Sua Opeta has been a ‘pleasant surprise’ for Bucs offensive line

TAMPA — The beard and biceps are thick. Sua Opeta is 6-foot-4, 315 pounds and the latest example of the Bucs’ belief that bigger will be better when it comes to rebuilding the interior of their offensive line.

Cut five times by the Eagles, the former undrafted free agent from Weber State took first-team reps at the vacant left guard position Tuesday when the Bucs began their second week of voluntary offseason workouts.

“I think it’s an incredible opportunity,” Opeta said. “I’ve worked really hard the past five years to get to the level of play I’m at now, and I feel like it’s definitely an open spot and I’m ready to take it.”

The Bucs used their first-round pick in this year’s draft on Duke offensive lineman Graham Barton, whom they plan to play at center. They also signed free-agent guard Ben Bredeson, who started 16 games last year for the Giants. Texas-El Paso guard Elijah Klein was added as a sixth-round pick.

Bredeson lined up at left guard with the starting unit during the first week of voluntary workouts. Opeta took those reps this past week, and the competition will continue throughout training camp.

“He’s been a pleasant surprise,” head coach Todd Bowles said Tuesday of Opeta. “He’s tough. He comes off the ball, he’s an excellent run blocker. You can’t really see the pass block until the pads come on, but right now he’s tough, shows up every day, really gets off the ball.”

While Bredeson has an edge in experience, Opeta is a study in perseverance.

The Eagles had a veteran-laden unit, considered among the best in the NFL. It included center Jason Kelce and tackle Lane Johnson, both likely future Pro Football Hall of Famers. Opeta played behind Pro Bowl guard Landon Dickerson for two years, starting only 10 games in four seasons in Philadelphia.

Then last year, Opeta broke through by starting a career-best six times, playing nearly 60% of the offensive snaps and adding his tush to the Eagles’ renowned short-yardage push.

But Opeta always wanted more opportunity to play and believes he may have found it with the Bucs.

“You don’t really think about it too much. You just kind of take on the role that you’re given at the time,’’ he said of his limited playing time with the Eagles. “But yeah, in the back of your mind, you’re kind of wondering, ‘Are there better opportunities elsewhere?’

“For me, it was just obviously seeing Tristan Wirfs there at left tackle. Offensively, they’re in a little bit of a rebuild as far as the coaching staff. It’s a good opportunity for them. They have their specific guys, so to come in and sort of have fresh eyes on you, it’s a real opportunity.”

What made the Bucs so attractive to Opeta? It wasn’t necessarily the compensation. He signed a one-year deal for the veteran minimum salary of $1.125 million that included a $250,000 signing bonus and $650,000 guaranteed. The Bucs have more invested in Bredesen, who received a $3 million contract with $1.75 million guaranteed.

It also wasn’t the system being installed by new offensive coordinator Liam Coen. “It’s different than what I’m used to, but every offense is different,” Opeta said. “I feel like I’m more used to an inside-run scheme more, and here it’s more outside and mid. It’s great.”

Wirfs is not participating in voluntary workouts as he awaits a contract extension. But he continues to be a regular in the weight room. Opeta said he was impressed by the culture he found in the offensive line room.

“The locker room culture is amazing,” he said. “Walking in the first day and, like, guys are coming up to you and introducing themselves, I feel like that’s a little bit unusual as far as what I’m used to. ... Everybody wants to work. We’re in the locker room after practices watching film, going over practice. Everybody wants to get better.”

Of course, the quickest way for the Bucs to be better on offense is by improving the interior offensive line in general and the run game specifically. Tampa Bay has owned the NFL’s worst rushing average in each of the past two seasons.

Opeta can help. The Eagles ranked eighth in rushing yards and second in rushing first downs a year ago. He was a big part of that and could bring the same mentality to the Bucs.

“As far as a confidence-booster, it was huge for me last year because I played over 500 snaps, whereas before it’d be like two or three starts a year,” Opeta said. “But to play week after week like that last year, it was a great opportunity and I feel like I ran with it. That’s what I’m trying to do here. I’m trying to run with it.”

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