The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are probably not particularly close to figuring out which candidate – or candidates – will emerge with the job of primary third receiver behind the supercharged starting duo of Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. However, after a dormant offseason with no actual work on the field, the Buccaneers are at least starting to gather some useful evidence in that competition.
Tampa Bay's Phase 2-like practice on Thursday was the second one in which they could run full offensive and defensive drills, though not against each other. On Friday and Sunday the team will get to work out in a similar manner to OTAs, which will involve offensive and defensive players going against each other. And then on Monday the pads will go on for the full ramp-up of training camp.
Prior to all of that, the Buccaneers' quarterbacks and pass-catchers were able to get in some time running routes together, so the receivers have been a little more visible than most positions. And one of the young players who could see a bigger role this year, third-year man Justin Watson, has stood out in the eyes of Head Coach Bruce Arians. That's always helpful to the cause.
"The guy that's looking really, really good is Justin Watson," said Arians. "He lost 10 pounds and I think he hit 21 miles per hour yesterday out on the field and that's flying. [He] looked way more confident in what he's doing. Justin, Scotty [Miller] – we've got a bunch of different pieces there. John Franklin looked good, 'Mitch' [Bryant Mitchell] has looked good – it's a battle for three, four, five and six. We might have different packages with a different three."
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
Watson was a fifth-round pick out of Penn in 2018 and in his first two years he has primarily stood out as a core special-teamer. Through the first 24 games of his career (he missed four contests as a rookie) he played 100 offensive snaps and caught two passes. Then a rash of hamstring injuries sidelined Evans, Godwin and Miller all at once last December and Watson got 203 snaps over the final four games, snaring 14 passes for 217 yards and two touchdowns.
That nice bit of season-ending momentum could have been wiped out with all the practices lost to COVID-19, but that doesn't appear to be the case for Watson. With Breshad Perriman now playing for the New York Jets, there is a gaping hole to fill in the Bucs' "11" personnel package, which accounted for nearly 60% of the Bucs' snaps last year. Watson, Miller and rookie fifth-rounder Tyler Johnson all figure to get a crack at it, a long with a couple other possible candidates, and while the answer could end up being some mix of those players – as Arians hinted at above – it's also possible that one of them will distances himself from the rest of the field.
That candidate could also be Miller, a 2019 sixth-round pick with top-end speed who was also coming on last season before his injury. Miller has big-play ability on the outside, as he showed several times in the second half of 2019, and he can stress a defense even without necessarily being the first target on any given play. Miller got his opportunity before Watson last year, which is worth noting. While Watson is built more like Evans, Miller is 5-11 and listed at 174 pounds. That sounds a little like some of the players with whom Tom Brady had great success with out of the slot, and there's a chance that Miller can pick up more snaps in that way in his second season. That said, Arians clearly likes what he brings to 11 personnel when he's on the outside, with Godwin in the slot.
"In the passing game, he's a feisty blocker," said Arians of Miller. "For us, the slot is a big-time blocker in 11 personnel. It's hard for him – I don't want him getting broken up blocking and lose some of the speed. There are things he can do in the middle of the field and when we're in our four-wideout set, he's always in the slot. We'll try to use him as much as we can inside, but he's such a potent guy outside, too, with that speed."
Johnson, who also did great work in the slot during some very productive seasons at Minnesota, hasn't been able to advance much in the competition yet because he's been sidelined with what Arians labels a "soft-tissue injury." During Thursday's practice, he and undrafted rookie Josh Pearson worked with trainers on a separate field rather than joining in the offensive drills.
While the lost offseason doesn't appear to have affected Watson, it may be a bigger problem for Johnson and all of the Bucs' NFL newcomers. With time to work in May and June, rookies can often advance through the inevitable difficulties of transitioning to the pro game and be more ready for the start of training camp, which is really the start of any position battle.
"That's always the biggest thing – they get overwhelmed with information and they slow down," said Arians of NFL rookies. "The guys who can handle the information play fast. With this situation we're in this year, it's extremely hard for them. They don't have time to process it, learn it and then go play fast. It'll be very hard for young guys to play unless they're a step ahead. We're fortunate to have some guys who are very, very bright and came out of really high college programs that did things very similar to what we do, so they're fitting in very well."
The receiver position tends to be one that sees a lot of players rise and fall during a typical training camp. The stars of Week One sometimes fade and are passed by other candidates who pick up speed gradually. In a way, the Buccaneers aren't even in Week One of camp yet, so there is a long way to go before the receiver position is sorted out behind Evans and Godwin. Still, Watson appears to be off to a fast start – emphasis on "fast" – and that's at least an encouraging development for the third-year hopeful.