The Tampa Bay Buccaneers completely remodeled their defensive line this offseason. They also added some new pieces to the offensive line, injected the secondary with some youthful talent and added a potential lead runner to the offensive backfield. Most positions on Tampa Bay's depth chart saw some editing between January and May, but when it came to the receiver position, the Bucs essentially said, "Let's rack 'em up and play again."
Sure, the draft brought fifth-rounder Justin Watson from Penn, and there were the usual additions in undrafted free agency, but the top of the team's depth chart at receiver is essentially unchanged. And for good reason. The Buccaneers have reason to be satisfied at every "starting" receiver position and even have the makings of some serious competition for playing time.
With Jameis Winston distributing passes to the likes of Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Adam Humphries and Chris Godwin, the Buccaneers fielded the fourth-ranked passing attack in the NFL last year. It wasn't perfect; there were too many turnovers and not enough production in the red zone. But the talent is clearly there. The Bucs can do even better in 2018 without adding any meaningful pieces; they simply need to make the most of the talent on hand.
"We're just going to do what we're supposed to do," said Sklyer Fulton, who is in his first year as the team's receivers coach after previously working with that group alongside Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "Ultimately, we've got to come out and we've got to do the little things right consistently and we've got to play hard. If we come out and we do the little things right consistently and we play hard, I'm confident that the tape will show what our group is capable of."
As the Buccaneers' offseason workout program nears its completion, we are taking a new position-by-position look at how the 90-man roster will stack up for the start of training camp in late July. With free agency essentially over and the draft in the rear-view mirror, that roster is essentially set, though there could be a few changes on the back end before camp opens. Last week we broke down the quarterbacks and running backs. Now we look at the pass-catchers.
Today's position: Wide Receivers
Addition(s): Sergio Bailey (undrafted free agent), Justin Watson (fifth-round draft pick), Bernard Reedy (free agent), Erv Philips (undrafted free agent)
Returning Players: Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries, DeSean Jackson, Jake Lampman, Freddie Martino, Bobo Wilson
The Buccaneers have assembled this group in a typically varied fashion. Evans was the seventh-overall pick in the 2014 draft and he has proved more than worthy of that investment. Humphries is a former undrafted free agent who has developed into one of the league's more productive slot receivers. Jackson was a priority addition in unrestricted free agency last spring. Godwin is a mid-round pick (he was selected in the third round of a deep class of pass-catchers last year) who looks like he may return much more value than his draft status would indicate.
Both Martino and Wilson were on the active roster by the end of last season, and Head Coach Dirk Koetter recently noted that both young receivers were having excellent offseasons so far. Both entered the NFL as undrafted free agents, with Wilson overcoming a rocky start as a rookie last year to be one of the team's most improved players by the end of the season. Lampman was on the practice squad at the end of the 2017 season and was then re-signed to a futures contract.
The Buccaneers didn't make any additions to this group in free agency, unsurprisingly. The most significant new face in this group belongs to Watson, who dominated in the Ivy League and has a very intriguing size/speed combination. The 6-3, 225-pound pass-catcher ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at Penn's Pro Day. Fifth-round picks are no lock to have long NFL careers, but the Bucs clearly think they've added a piece for the future in Watson.
"He's big, fast, physical, smart," said Monken. "That's what you're looking for, a guy that can develop. Moving forward, those kind of guys rarely underachieve when you have that sort of measurable skill set."
Neither Bailey nor Philips got drafted, but that shouldn't exclude them from the competition for regular-season roster spots. Humphries, Martino, Wilson…it's clear that the Buccaneers are more than willing to give undrafted players a shot if they prove deserving.
Notable 2017 Numbers**: Mike Evans became just the third player in NFL history to open his career with four straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons when he caught a key 16-yard pass near the end of the Buccaneers' 31-24 win over New Orleans in last year's finale. His 1,001 yards were a career low, and he had seven fewer touchdowns than the year before, but you'd be hard-pressed to find somebody – other than Evans himself – who thought he had a down season.
"The tough thing for Mike is that everybody knows who Mike is," said Fulton. "People who don't even watch football know that you have to double-cover Mike. So when you're going into your fourth year, everyone knows that you've had three 1,000 yard seasons and you're still getting double-teamed and you get 1,000 yards? That's not a down season to me, especially when you take into account the things that people don't watch. Mike plays without the ball. The things that Mike does for us when he's not even getting the ball that people don't understand are extremely important. Mike's selflessness about playing hard without the ball and being consistent and being on the field, we're lucky to have that."
Evans remains focused on adding yards-after-the-catch to his game, but even without that bump he should remain one of the most productive players in the NFL. His size and ability to make contested catches makes him a near-perfect player for Winston's precise passing 15 to 20 yards downfield.
The least appreciated number in the Bucs' passing game in 2017 was DeSean Jackson's 13.4 yards per catch. That was the lowest mark of his 10-year career, and his three touchdowns were his worst mark in five seasons. That said, Koetter and Monken have repeatedly insisted that Jackson played as well as ever last year and that the lack of production stemmed from a difficulty to connect between him and Winston.
Obviously, the Bucs hope to solve that problem in 2018, and if Jackson can provide the type of big plays that have defined his career it will take Tampa Bay's offense to a new level. Even if that hope is not fully realized, Jackson's presence is part of the reason that the Bucs' aerial attack puts up big numbers.
"DeSean's the same as Mike," said Fulton. "DeSean can have a huge impact on the game and not have a ton of statistics. We look to statistics to see if somebody's being productive, where when you look at a guy with DeSean's speed, the things he can do to a defense, to help our offense in other areas that people don't see if you're not really watching the tape, or if you don't understand the scheme, are second to none. You show me somebody that can still stretch the field in the NFL like DeSean can, and I'll show you somebody that I don't think is real."
The Buccaneers ranked third in the NFL last year with an average of 12.2 yards per reception, and first with an average of 7.8 yards at the point of catch. Winston and his pass-catchers can clearly find intermediate-range openings and exploit them, because this offense has not been among the league's best at the deep ball. Tampa Bay ranked 20th in the NFL last year in passer rating on balls that travel more than 21 yards downfield in the air. The one exception to the team's lack of YAC is Humphries, who is adept at weaving through the crowd on screen passes.
The last notable number regarding the Bucs' receiving corps is this one: 285. That's the number of yards that then-rookie Chris Godwin piled up over the last four weeks of the NFL season. Only five players in the entire NFL had more. Monken recently referred to Godwin as a "starter," not to shake up the depth chart but to indicate that the young receiver was deserving of such a role. How much time and how many targets Godwin receives this year is the most intriguing question about the Bucs' 2018 group of wide receivers.
Key Question: Despite Godwin's future being the most intriguing question, the most important answer the Bucs will get in 2018, in terms of the passing attack, is whether or not Winston and Jackson will find that big-play connection.
Nobody in the NFL was better than Jackson at producing plays of 50+ yards during his first nine seasons, which were split between Philadelphia and Washington. Nobody could match his combination of Y@C (yards at catch) and YAC (yards after catch). Tampa Bay's impressive offensive totals for yards, first downs and third-down conversions failed to result in one of the league's better scoring units because, as noted, the red zone was a problem but also because there were as a scarcity of "explosive" plays. If Jackson and Winston can create more of those plays in 2018, it will take the Bucs' attack to another level.