It is a testament to the depth of talent in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' receiving corps that it could lose a pair of players responsible for 1,500 receiving yards in 2018 and still be in very good shape heading into 2019.
Of course, the Buccaneers have one of the best and most consistently productive pass-catchers in the league in Mike Evans, and that's a good start for any group. And even though Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson are now in different uniforms, the Bucs still have a superb complement to Evans in the rapidly rising Chris Godwin. There are some interesting pieces behind those two, as well, though it remains to be seen how new Head Coach Bruce Arians and his staff will arrange them all.
Though the starters seem clear, the receiver position will be an interesting one to watch in training camp. In addition to free agent Breshad Perriman and draftee Scotty Miller, the Buccaneers brought on four more undrafted rookies and also have a steadily-improving Bobo Wilson back for a third year. There will be an intense competition for roster spots and, after that is decided, a lot of ways the game reps can be divided.
The Buccaneers begin their OTA practices this week, which will mark the first time (other than a voluntary mini-camp in April) that receivers and defensive backs can work against each other. The real competition begins in training camp later in the summer, however, and the Buccaneers likely have their camp roster 95% set at this point. While there could be a few tweaks to the 90-man list here and there, most of that process is done with the draft and the majority of free agency in the rear view mirror. As such, we are taking a position-by-position look to see how things have changed and where the Bucs stand at each corner of the depth chart heading into the new season.
Addition(s): Anthony Johnson (undrafted free agent), DaMarkus Lodge (undrafted free agent), Scotty Miller (sixth-round draft pick), Breshad Perriman (unrestricted free agent), Cortrelle Simpson (undrafted free agent), Malik Taylor (undrafted free agent)
Subtraction(s): Sergio Bailey* (waived), Adam Humphries (unrestricted free agent, signed with Tennessee), DeSean Jackson (traded to Philadelphia), Bernard Reedy* (practice squad contract expired)
Returning Players: K.J. Brent*, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Justin Watson, Bobo Wilson
(* Brent and Reedy were on the practice squad and Bailey was on injured reserve at the end of the 2018 season.)
As strong as this position obviously is, there is the possibility for quite a bit of turnover this year. That said, there are two very good constants in Evans and Godwin, who could emerge as one of the most productive duos in the league in 2019. They happen to be a perfect fit for Bruce Arians' offense, according to wide receivers coach Kevin Garver. Evans should continue to thrive as the 'X,' or split end, while Godwin will fill the 'Z,' or flanker spot…and perhaps a bit more.
"The biggest thing with Mike is his size," said Garver. "He's got great size to him, he's got great speed. For me, I think he's kind of been a true 'X,' what we think of as a true 'X' in our offense. He's been the best that I've been around thus far with our offense and what we're looking for with that particular position."
Evans is coming off his best season, which is saying something as he is one of only three players in NFL history to open his career with five straight 1,000-yard receiving campaigns. He really doesn't need to improve on his 1,500 yards and nearly 18 yards per catch from last year to be one of the very best in the league. Godwin, meanwhile, is a player on the rise. He produced 842 yards on 59 catches last year while essentially sharing a starting spot with DeSean Jackson. That timeshare is over. At the league meetings in March, Arians suggested that Godwin could threaten the 100-catch mark, in part because he might add some work in the slot to his main role as the flanker.
The Bucs do have some other options for the slot, most notably sixth-round draft pick Scotty Miller, who ran a 4.30-second 40-yard dash at Bowling Green's Pro Day, showing off the raw speed that goes with great short-area quickness. Miller is a bit small for the position, but that has only served to give him a permanent chip on his shoulder.
"I'm excited about Scotty," said Garver. "The one thing that jumps out is his speed, we saw that on film. We were very intrigued by him. It's going to be a curve, it's going to be a learning curve for him. Rookies, every one of those guys is going to have a learning curve to him. But I like that he's himself. He's got a little bit of swag to him. We want guys to be themselves. We want guys to have personality and be themselves and be able to go out there and make plays. I think that's something he's going to be able to do."
Miller could also factor in as an outside receiver simply due to his straight-line speed, which could pull coverage away from other targets. However, the Buccaneers picked up another option for that role in free agency when they signed former first-round pick Breshad Perriman. Injuries derailed Perriman's start in Baltimore but he landed in Cleveland midway through last year and looked like the deep threat the Ravens had initially expected him to be, as he averaged 21.3 yards on 16 catches in the second half.
Sometimes you have fast and quick guys. BP is more of a guy that's kind of a long-strider. He's a taller guy, a bigger guy, so he can kind of build up speed as he goes. So sometimes it's more of a deceptive speed than the initial quickness that you guys probably notice. We were really intrigued by the film from last year and what he did in Cleveland. I think when you go back and look at not just the plays where he was catching the ball, the targets, you saw the plays where it wasn't coming to him and you saw his ability to stretch the field. So he can do that. But I think that's not going to be his only role in our offense.
There is a lot of depth to sort through after those four, including young holdovers Bobo Wilson and Justin Watson and a quartet of undrafted free agents. The Bucs are intrigued by the potential of rookie signees Anthony Johnson and DaMarkus Lodge in particular; both are big guys with speed who many felt would be selected in the draft. Watson is just a year removed from being a fifth-round pick and has a lot of untapped potential. Wilson played the last five games of the season last year and proved to be a spark in the return game.
"The biggest thing with Bobo is just being consistent," said Garver. "Coming in as an undrafted free agent, he's working to that point. But I think he's a very talented guy and I like him in the room, and on the field. You get that on the field a lot more than you do in the room."
Notable 2018 Numbers: The receiving numbers from last year are good across the board.
Evans not only set a single-season Buccaneer record for receiving yards, good for third in the NFL, but also averaged nearly 18 yards per catch. That's a rare combination; Evans is just the ninth player in league history to average at least 17 yards a grab in a season in which he also surpassed 1,500 yards. Oh, by the way: He's still only 25 years old. That's another good number.
The Buccaneers led the league in passing yards last year and also finished second in yards per catch at 13.1, behind only to Kansas City's 13.3. There was a huge difference in how those two averages were achieved, however. While the Chiefs gained 2,669 of their receiving yards after the catch, second-best in the NFL, the Buccaneers were 21st in that category at 1,777. That suggests the possibility for even more production out of Tampa Bay's receivers if they can more consistently catch passes with room to run.
Evans and Godwin are two players who should be major weapons in the red zone, the former due to his size and ability to pull down contested catches and Godwin due to his combination of size and quickness of the line. The Buccaneers were 14th in the league in red zone touchdown percentage last year, at 60%, which is fine but still leaves room for improvement.
As noted above, the Buccaneers are now without two receivers – Humphries and Jackson – who combined for 1,590 yards and nine touchdowns. That opens up quite a bit of opportunities for targets for up-and-coming players, but it remains to be seen which of the receiver candidates will step up.
Key Question: How much can Chris Godwin produces if he "never comes off the field?"
Expect this to be a popular topic among fantasy football players in August.
Arians' suggestion for Godwin's catch ceiling back in March kicked off a Twitter flurry, a lot of it fueled by fantasy players in search of players who can wildly exceed their expected draft position. That's a fun topic, but Arians certainly wasn't thinking about fantasy football when he made that proclamation.
Simply put, Godwin may be on the verge of an enormous breakout. The former third-round pick was frequently and consistently praised by the Bucs' former coaching staff during his rookie season, but he was limited to "just" 34 catches and 525 yards in 2017 because there were only so many reps to go around. After achieving "co-starter" status with Jackson last year, Godwin nearly doubled his production and, most notably, improved from one touchdown in 2017 to seven last year.
Now there is no co-starter to worry about. In addition, the Buccaneers are tossing around the idea of giving Godwin work in the slot as well as at 'Z,' which is what prompted Arians to say that Godwin might never come off the field. That's a bit of hyperbole, but maybe only a bit, and it's the reason why 100 grabs might actually be in play for the third-year pass-catcher.
"We're kind of playing with the slot receiver right now, as far as some guys that are playing in that particular position, and he's been one of those guys," said Garver. "I think his knowledge helps him, he's a very smart guy. But he's also talented. He's played more of a 'Z' position in our offense and what I saw on film before, so trying him out on the inside there will help him be on the field. But ultimately that's going to be up to him. But I think that he does have it, and I think his initial quickness off the line of scrimmage is something I've really noticed with him."
Jackson and Humphries and their 1,500 yards are gone. It seems as if Godwin may be the answer to replace some of the production provided by both of those players. As such, it's easy to see him improve from around 850 yards last year to four digits in 2019. As the obvious number-one option, Evans is likely to remain the team's top producer, but there's every reason to believe that Godwin will give the Buccaneers a pair of 1,000-yard receivers for just the second time in franchise history.