their haste to overhaul a leaky offensive line, the Buccaneers might have jettisoned a keeper.
The Baltimore Ravens can’t say enough about one of Tampa Bay’s castoffs, Jeremy Zuttah.
A third-round pick out of Rutgers in 2008, Zuttah proved his versatility during his six seasons in Tampa before the Bucs dealt him to Baltimore in March for a fifth-round choice in the 2015 draft.
Zuttah isn’t known for his physicality, but he was an effective player in a variety of spots. Of his 76 career starts with the Bucs, 41 came at left guard, 30 at center and five at right guard.
The Ravens, who couldn’t block for the run or pass protect adequately in 2013, were desperate for an upgrade at center and Zuttah already has displaced incumbent Gino Gradkowski, younger brother of former Bucs quarterback Bruce Gradkowski.
“The thing about Jeremy is he is a professional in every way,’’ Ravens offensive line coach Juan Castillo said. “He is smart and he studies the game.’’
While Zuttah has made a smooth transition in Baltimore, where the Ravens will implement a zone-blocking scheme under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, the Bucs face some concerns along their offensive line.
Right tackle Demar Dotson is the only returning starter up front, following the retirement of former Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks.
Left tackle Donald Penn, 31, was released in the offseason, along with guard Davin Joseph, who turns 31 in November. Both were making a lot of money and neither Joseph nor Penn performed anywhere close to his contract last fall.
But Zuttah is only 28. He agreed to a five-year deal with the Ravens for $18 million, including a $3.5 million signing bonus.
Baltimore’s 8-8 record last year as defending Super Bowl champion can be traced predominantly to problems up front.
Joe Flacco was sacked 48 times and the Ravens averaged only 3.1 yards per carry — the lowest mark in franchise history.
Zuttah’s presence in the middle produced immediate results in last week’s preseason opener as Baltimore trounced the 49ers 23-3, rolling up 194 yards on the ground.
“Jeremy is a really intelligent guy,’’ Ravens tackle Eugene Monroe said. “He’s putting us in the right places every play.’’
With Zuttah making the line calls, the Ravens are starting to believe they can recapture the form up front that led to a championship. Flacco and running back Ray Rice suffered major dropoffs in 2013, in large part due to issues along the line.
While Zuttah is far from a dominant player, his experience and cool demeanor have had a soothing effect in Baltimore, where Flacco was routinely forced to throw on the run last fall.
“It’s going really well,” Zuttah said. “It’s a new offense, not just for me, but for everybody. We start on the same page.’’