The Buccaneers have perhaps the NFL's top starting WR duo but questions behind them on the depth chart, though the draft delivered a potential answer to one of them
Across 45 years, it's doubtful the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have ever felt better about their wide receivers heading into a season, at least in terms of the starting duo, than they do in 2020.
Mark Carrier and Bruce Hill were a fine duo in the late '80s but they never really put their best seasons together at the same time. Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell were a potent Super Bowl-season duo but neither was a good bet to be a long-term solution by the next year. Michael Clayton was coming off a big rookie season heading into 2005 but Joey Galloway had been hurt for a good portion of the past season; their trajectories ended up going in opposite directions. Mike Evans' rookie season coincided with Vincent Jackson's last 1,000-yard campaign in 2014 but Jackson battled injuries his last two years.
When it comes to Evans and his new cohort, Chris Godwin, it's hard to find a "but" as they head towards their third season together. Evans is still just 26, even though he already has six 1,000-yard seasons in the NFL, and Godwin is 24. Evans is still early in his second contract with the team, a lucrative one for good reasons, and getting a new deal for Godwin has already been identified as a priority. That could happen this summer or early in the fall. Both ended last year on injured reserve but that was due to hamstring strains that have long since healed. Both are extremely talented and extremely hard-working. And last year Godwin and Evans ranked second and fourth in the NFL, respectively, in receiving yards per game.
About the only question about these two is which one will go first in your fantasy football draft.
Now multiply your 2020 expectations for Evans and Godwin based on the fact that it's Tom Brady who will be distributing the football. Brady is a perfectionist in the placement of his passes and should get the ball to those two in a way that will maximize their abilities after the catch; this should be especially valuable for Godwin, who ranked third among NFL wideouts last year with an average of 6.7 yards after the catch.
It's fair to say that the picture is less clear behind that incredible starting duo, but even the question of who will be the third receiver got an intriguing potential answer last month in the person of fifth-round draft pick Tyler Johnson.
Johnson and a trio of undrafted rookies are the only 2020 additions to the Buccaneers' receiving corps so far, but that group does currently run 13 players deep, which is the exact number of wideouts Bruce Arians took to training camp a year ago. It's possible there will be some more movement at the position before the start of camp, but for the most part what the Bucs have now is what they will be choosing from to form a five or six-man group in September.
Over a six-week period in May and June, we will be taking a close look at each position on the depth chart now that the draft and most of free agency are complete. Some positions needed more attention in the offseason than others after the 2019 season, but every spot on the depth chart has seen some turnover. Today we focus on those players who hope to be catching passes from Brady in the fall.
Roster Review Schedule:
• Monday, May 18: Quarterbacks
• Wednesday, May 20: Running Backs
• Monday, May 25: Wide Receivers
• Wednesday, May 27: Tight Ends
• Monday, June 1: Offensive Tackles
• Wednesday, June 3: Guards & Centers
• Monday, June 8: Defensive Linemen
• Wednesday, June 10: Outside Linebackers
• Monday, June 15: Inside Linebackers
• Wednesday, June 17: Cornerbacks
• Monday, June 22: Safeties
• Wednesday, June 24: Specialists
The Buccaneers used the seventh-overall pick in 2014 on Evans, the highest pick they have ever spent on a wide receiver, and they haven't been disappointed. Evans arrived as a fully-formed star and has since joined Randy Moss as the only players in league history to open their careers with six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Godwin, on the other hand, is starting to look like one of the best value picks the Bucs have ever made, a third-round pick who has carried himself like a veteran since his first day at team headquarters. Godwin looked promising as a rookie, broke out in his second year and then joined Evans as a full-fledged NFL star last year. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports recently put Godwin 29th on his list of the 100 best players in the NFL in 2020.
The Buccaneers have to identify a new third receiver because Breshad Perriman used his fantastic finish to 2019 to land a big deal with the New York Jets in free agency. Tampa Bay management was able to use a large amount of cap space to keep its defensive front intact and add Brady and Rob Gronkowski but the loss of Perriman seemed inevitable.
The late-season injuries to Evans and Godwin gave second-year man Justin Watson a chance to start at the end of the season, and speedy rookie Scotty Miller turned in some big plays in the season's second half before he also suffered a hamstring injury. With the position depleted, the Buccaneers also signed and/or promoted a handful of relatively inexperienced wideouts in the likes of Cyril Grayson, Jaydon Mickens and Spencer Schnell. John Franklin joined the practice squad as a cornerback but played on offense in the season finale and is now listed as a receiver on the Bucs' roster. Former CFL standout Bryant Mitchell looked promising early in the summer but then missed the season due to a knee injury; he returns for another shot.
• Mike Evans...Second year of five-year extension signed in 2018; Sixth straight year with 1,000-yard season, with 1,157 and eight touchdowns in 2019
• John Franklin...Promoted from practice squad in December; Arrived as a cornerback but now listed at wide receiver on Bucs' roster
• Chris Godwin...Fourth year of rookie contract; Led team with 86 catches for 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns, ranking second in NFL in receiving yards per game
• Cyril Grayson...Signed off Cowboys' practice squad in December; Caught one pass for three yards
• Jaydon Mickens...Promoted from practice squad in December; 39 catches over two seasons with Jaguars
• Scotty Miller...Second year of rookie contract; 13 receptions for 200 yards and one touchdown as rookie
• Bryant Mitchell...Spent 2019 on injured reserve after preseason knee injury; previously starred in Canadian Football League
• Spencer Schnell...Signed in December; undrafted rookie in 2019 also went to camp with Bucs
• Justin Watson...Third year of rookie contract; Started two games at end of season, finished with 15 catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns
• Ishmael Hyman...Was not re-signed after spending last week of 2019 on practice squad
• Breshad Perriman...Signed with New York Jets as an unrestricted free agent; Third on team in 2019 with 645 receiving yards (on 36 catches) and six touchdown catches
• John Hurst...Undrafted free agent; 40 receptions for 654 yards and seven touchdowns at West Georgia in 2019
• Tyler Johnson...Fifth-round draft pick; 2,487 receiving yards and 25 touchdown catches in 2018-19 seasons
• Travis Jonsen...Undrafted free agent; topped 500 yards both receiving and rushing at Montana State in 2019
• Josh Pearson...Undrafted free agent; 126 catches for 2,006 yards and 30 touchdowns over last two seasons at Jacksonville State
Thanks to an historically deep pool of receiver prospects in the 2020 draft, the Buccaneers were able to land a player they think could help right away in Minnesota's Johnson. A star quarterback in high school, Johnson rewrote the Gophers' receiving record books over four seasons and is a natural at creating separation in his routes and picking up yards after the catch.
The Bucs hope of landing Johnson or a similar talent seemed to take a hit when the trades to acquire Gronkowski and move up to draft Tristan Wirfs erased their two fourth-round picks. However, an early run on wideouts quieted down in the third and fourth rounds before picking back up in the fifth, with the Bucs near the beginning of that rush. Still, the wait made Arians nervous on Day Three of the draft.
"Oh man, I can't tell you how long I was waiting to see that," said Arians afterward. "I was just shaking waiting on that one because I actually sat here and watched that [2020 Outback Bowl] game here in Tampa with my son. I said, 'I've got to get this guy.' We really wanted him, and we had a high grade [on him]. Guys were coming and going, and it was like, 'Phew, we finally got him.' I was really, really excited."
The Buccaneers' three additions from the ranks of the undrafted receivers were all big-time producers at smaller programs, so it remains to be seen how quickly they can adjust to the NFL. Watson had all but one of his 15 catches in the last four weeks of the season as injuries gave him a chance to take more snaps. Miller saw his rookie season interrupted by two different hamstring injuries but might be the fastest receiver the Bucs have. There are still a handful of potentially helpful veteran receivers on the market, including Paul Richardson and Gabriel Taylor, if the Bucs want to bring in some more experienced competition. That being said, the biggest issue still to resolve at the position is that new deal for Godwin.
Godwin isn't letting that change his mindset.
"There haven't been many conversations thus far, but honestly I'm not too worried about it," said Godwin earlier in the offseason. "They've come by and they've mentioned that [he is a priority], they've mentioned that to me, and I don't doubt that at all. I'm very confident in where I am right now. I think the biggest thing for me is coming out and continuing to prove that I can be an elite player in this league, and just being the guy that I've always been. I've always prided myself on being a good teammate, being a hard worker, and those things won't change. So if we're able to get something done this offseason or this season, then that would be awesome."
As noted above, Godwin trailed only New Orleans' Michael Thomas in receiving yards per game last year, with an average of 95.2 over 14 contests. Atlanta's Julio Jones ranked third and then Evans was next on the list with 89.0 yards per game. Godwin also tied for third in the NFL with nine touchdown catches, just one more than Evans. That duo and quarterback Jameis Winston drove the Bucs' passing attack to a league-high 302.8 passing yards per game.
Perriman, who signed a one-year deal in the 2019 offseason, was the third receiver for most of the season, missing two first-half contests, but the football simply didn't find him much until the last five weeks. That was particularly true after Evans went down in Week 13 and Godwin followed the next Sunday, as Perriman stepped in to prove he could be a viable top option in the NFL. He finished with 645 yards and six touchdowns and sprinted to the finish line with the first three 100-yard games of his career.
The Buccaneers' most common offensive formation in 2019 was "11" personnel, which includes one back, one tight end and three receivers. Tampa Bay used that package for 59.8% of its plays and overall had three or more receivers on the field for 712 of their 1,086 snaps. Godwin played 436 of his 895 snaps in the slot, so he was the team's most common slot receiver, though Perriman was also in there on 22% of his snaps.
While Godwin was very effective at picking up yards after the catch, Evans was one of the league's best at getting downfield on his routes. His average of 13.4 yards gained at the point of the catch was the fourth-highest in the NFL. Arians stuck to his "no risk-it, no biscuit" philosophy as Tampa Bay led the NFL in passing plays that gained 20 or more yards. As Prisco pointed out in his top 100 list, Godwin led the league individually with 25 such plays.
Watson's late-season opportunity allowed him to gain 159 yards and two touchdowns on his 15 catches. Miller averaged 15.4 yards on his 13 receptions. No other Buccaneer wideout caught more than three passes on the season.
Three Key Questions:
• Who will be the third receiver?
The Buccaneers will likely carry five or six receivers, with the number possibly dependent upon if any of them are solid contributors on special teams. Watson, for instance, was a core coverage man for the Bucs in 2020, and one of the young receivers might also factor into the return game. But on offense the primary third receiver is likely to be the only one to get a large number of snaps. Last year, Watson only had 27 snaps through the first 12 games, and 71 of Miller's 180 snaps came in the two games Perriman missed. All of this makes the battle for the third receiver spot critical to those young pass-catchers wanting to make a mark on offense in 2020. Obviously, the Buccaneers drafted Johnson with the hope that he could contribute right away, and he does have a good feel for the slot role, which would give the Bucs more flexibility with Godwin and Evans in their formations.
• Will there be a wild card in the wide receiver mix?
The Buccaneers group of pass-catchers behind Evans and Godwin may not be highly experienced but they certainly have some interesting stories. John Franklin played at three different colleges and was variously a quarterback and a gadget player, and then he was converted to cornerback when the Chicago Bears signed him as an undrafted free agent. The Buccaneers appear to be intrigued by what he can do on offense, and that might include some time at receiver. Cyril Grayson is a former NCAA All-American sprinter who didn't play football in college. Montana State rookie Travis Jonsen was first-team All-Big Sky as an all-purpose player after he racked up more than 500 yards both rushing and receiving in 2019. Josh Pearson put up huge pass-catching numbers at Jacksonville State. Even first-year tight end Codey McElroy, who played three different college sports, seems to operate more like a big wide receiver.
• How quickly can the receivers get on the same page with Brady?
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone, obviously, and when it comes to the NFL one of the valuable things that has been sacrificed is the offseason program. This is more of an issue for any team with a new head coach and all of the players who changed clubs through free agency or entered the league as rookies. Tom Brady, like many other newcomers on teams around the league, is getting less of a chance to get to know his teammates and how they operate on the field. Brady has acknowledged that this is a challenge but is confident that he and his pass-catchers will be able to overcome it. Assuming that the Bucs do get to hold a training camp, Brady's efforts to forge connections with Godwin, Evans and the rest of the team's primary pass-catchers will be a major storyline.