Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Buccaneers' Tight Ends Prepare to Step Up

If starter Austin Seferian-Jenkins is unable to play Sunday – and the Bucs have not yet determined that – his responsibilities will likely be divided between several players…And other notes.

Pictures from the Bucs' practice on Wednesday, September 23rd at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could be without second-year tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins when they take the field this Sunday in Houston. That's a more significant issue than it might have seemed two weeks ago, even with the team's significant depth at the position.

Seferian-Jenkins made it more of an issue by quickly emerging as a key participant in Jameis Winston's passing distribution. Through the first two games of the season, Seferian-Jenkins is second to Vincent Jackson in targets with 10, tied with Jackson in receptions with seven and first on the team in both receiving yards (139) and touchdowns. He had a huge outing in the season-opener, with 110 yards and two scores. His performance in Sunday's win at New Orleans was more up-and-down – it would have looked much better if he and Winston could have completed the connection on a misdirection deep pass down the left sideline – but he was still intricately involved in the offense for most of the game.

Seferian-Jenkins eventually was in the game for 40 of the team's 66 offensive snaps, or 61% of them, and that number would have been higher if he hadn't suffered a shoulder injury in the second half. That injury has led to speculation early this week that the young tight end could miss at least one game if not more, but Head Coach Lovie Smith said that determination has not yet been made.

"Today we were missing a very good football player and if he can't go this week, we'll have to make adjustments," said Smith. "If he can't go this week."

Still, Seferian-Jenkins did not practice on Wednesday, and if he is indeed unable to play in Houston the Buccaneers will have to adjust and take advantage of that tight end depth, which improved on Tuesday when the team re-signed first-year tight end Cameron Brate. And sort of a baseball team adjusting to the loss of its star closer, the Buccaneers may address this issue by committee.

The reason that Seferian-Jenkins is starting and playing by far the highest number of snaps among the Bucs' very competent group of tight ends is that he has the chance to develop into that rare all-around standout at the position, excelling both at blocking and putting up yardage. Seferian-Jenkins played 98 snaps in the first two games, to 61 for Luke Stocker and 21 for Brandon Myers. The Buccaneers will likely lean on the varied strengths of Stocker, Myers and Brate to replace Seferian-Jenkins' contributions, using a mix of different packages.

"At the tight end group, we have a lot of moving parts this week, a lot of opportunities for a lot of guys," said Stocker. "We're looking forward to the opportunity to make plays for our team."

As for the pass-catching, Myers has the most experience and the history to suggest he could be quite productive if Winston keeps looking for his tight end. Myers had a 79-catch season with the Oakland Raiders in 2012 and a 47-catch campaign with the New York Giants in 2013. He caught 22 passes for the Buccaneers last season.

"It's really nothing new to me," said Myers. "I kind of stick to the approach that I'm preparing to be the starter all the time. [Winston and Seferian-Jenkins] started out pretty hot, so I'm not going out there trying to do anything they're not asking me to do. I'll go out there and, when my number's called, try to make a play."

Stocker, a fourth-round pick by the Buccaneers in 2011, signed a new contract with the team this offseason after his original rookie deal expired. Hampered by injuries earlier in his career, Stocker has now settled in as an above-average blocker who can help in two-TE sets and in an H-back role. He also has 35 career receptions and has been on the field for about 40% of the team's special teams snaps this season.

Stocker seemed ticketed for a bigger role in the passing game when he arrived in 2011 but he has had no qualms about how his role has developed since the arrival of Lovie Smith and his coaching staff.

"It wasn't difficult at all [to adjust to the role]," said Stocker. "I was excited to get the opportunities that I got last year. I just tried to build on each one of those this offseason and in training camp."

Brate, an undrafted free agent out of Harvard in 2014, obviously does not have a well-defined role yet, but he has some potential as both a blocker and a pass-catcher. He got his feet wet in a handful of games with the Buccaneers last fall, but ended up on the Saints' practice squad early this year after being released. The Bucs plucked him back off that squad on Tuesday and now he just hopes to have a chance to contribute.

"Being a younger player, I don't have as much experience as some of the other guys, so I think consistency is the key," said Brate. "That's just one thing I'm going to really focus on, just being somebody they can rely on, just do my job. I think I understand the game pretty well. I think I catch the ball well. Just any way I can help the team – blocking, special teams."

At least one of those three will be seeing a lot more action on Sunday if Seferian-Jenkins is unavailable. Most likely, two of them will get a lot more exposure, and perhaps all three. Whoever is on the field, they can expect Winston to look their way.

"We've all been here in training camp and the whole offseason with Jameis, and the whole time he's been a very tight end-friendly quarterback," said Stocker. "So we're excited about that."

Those tight ends can also expect Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter to keep them involved.

"[They are] different kinds of guys," said Koetter. "Luke [is] very valuable to our team. Luke does a lot of the dirty work and sure you would always love to reward that guy by letting him touch the ball, but those are different animals right there. We're all looking for those tight ends that can do everything – can run like a wide receiver, block like a tackle. Those guys are hard to find. I'm a huge tight end guy myself. I'm a fan of all the tight ends we have. I'm excited we got Cameron Brate. I like all of our tight ends. We'll figure it out."

  • As we broke down extensively in Monday'sStat Shots Presented by the Air Force Reserve, second-year DE Jacquies Smith has had an eye-opening start to the 2015 season. The simplest number of all those in Monday's review is 4.0…that's Smith's sack total through two games, which is first in the entire NFL.

That's heady stuff for a player who, a year ago, was virtually unknown and was still trying to make his way on a new team after being claimed off waivers. There's a long way to go and a lot of very talented pass-rushers on his heels – including Houston's J.J. Watt, who unsurprisingly already has three sacks – so Smith isn't even thinking about the full-season sack title at this point. He's focused on two things: Helping the team win and getting the most out of his abilities. In a sense, those two goals are actually just one thing.

"I don't really get involved in individual stats and things of that nature," said Smith. "Ultimately we're just trying to come out there and get a team win. I don't really pay too much attention to how many sacks a guy has got or how many he's behind me. I'm just really trying to get out there and get a team win.

"There's always stuff you can add to your game and make improvements to ultimately be the best player you want to be. That's why I feel like you have to be a student of the game, you have to be into the film study and do a lot of mental things in order to get better."

Still, three-sack games like the one Smith put together in Houston don't come along very often and they're worth savoring. It was actually nearly a four-sack game – and one with three forced fumbles, too – but what appeared to be a game-clinching play on the game's final drive was erased by his own offsides penalty. There have only been two individual four-sack games in the Buccaneers' entire four-decade history.

"You work so hard in the offseason, and to see your hard work paying off on the field is great," said Smith. "But ultimately it's a team game and I'm just glad the hard work of this whole locker room has paid off with a win. But we're not really looking at the Saints game anymore. We're just trying to get ready for Houston."

  • Seferian-Jenkins was one of only three Buccaneers who were not able to practice on Wednesday as the team began its on-field preparations for the Texans. The other two were center Evan Smith and safety Major Wright.

Those are three players listed as starters on Tampa Bay's depth chart, so that is not an insignificant list. Still, those three have time remaining to recover, potentially, this week, and elsewhere the news on the official injury report was relatively positive.

Most notably, second-year wide receiver Mike Evans was marked as having "full participation" in Wednesday's field session. Evans missed the season opener with a hamstring injury and returned to action in New Orleans after being limited during that week of practice. He saw action on 40 snaps, was targeted three times and did not have a reception. On Wednesday, Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter confirmed that the team had purposely eased their young star back into action in Week Two.

"Mike was on a pitch count," said Koetter. "I knew that was going to go over like a lead balloon, because Mike every time he was out in the first half he looked at me like he wanted to smack me. Great players want to play and you appreciate that about him."

Going from limited to full participation during the week is a very obvious step forward for Evans, and he doesn't expect to spend a lot of time on the sidelines in Week Three.

"I'm full-go, I won't be on a pitch count," he said. "It's exciting and hopefully we'll get the win."

Evans led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns in his fantastic rookie season but has yet to catch a pass in 2015, for obvious reasons. That won't last, as Evans is definitely going to be a featured part of Koetter's attack going forward.

"We missed him a couple of times," said Koetter of the Saints game. "We missed Mike a few times. Obviously, we need to get Mike involved in what we are doing. He is a tremendous weapon and we need to get him involved, we have to get the ball to him."

Evans seemed completely unconcerned about his empty 2015 stat line on Wednesday. He essentially missed two games last year, too, and still cracked 1,000 yards.

"I'll get my opportunities," he said. "We have a good game plan. I'll get my opportunities throughout the year and it's my job to make the play. [Have] a good week of practice, working on getting open, and hopefully it will be a good one."

Defensive end T.J. Fatinikun, cornerback Mike Jenkins, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and safety D.J. Swearinger were all limited in Wednesday's practice. Fatinikun (shoulder) and Jenkins (hamstring) are both looking to get back into the mix after missing the first two games, so their participation is a note of progress. Swearinger is new to the report, having suffered his injury in Sunday's win.

The fact that McCoy practiced at all is particularly relieving to those who watched him clutch his right arm in pain during the Saints' final, unsuccessful drive on Sunday. Fortunately, McCoy's shoulder was not seriously injured and Lovie Smith was relieved after an initial gasp.

"He was down there a while and you look at what he was holding, but I try to stay calm and let it play out and see what it is," said Smith. "Luckily it wasn't what it could have been. [When] any of our players go down, you hold your breath a little bit."

The Texans submitted an official injury report on Wednesday that was 10 players long and included some important names. RB Arian Foster has not yet played yet due to a groin injury but was able to practice in a limited fashion. Standout third-year WR DeAndre Hopkins did not take part in the workout due to a concussion. Starting left tackle Duane Brown was also held out thanks to a hand injury.

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