On a normal NFL calendar, training camp would be right around the corner…and hopefully that will be the case in 2011, as well, even though this year has been anything but normal.
More than ever given this strange offseason, 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 wide receiver, where a group of promising rookies emerged in 2010 to make this a potential depth chart strength moving forward. Our previous Check focused on the tight ends.
[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.]
Wide Receivers Currently on the Buccaneers' Roster:
The Buccaneers finished the 2010 season with six receivers on the active roster, one on injured reserve and one more on the practice squad, and due to the labor negotiations, that's exactly the eight-man crew they have now.
Those eight receivers are a very young bunch, led by a pair of players who were rookies in 2010: Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn. Those two accounted for 25 of the 31 starts made by Buccaneer wideouts last year. Micheal Spurlock (28) and Maurice Stovall (26) are the "old men" of the group, but they are far from past their prime. Sammie Stroughter has seen an enormous amount of playing time in his two seasons in the league but the team still has a lot to discover in Dezmon Briscoe, Preston Parker and Ed Gant, the latter of which was last year's practice squad member.
The youth of the team's receiving corps is no surprise. Buccaneer management followed a specific plan to surround young franchise quarterback Josh Freeman with pass-catchers who could develop in step with him over the next five or 10 years. Freeman, Williams, Benn and the rest will have the opportunity to mature together and potentially form the most explosive passing attack in franchise history.
Obviously, Williams and Benn, the two 2010 draftees, are a central part of the Bucs' plan at receiver going forward, and the team can also reasonably expect strong contributions from Stroughter and Spurlock. Briscoe, a rookie plucked off waivers just before the 2010 season, came on strong towards the end of 2010 and will be one of the most interesting figures to watch at the position when training camp begins.
Wide Receivers Taken to Training Camp by Tampa Bay in 2010:
Those eight will surely get some company before that camp kicks off. The receiver position is usually loaded with numbers to begin training camp; last year, the Bucs began training camp with 11 wideouts, a very typical number.
That group included veteran Reggie Brown, the former Philadelphia Eagle who had come over to the Buccaneers in a low-stakes offseason trade. The Bucs used a sixth-round pick on Brown in the hopes that he could rediscover the form that made him a fairly prolific pass-catcher during his first few seasons in Philly, but Brown was eventually released at the end of the preseason. Brown initially made the 53-man roster but was then let go two days later when the team put in a successful claim on running back LeGarrette Blount.
The original 11 taken to training camp also included Michael Clayton, who was bidding to start his seventh season with the club after being taken in the first round in 2004. Clayton's outstanding rookie season had been followed by a series of less effective and often injury-plagued campaigns. He, too, would be released after the preseason, eventually ending up with the New York Giants.
Other than the aforementioned Stovall and Spurlock, the rest of the receiving group that went to camp in Tampa last summer were very young players. Williams had shown enough in offseason workouts to claim an immediate hold on the starting "X" spot, a job he never relinquished. Benn's own rookie-season arc was more gradual – he would move into the starting lineup in October – so Stovall got the first crack at the starting "Y" position. Injuries slowed him, however, and Stroughter then took over the starting spot.
Otherwise, the Bucs were sorting through the following young players: Preston Parker, Mario Urrutia, Terrence Nunn and Chris Brooks. Parker would be the on to emerge from that group, claiming a surprise spot on the 53-man roster and staying there all year, though his playing time was sporadic. Briscoe came aboard as a practice squad player on the same day that Blount was grabbed off waivers, and that move paid off down the road, as well. Briscoe came off the practice squad with five weeks to play in the season and caught six passes for 93 yards and a touchdown in the last two games.
The preseason was also very successful for Spurlock, who had primarily just been a kick returner (and a very good one) in his nomadic five-year NFL career. Spurlock had just four career receptions coming into 2010, all of them in a single game in his 2006 rookie campaign, but he proved in camp that he was a viable NFL pass-catcher and went on to snare 17 passes in an important reserve role in the regular season.
The Buccaneers originally came out of the final cutdown date with seven receivers on the 53-man roster, but that was reduced to a more typical six with the release of Brown. That is a very common pattern for the team when it comes to training camp and the receiver position – roughly a dozen go into camp, about half of which will end up on the active roster.
Impact of the 2011 NFL Draft on the Bucs' Wide Receivers:
This was one position that got less attention than usual in the draft, although that was hardly a surprise after the team added Williams, Benn, Parker and Briscoe the year before. It was fair to say that this was not a position of priority for Tampa Bay on draft weekend, though G.M. Mark Dominik and company likely wouldn't have passed on a wideout had the right player been available at the right moment.
That didn't happen, however, and for the first time since 2007 and only the second time since 2004 the Buccaneers did not draft a single receiver. Where the team's efforts to build that spot on the depth chart were most affected by the labor situation was the usual post-draft college free agent frenzy. It is a virtual certainty that Dominik would have added several receivers from among the players left undrafted, as the team is still below its usual camp level at that position. Obviously, once a new CBA is in place and teams are allowed to contact these young players, that part of the procedure will take place.
One could make the claim, as we also did in our quarterback Camp Check, that the receiver position was affected by the draft indirectly, specifically with the selections of tight ends Luke Stocker and Daniel Hardy. It's a bit more of a stretch in this instance than at quarterback, where Josh Freeman may find the Stocker-Kellen Winslow combination opening up some intriguing options for him. It's possible, though, that if the Buccaneers do make greater use of their two-TE sets thanks to the Stocker pick, that will reduce the number of three-receiver formations and occasionally even lead to only one receiver being on the field. The amount of available snaps for the entire receiving corps could go down by a small percentage, but that isn't likely to affect the number of receivers kept on the roster, or their identities.
Buccaneers' Wide Receiver Performance in 2010:
Especially given its overall youth, the wide receiver group was a very nice surprise last fall.
Williams, of course, hit the league as a fully-formed player and was good enough to already claim a place in the NFL Network's rundown of the top 100 players for 2011. Williams was quite simply a force, hauling in 65 passes for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns. That last number was the most impressive, as it set a new single-season record for Buccaneer receivers and put him in the top six in that category in the entire NFL.
Several of Williams' scores were of the acrobatic variety, including the first one of his career, a dazzling catch in the 2010 season opener against Cleveland in which he tipped the ball away from a potential interceptor, spun 270 degrees as the ball floated over his head and made a toe-dragging catch at the back of the end zone. He bookended that with an 11th TD in the season finale at New Orleans in which he simply outmuscled a Saints defender for a lob ball. Those plays showed off Williams' athleticism, strength and will, and they gave the Bucs hope that his outstanding rookie totals were only the beginning.
Benn, as mentioned, worked his way into the picture more gradually, and also missed the last game of the season due to a knee injury, but in between he showed flashes of the talent that made him a high second-round pick in 2010. Benn's strong second half made him the team's second-leading pass-catcher among wideouts (Winslow and running back Cadillac Williams had more) with 25 catches for 395 yards and two scores.
Stroughter, Spurlock, Briscoe and Parker rotated through the reserve roles and all four contributed. Stroughter continued to be a force on third downs, which has quickly become his NFL signature, while Spurlock averaged 14.7 yards per catch and had several game-changing plays in the season's early going. That included a game-winning touchdown catch in the opener against Cleveland and a sideline marvel at Cincinnati that set Connor Barth up for a chip shot field goal to pull out another win.
Potential Impact of Veteran Free Agency on Tampa Bay's Wide Receivers:
With such a young and promising group already on hand, and the ongoing plan to grow a quarterback and his receiving crew together, it doesn't seem likely that receiver would be a primary target for the Buccaneers in the eventual free agency period.
Of course, Benn is recovering from significant knee surgery and free agency could come for Stovall and Spurlock, too, so it's possible that the team will search for depth on the open market. They did so via the trade option last offseason, taking a chance on Brown even though they surely had planned to address the position in the draft.
Adding a veteran receiver through free agency would be a more complicated decision this year, however, given what will be a very truncated preparation period. It would not be a simple matter for a new receiver to arrive at the Bucs' training camp and quickly absorb the playbook.
There are certainly some interesting names potentially headed for free agency, however. The Jets have two – Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards – but they may be one of many teams placing a priority on re-signing their own free agents. Minnesota's Sidney Rice, San Diego's Malcolm Floyd and Washington's Santana Moss could also test the market. The Terrell Owens option may have gone away with his recent knee injury, but some team is likely to decide to give Randy Moss another chance.
Stovall and Spurlock, again, are potential free agents who could move in the other direction. Stovall will probably be an unrestricted free agent unless the new CBA retains last year's UFA requirement of six years of NFL service. It's a little less clear what form free agency will take for Spurlock, but he took could become a UFA if the requirement is taken back to four years. Regardless of how big of a role either player carves out in the passing game, the Bucs value both men for their special teams contributions.
Buccaneers' Free Agency History at Wide Receiver:
This has definitely been a mixed bag for the Buccaneers, though it looks better if one includes the Keenan McCardell acquisition in 2002. McCardell wasn't an unrestricted free agent, but he became available in June when the Jaguars released him for cap reasons. The Bucs pounced and McCardell had two very good seasons in Tampa, including one that ended with his two-touchdown performance in Super Bowl XXXVII.
The analysis would not include two other veteran receivers the Bucs added who went on to put up big numbers – Keyshawn Johnson and Joey Galloway – because both players were acquired via trade. That leaves the list of impact receivers acquired through free agency as quite slim. Of all the receivers in team history who have caught at least 150 passes as a Buccaneer, the only ones who arrived in that manner were McCardell and Ike Hilliard.
Hilliard was not technically an unrestricted free agent either, getting his release from the Giants before his contract was up, but he was a good addition for the Buccaneers in 2005. A consummate professional, Hilliard first made an impact as a reserve third-down weapon – much like the role Stroughter plays now – but he also spent one of his four seasons in town as a full-time starter. Hilliard caught 178 passes during that span, but averaged just 9.9 yards per catch and scored only one touchdown.
A couple other more memorable free agency acquisitions failed to work out as well, most notably Alvin Harper in 1995. A complement to Michael Irvin on the Dallas Super Bowl teams, Harper was signed in order to be the Bucs' number-one receiver at the beginning of the Trent Dilfer era, but he did not thrive in that role. Harper was also divisive off the field and he left after two seasons, 65 catches and one touchdown. Bert Emanuel, the converted quarterback and former Falcon who came over as a restricted free agent in 1998, also played only two seasons in Tampa and finished with very similar numbers – 63 catches for 874 yards and one TD. The Bucs gave former Arizona star David Boston a chance to resurrect his career in 2006, and he briefly looked promising, but Boston's past problems resurfaced before he could get on the field for even one game in Tampa.
Final Wide Receiver Analysis:
The Bucs surely like the quality at the receiver position – not to mention its youth – but will need to do some work on quantity when they have the opportunity. In order to get the position up to its usual training camp numbers, the team is likely to dip into the undrafted free agent pool when those players become available.
There should be much less uncertainty surrounding the receiver depth chart when the 2011 training camp begins than there was a year ago, although Benn's recovery from his injury will be an initial question mark. He is expected to be fully ready for the 2011 season, however, so it's likely that the team already has its two starters in place. Freeman's growing chemistry with his two fellow twenty-somethings suggest that both Williams and Benn will post even better numbers in their second seasons. Benn, in particular, could be much more prolific in his second season now that he has a full grasp on the offense.
The rest of the crew is admittedly unproven, though there is a lot of intriguing potential in two more players who were rookies last year, Briscoe and Parker. Briscoe, in particular, was just emerging as a real threat when the 2010 season came to an end. Like Spurlock, Parker brings added value to the receiver depth chart with his ability to return kicks.
Assuming a healthy Benn from Day One, the receiver position is poised to become a real strength for the Buccaneers, and that is something the franchise has only been able to say on a few occasions in the past.