The curious case of Bucs center Ryan Jensen

TAMPA — When it comes to the immediate playing future of center Ryan Jensen, the Bucs have been as vociferous as a silent snap count.

They have not gone into detail about the significant knee injury Jensen suffered on the second day of training camp in July that landed him on injured reserve for the regular season.

Aside from saying Jensen’s injury didn’t require surgery, the team also has not provided a prognosis.

Jensen began his 21-day practice window two weeks ago, and it will slam shut Wednesday. He can be activated anytime during that period.

Meanwhile, center Robert Hainsey suffered a hamstring strain in Sunday’s 30-17 loss to the Falcons in the regular-season finale and did not finish the game.

Hainsey was limited in practice Thursday, increasing the interest in Jensen’s progress and speculation about whether he could return for the NFC wild-card game against the Cowboys on Monday night.

“We’ll see how (Jensen) is at the end of the week,” coach Todd Bowles said Thursday. “He’s coming along, practicing hard, so we’ll see how he is. He’s got some tests to pass.”

However, considering that Jensen has not played since Jan. 23, 2022, when the Bucs lost to the Rams in a division-round playoff game, it seems unlikely he will be snapping the ball to Tom Brady against the Cowboys.

For starters, because the Bucs have no padded practices left under rules of the collective bargaining agreement, Jensen wouldn’t be permitted to have contact in practice.

Whatever conditioning Jensen, 31, has been able to maintain, he may not be ready to play 65 or 70 offensive snaps against the Cowboys.

It’s not the same as two years ago, when defensive tackle Vita Vea returned from a broken leg in time to play against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Vea played 33 snaps as a rotational player and only on passing downs. Teams don’t typically rotate centers.

How can the Bucs get Jensen ready to play a full game, much less one at playoff speed?

“Well, you work on his movement first,” Bowles said. “You work on all his movement, and then you progress to that point and see where he is. He’s not at that point yet. He’s having some contact, but until you turn it up more to know exactly where he is, right now it’s still the stages of beginning.”

In the meantime, the Bucs have to hope Hainsey makes a quick recovery, especially with Cowboys outside linebacker Micah Parsons coming to town.

The Cowboys move Parsons all over the field, looking to exploit the weakest link in an opponent’s offensive line. Parsons sacked Brady twice in the Bucs’ 19-3 season-opening win.

“They do a good job of disguising,” Bowles said. “It’s bad enough when (Parsons) lines up in one place, but when he moves around on you, you’ve got to know where he is at all times. He’s a game-wrecker.”

With Jensen inactive and Hainsey out against the Falcons, the Bucs turned to guard Nick Leverett to finish the game at center.

The Bucs were shut out 20-0 and managed only 38 total yards in the second half, all with Leverett at center.

“It’s definitely been awhile. I can’t think of the last time I played center, maybe the preseason,” Leverett said. “It was definitely good to go in there and get some snaps with (quarterbacks) Tom, Blaine (Gabbert) and Kyle (Trask). It was definitely different.

“I had to go back into the Rolodex and figure out some things and change up my sets. … Obviously, we wanted to win against Atlanta, and it wasn’t enough. My biggest thing is, whether I’m up at center this week, just making sure that we do everything we can to win this game.”

Leverett is thrilled that Jensen is back on the field practicing. His fire is something the Bucs have missed.

“Major kudos to him,” Leverett said. “I really look up to Ryan a lot, and I wish the best for him, whether he’s out there this week, next week, the week after, next season. I’m going to be excited to see him get back out there. It’s definitely great to see him out there with us.”

But whether he makes it back on the playing field still is in doubt.

The Bucs have options. If they beat the Cowboys, they could activate Jensen to the 53-man roster even if he isn’t quite ready to play so he would be eligible for the NFC Championship Game or Super Bowl, should they advance that far.

Otherwise, Jensen will remain on injured reserve and his season is over.

“When we get to that point, we’ll deal with it,” Bowles said. “Right now, he’s progressing and nothing has changed from last week.’’

But without confirmation from the man himself, there’s not much reason to believe Jensen will return soon.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLSTROUD.

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