Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2011 Camp Check: Tight End

Prolific pass-catcher Kellen Winslow still leads the way but rookie Luke Stocker may be a very important addition

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At some point – and everyone involved hopes that point will be sooner rather than later – the NFL's labor dispute will be resolved and the business of football will resume.  That business will include training camp, which on a normal NFL calendar would be right around the corner.

More than ever, training camp will be a period for teams to sort out the roster, identify strengths and weaknesses and address any obvious shortcomings.  Obviously, each team in the league has had plenty of time this offseason to evaluate how the depth chart stands heading into training camp…and that's exactly what Buccaneers.com is doing in this series of articles entitled "Camp Check."

Between now and the start of training camp, we will be taking a position-by-position look at the team's roster in regard to where it stands now and how it might change before or during camp.  We will compare the current depth chart to how it appeared heading into last year's camp and take a look at the position's overall performance during the 2010 season.  We'll also examine the potential of free agency impact, including the players that could potentially be available, and how commonly the Buccaneers have addressed the position on the open market in the past.

The second position to get a Camp Check is tight end, which opens camp looking quite different than it did just a year ago.  Our previous Check focused on the running backs.

[Note: Analysis in the "Camp Check" series is not meant to reflect the opinions, intentions or strategies of the Buccaneers' actual player personnel decision-makers.]

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Tight Ends Currently on the Buccaneers' Roster:

The Buccaneers currently have six tight ends on the roster, five of whom are 27 years old or younger.  The sixth, John Gilmore, is 31 but is likely to become a free agent when the league year begins.  More on that below.

The next most senior member of that crew is 27-year-old Kellen Winslow, who is also the only one of the remaining five with significant NFL experience.  The rest of the group includes two undrafted players who finished the 2010 season on the 53-man roster – Nathan Overbay and Ryan Purvis – and a pair of 2011 draftees in Luke Stocker and Daniel Hardy.

Purvis joined the team as a college free agent in 2009 and spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad before being signed to the 53-man roster (but declared inactive) for the season finale.  He started 2010 on the practice squad, as well, but got an earlier promotion and ended up playing in 10 games with two starts.  Purvis' promotion coincided with the release of veteran Jerramy Stevens and also prompted the addition of Overbay, an undrafted rookie, to the practice squad.  Like Purvis the year before, Overbay got a late promotion to the active roster but did not see any game action.  Purvis finished 2010 with five catches for 38 yards.

After drafting Stocker and Hardy in April, Head Coach Raheem Morris said that those two would battle Overbay and Purvis for eventual roster spots this fall.

Obviously, the starting spot will remain in the very capable hands of Winslow, who has been the team's leading pass-catcher each of the past two seasons since coming over in a trade with Cleveland in the spring of 2009.  Winslow is one of the most productive receiving tight ends in the league and is certain to remain in a central role in the Buccaneers' offensive game-planning.  His chemistry with young quarterback Josh Freeman is strong, and growing stronger by the year.

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Tight Ends Taken to Training Camp by Tampa Bay in 2010:

The Bucs took five tight ends to training camp a year ago, which seems to be a pretty typical number.  Often, those five are pared down to three for the active roster when the regular season begins, though the team has been known to keep four tight ends on the 53-man roster at times.  That was the case, in fact, for the final two weeks of the 2010 campaign.

The top three spots on the training camp depth chart a year ago were occupied by the same three tight ends who had seen all of the playing time in 2009: Winslow, Stevens and Gilmore.  The final two went to first-year man Purvis and an undrafted rookie named Jeron Mastrud.  Mastrud was released in the last roster cut-down before opening weekend while Purvis, as mentioned, grabbed one of the eight spots on the active roster.

The Buccaneers did try to add one more tight end to the training camp roster halfway through, claiming Martin Rucker off waivers from the Philadelphia Eagles on August 10.  However, Rucker subsequently failed his physical and was waived before ever hitting the practice field in Tampa.

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Impact of the 2011 NFL Draft on the Bucs' Tight Ends:

With the obvious exception of defensive end, where the Buccaneers used their first and second-round selections on Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, respectively, no position received more attention on draft weekend this year than tight end.  Depending upon the performances of the four young candidates behind Winslow in this year's training camp, the Bucs' tight end depth chart could be different by two-thirds when the regular-season begins.

Buccaneers management seems certain, in fact, that Stocker, the fourth-round pick out of Tennessee, will have a quick impact on the team's offense.  Tampa Bay picked Stocker because they believe he is a complete tight end – a pass-catcher and a blocker – who can immediately step in as Winslow's partner in two-TE sets.  The Buccaneers were relatively successful with that type of front last year but were also somewhat predictable, as the second tight end into the game was usually either an obvious blocker or an obvious route-runner.  The Bucs envision a two-TE set this year in which the opposition will have a much more difficult time guessing whether the ball is going to be run or thrown.

Tampa Bay surprised some onlookers by taking another tight end in the seventh round, but it was a matter of talent too good to pass up.  The Buccaneers believe that Hardy, a dynamic playmaker out of the University of Idaho program, has the potential to develop into a real NFL weapon.  His college film shows a tight end with the speed and hands to gash opposing defenses down the middle of the field.

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Buccaneers' Tight End Performance in 2010:

This mostly comes down to an evaluation of Winslow, who recorded 66 of the 87 receptions by Tampa Bay tight ends last year.  And that's a good thing for the Buccaneers, because Winslow had a second straight outstanding season in pewter and red.

By carefully managing a knee that didn't always make him available for practice, Winslow was able to play in all 16 games for the second year in a row.  He didn't start in five of those 16 games, but only because the team occasionally opened the game with specialty formations that did not include him.  Winslow was on the field for the majority of the team's plays and he was frequently in Freeman's sights.

Winslow's 66 catches in 2010 ranked seventh among all NFL tight ends and fifth in the NFC.  His 730 receiving yards was good for sixth among NFL tight ends, fourth in the conference.  He was a very consistent performer for Tampa Bay, only twice finishing a game with fewer than three catches.

Winslow's 2010 contributions came close to but did not quite match his numbers in 2009, when he arrived in Tampa and promptly put together the best season in franchise history for a tight end.  His 77 receptions and 884 yards in '09 were both new Buccaneer records for his position. The slight dip in his overall numbers did not reflect any downturn in his performance but rather a stronger set of pass-catchers for the Buccaneers overall.  In 2009, the next closest player to Winslow on the Bucs' receptions chart, Antonio Bryant, had just 39 catches.  Last year, rookie sensation Mike Williams was Winslow's equal in the passing game, with 65 grabs for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns, and running back Cadillac Williams emerged as an alternate third-down threat, snaring 46 passes.

Stevens had just three catches before his release and was not a part of the team's blocking schemes, limiting his playing time.  Gilmore provided the outstanding blocking for which he is known and also caught 13 passes for a career-best 160 yards.  Purvis proved to be a useful addition in two-TE sets and also caught the first five passes of his NFL career.

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Potential Impact of Veteran Free Agency on Tampa Bay's Tight Ends:

As mentioned, Gilmore is likely to become a free agent when the labor situation is resolved.  He's a nine-year veteran with an expiring contract, so it's hard to imagine a CBA that did not put him on the market, though he obviously could then choose to re-sign in Tampa, where he has played the last three season.

Still, a potential departure by Gilmore would seem like, by far, the most likely free agency impact on the Bucs' tight end position.  The team obviously wanted to address the position before the start of the 2011 campaign, but it did so quite thoroughly in the draft.  The team does not need to go in search of a starter who will provide them with numbers in the passing game, as Winslow is returning and has been predicting very big things for himself and the Bucs' offense.

The top pass-catching tight ends don't move too frequently on the free agency market anyway, especially in their career primes.  Most of the leaders on the TE receiving chart last year – Dallas' Jason Witten, San Diego's Antonio Gates, Washington's Chris Cooley, Jacksonville's Marcedes Lewis, Detroit's young Brandon Pettigrew – are all with their original teams.  Winslow is an exception, but he was part of a high-profile trade after a star-crossed six years in Cleveland.  Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez is also on his second team, but only after he spent 12 years and caught nearly a 1,000 passes in Kansas City.

Second-tier tight ends, if you will, are more likely to move in free agency, or former top-tier guys who are later in their career.  Recent examples of the latter include Alge Crumpler and Benjamin Watson.  Gilmore is a good example of the former group – when the Bucs signed him in 2008 he was (rightfully) considered one of the league's better blocking tight ends but he had never caught more than 15 passes in a single season.

Would the Buccaneers be in the market for such a tight end.  It's certainly possible, but it would have been much more likely if they hadn't gotten their targeted player, Stocker, in the draft.  If Winslow and Stocker are expected to get the vast majority of the playing time for the position in 2011, then it would be surprising to see the team make any significant investment in a player to fight for the third spot.  Consider also that the team believes there is NFL potential in Hardy, Purvis and Overbay, and thus there is already a good amount of competition for that spot.

On the other hand, there could be a few tight ends of note on the market this year, once it is finally open for business.  Lewis would have been the cream of the crop but the Jaguars unsurprisingly used the franchise tag on him to keep him around.  Still Oakland's Zach Miller quietly had a strong season in 2010 (60 catches, five TDs) and is an underrated player who could help a lot of teams. Houston's Owen Daniels was injured for much of 2010 but has been a prolific pass-catcher in the past and could be on some team's radar.

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Buccaneers' Free Agency History at Tight End:

The Buccaneers have had more hits than misses in this department since the first CBA went into effect in 1993, though the top two TE acquisitions in team history were both made via trade.  Four-time Pro Bowler Jimmie Giles came over from Houston in a 1978 deal that sent the top overall draft pick (Earl Campbell) to the Oilers and brought back the pick that became Doug Williams.  Winslow cost the Bucs a second-round pick in what was new General Manager Mark Dominik's first big acquisition.

However, free agent pickups at tight end along the way have included Jackie Harris, Ken Dilger and Rickey Dudley.  Harris, who came over as a rare restricted free agent from Green Bay in 1994, was the Bucs' leading pass-catcher in 1995 with 62 grabs for 751 yards.  Dilger and Dudley weren't quite as prolific, but they were both signed in the spring of 2002 and they became the team's 1-2 punch at the position during the Super Bowl year.  The Bucs have also had success with Gilmore (2008), Anthony Becht (2005) and, in a somewhat different manner, Dave Moore.   One of the more popular players in team history, Moore started a long and productive Buccaneers career in 1992 when he came over midseason after being released by the Miami Dolphins.

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Final Tight End Analysis:

Dominik and Morris have thoroughly reworked the Buccaneers' tight end position since taking over in 2009.  In 2008, the depth chart at the position featured former 2005 draft pick as the starter, backed up by Gilmore and Stevens.  Smith was traded away after the acquisition of Winslow, who has given the team more juice at the position in any two-year stretch since the days of Giles.  Gilmore and, to a lesser extent, Stevens stayed on and contributed the last two seasons behind Winslow but the latter is now gone and the former is a pending free agent, as mentioned.

The second big move Dominik and Morris made at the tight end position was the drafting of Stocker this past April, assuming he is as much of an impact player as the team believes he can be.  Stocker will have to prove that true, of course, but it seems certain that he will get plenty of opportunities to do so.  Hardy's immediate role is less certain – though he is thought to be a capable contributor on special teams, which could increase his chances – but he is obviously an intriguing talent worth watching.

The Buccaneers have a clear plan in place at the tight end position heading into 2011.  It's success depends on the continued health of Winslow and the ability of Stocker to live up to the team's expectations.  Neither is certain, of course, but if it does work out the tight end position will be enjoyable to watch in 2011.

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