In the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' efforts to "keep the band together" for another Super Bowl run, the wide receivers were the vocalists. They were out front making the Buccaneers' offense sing, and they performed in such great harmony in 2020 – at the direction of Tom Brady – that the team badly wanted to keep making the same music in 2021.
And the Buccaneers' succeeded. Not only did they find a way to keep every single wideout from the end of last season, they even added one more intriguing voice. As such, it is reasonable to put the Buccaneers on the short list of the teams with the best and deepest wide receiver positions in the entire NFL. Check that, it would be unreasonable not to put them on that list.
The group starts with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who two seasons ago ranked fourth and second, respectively, in receiving yards per game in the NFL. Those averages went down a bit in 2020 for two reasons – injuries, more so in Godwin's case, and the fact that the Bucs' offense was stacked and Brady was more than happy to spread the ball around. Evans (27) and Godwin (25) are still very much in their primes and the Buccaneers have a lot of salary cap space invested in keeping them at the forefront of their attack.
The Bucs have a number of very viable third-receiver candidates amid their current group, but that role was largely filled by veteran Antonio Brown after his midseason arrival in 2020. Brown was the NFL's most productive receiver from 2013-18, and while off-field issues kept him on the sideline for about a season-and-a-half he has been lauded repeatedly by General Manager Jason Licht for his work on and off the field since arriving in Tampa. Assuming Brown picks up where he left off last year, few teams can field anything near an "11" package featuring Evans, Godwin and Brown.
That's a top level that any team would be happy to field, but there is depth in this position group, too. Scotty Miller was a big-play specialist in 2020 who has speed to burn and untapped potential. Though his touches were limited as a rookie, Tyler Johnson still managed to turn in a handful of game-turning plays last year after being picked in the fifth round. This year's draft brought Jaelon Darden, whose quick lateral movements and make-you-miss ability in the open field is not redundant with any of the Bucs' other receivers. Justin Watson has shown he can produce at the NFL level, Travis Jonsen is a 2020 undrafted rookie who has caught the coaches' eyes and John Franklin was turning heads in camp last year after a position switch.
The 2021 NFL Draft is now in the rearview mirror and free agency has yielded just about all it's going to produce at this point. There will, of course, be some tweaks along the way as always but the Buccaneers began their OTA practices last week with a roster of 90 players, most of whom will still be around when the team heads to training camp in July. Over the next six weeks we're going to go through that roster, position by position, and see how the Bucs' depth chart looks heading into the 2021 season. Today we look at the wide receivers, and here's the full schedule of those positional reviews:
View the best photos from the third day of Bucs OTAs.
- Tuesday, May 25: Quarterbacks
- Friday, May 28: Running Backs
- Tuesday, June 1: Wide Receivers
- Friday, June 4: Tight Ends
- Tuesday, June 8: Offensive Tackles
- Friday, June 11: Guards & Centers
- Tuesday, June 15: Defensive Linemen
- Friday, June 18: Outside Linebackers
- Tuesday, June 22: Inside Linebackers
- Friday, June 25: Cornerbacks
- Tuesday, June 292: Safeties
- Friday, July 2: Specialists
The Bucs have built much of this receiver group through the draft, and through just about every part of the draft. It started with Evans as the seventh-player selected overall in 2014 – one of the best first-round decisions in team history – but has since borne fruit in the Rounds Three (Godwin, 2017), Four (Darden, 2021), Five (Watson) and Six (Miller).
The only real outside addition to that group that has had a large impact so far is Brown. The long-time Steeler was traded to Oakland in 2019 only to be released before the season after a series of issues with the team. He signed with New England and played in one game alongside a very supportive Brady but otherwise didn't play that season. He hooked up with Brady again when the Buccaneers signed him last November and ended up playing half the regular season and scoring two touchdowns in the postseason.
Given their depth at the position, the Buccaneers probably don't need their latest draft pick to contribute right away on offense. However, he is definitely going to be a candidate for the punt return job, and possibly the kickoff return assignment as well, and if that gets him active on game days the coaching staff will have the opportunity to draw up a few things for him on offense just in case.
That's the kind of pick the Buccaneers were in position to make after retaining virtually all of their pending free agents and bringing the Super Bowl team back almost completely intact.
"We haven't been in that position for a long time since I've been here, where if we are able to keep our core together, there is no immediate need that we're going to be [addressing]," said Licht. "The picks that Bruce [Arians] and I, and our staff, could either affect future needs or just be luxury picks that could help us. It leaves us in a position to take really good football players and not just direct our attention to one or two particular positions."
The Bucs were sure enough that Darden was the luxury they wanted to add into the offensive package that they traded away a sixth-round pick to move up eight spots before taking the North Texas product. They think Darden can bring yet another dimension to the offense with his run-after-catch (RAC) ability.
"He's got great hands, that's one of the things," said Licht. "I was watching him with Bruce. He loves the hands, loves his ability to track the ball and catch the ball away from his body. He has just great quickness. He's very fast, but he's actually quicker than fast. He can really put his foot in the ground and explode out of his breaks. He's got great RAC and we also think he has a great chance to be a very good returner."
- Antonio Brown…Signed a new one-year deal to remain in Tampa on May 25; Joined team at midseason in 2020 and produced 483 yards and four touchdowns on 45 catches in eight games. Added eight grabs for 81 yards and two touchdowns in the postseason, including a score in Super Bowl LV.
- Mike Evans…Entering the third season of the five-year contract extension he signed in 2018 (the extension started in 2019; Led the Buccaneers in 2020 with 70 catches for 1,006 yards and 13 touchdowns, becoming the first player in NFL history to begin his career with seven straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
- John Franklin…In second year of two-year contract he signed upon arriving in late December of 2019; Spent the 2020 season on injured reserve after sustaining a knee injury in training camp.
- Chris Godwin…Received the franchise tag on March 9 and signed the one-year tender offer associated with the tag on March 18; Fought through various injuries that cost him four games and parts of others to finish second on the team with 65 catches for 840 yards and seven touchdowns. Also led the team in the postseason with 232 receiving yards on 16 catches, with one score.
- Cyril Grayson…Signed a new one-year deal with the Buccaneers on February 10; Spent most of the 2020 season the practice squad but did appear in three games without a reception.
- Tyler Johnson…Going into the second year of his standard four-year rookie deal after being drafted in the fifth round in 2020; Caught 12 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie and also had two catches for 31 yards in the playoffs.
- Travis Jonsen…Signed a new two-year deal in January after spending most of his 2020 rookie season on the practice squad; Originally an undrafted free agent last May.
- Jaydon Mickens…After being elevated back to the active roster from the practice squad in late December, signed a contract that covers the 2021 season; Was the team's primary punt and kickoff returner for the majority of the 2020 campaign.
- Scotty Miller…Entering the third year of his original four-year rookie deal as a 2019 draft pick; Caught 33 passes for 501 yards and three touchdowns during the 2020 regular season, averaging 15.2 yards per grab, then added four catches for 80 yards in the playoffs including a huge 39-yard touchdown just before halftime in the NFC Championship Game.
- Josh Pearson…Signed a new two-year contract after the 2020 season, the entirety of which he spent on the Bucs' practice squad; Originally joined the team as an undrafted free agent last spring.
- Justin Watson…Heading into the final year of his four-year rookie contract signed after the 2018 draft; Caught seven passes for 94 yards last season and was also a strong special teams contributor.
- Jaelon Darden…Drafted out of North Texas in the fourth round (129th overall) of the 2021 draft after the Buccaneers traded up eight spots; Finished college career as school's all-time leader in receptions (230), receiving yards (2,782) and touchdown catches (38) and also may factor into Bucs' return game.
- T.J. Simmons…Signed as an undrafted free agent out of West Virginia on May 13; Played in 30 games with 21 starts for the Mountaineers and recorded 86 receptions for 1,197 yards and nine touchdowns.
The Buccaneers got Mike Evans' big deal done three years ago and it obviously and rightly made him one of the highest-paid receivers in the league. They may be headed down the same path with Godwin, but for now they will delay that decision for a year using the franchise tag, perhaps hoping they'll be able to get a long-term deal done the next year as they did with outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett. Even playing on the tag, though, Godwin carries a large cap hit for 2021, so the Buccaneers are heavily invested in the position.
Still, the team was committed to keeping Godwin around for another title run not because he's simply a doubling-up of Evans but because he is such a versatile performer in the offense.
"He brings so much more than targets," said Arians. "When you look at what he does as an outside receiver and a slot receiver, he's so unique in that regard, and then you put the blocking in there. He's a huge part of what we do offensively. It's more than stats. It's also what the guy brings to the huddle. I think with all these guys, each and every one is so different because of what they bring into the huddle, but Chris is very, very unique."
Brown also got a sizeable deal to come back for another season in Tampa – this one, hopefully, a full 16 games – but the Bucs do have a number of promising receivers still on their rookie deals, Miller most prominent among them.
The Buccaneers had the NFL's second-most prolific passing game in 2020, behind only the Chiefs team they beat in the Super Bowl, and while tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate were productive it was the team's loaded receiving corps that led the way.
As noted earlier, Brady spread the ball around masterfully, Godwin missed time due to injury and Brown didn't arrive until midseason. Still, those two receivers plus Evans and Miller all produced 483 or more yards and three or more touchdowns. Evans did play in all 16 games but was slowed by injury early in the season and gutted out another 1,000-yard season. He also caught 13 touchdown passes, setting a new team single-season record for scoring catches and tying the overall mark for touchdowns.
Brady found a way to get the ball downfield to a wide variety of his targets. Evans, Godwin, Brown and Miller (as well as Gronkowski among the tight ends) all caught passes for 46 or more yards during the season. Of the Bucs' 42 regular-season touchdown passes, 29 were hauled in by wide receivers.
Brown's production in eight games was interesting. If one projects a full season just by doubling his numbers, he'd have 90 catches and eight touchdowns but wouldn't top 1,000 yards, as he had done very year from 2013-18. Brady made good use of Brown on short passes early in their time together but did start to hook up with the big-play receiver on downfield throws later in the year, including the playoffs.
Miller, who had used his speed to make some big plays but had trouble avoiding injury as a rookie, looked like the team's breakout player early. He had four games of 73 or more yards in the first seven weeks but none after, though he did turn in one of the key plays in the postseason, as described above.
Three Key Questions:
· Who will lead the team in receiving yards in 2021?
It's a fair question, even if the answer to it has been Mike Evans in five of the last six seasons.
Evans led the Bucs last year with 1,006 receiving yards, just getting past the mark in the season finale before a scary-looking knee injury knocked him out for the second half. As we know now, Evans would be able to return for the playoff run. That said, it was actually Chris Godwin who led the team in yards per game last year with 70, just as he had in 2019 with 95.2.
Godwin's versatility and ability to dominate in the slot keeps him on the field for most offensive snaps when he's healthy, and prior to 2020 the only games he had missed were the last two of 2019 due to a hamstring strain. He also had a rather impressive 77.4% catch percentage on his 84 targets last year, so he's not likely to miss when given the opportunity. It was clear in the 2020 playoffs that Brady felt comfortable heaving the ball downfield in Godwin's direction and letting the physical receiver win one-on-one battles for the ball. Though it's not likely he needed any more motivation, Godwin is also playing on the one-year franchise tag tender and stands to be in position to draw a lucrative long-term deal next offseason.
Counter that with the consistency of Evans, who is both a downfield threat and a red-zone monster. He is just three seasons removed from setting the Bucs' single-season record with 1,524 receiving yards, and that was in one of four seasons in which he has averaged more than 15.5 yards per catch. Brady could hardly ask for a more dependable target than Evans, which means he should also be a high-volume target guy in 2021.
And one can't completely count out Brown, who could take advantage of any potential multi-game absences from Evans or Godwin to step back into a number-one role. He did just that after Evans was injured in the season finale and merely rang up 11 catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns.
· Who will get more of an opportunity to shine, Scotty Miller or Tyler Johnson?
It's easy to wonder if both Miller and Johnson could be featured receivers in a different offense that didn't already include Evans, Godwin and Brown. Miller's speed and tracking ability on deep balls makes him a threat to put up a game-changing play at any time. Johnson only found sporadic snaps as a rookie but he seemed to make a huge play every month or so, including his ridiculous spinning third-down catch in the playoff win at New Orleans.
The Bucs view Miller as more of an outside receiver who can take the top off defenses, so he's more likely to play in three-receiver sets when Godwin moves into the slot, or if either of the top two guys is out due to injury. Johnson is more in the Godwin mold in that he can produce out of the slot. Both may have to wait for their opportunities early but they are likely to come along at some point.
· Is there a role for Jaelon Darden?
If we're wondering how to get the ball to the more proven likes of Miller and Johnson, it's hard to imagine how the fourth-round rookie could get enough attention to put up offensive numbers of any significance in 2021. But then again, you never know.
The key here is that Jason Licht and Bruce Arians viewed Darden as a different kind of weapon that they didn't already have in their offense. Antonio Brown can take short passes and turn them into long gains, but he's soon to turn 33 and averaged just 10.7 yards per catch last season. Brown is still more likely to get these sorts of passes and could once again put up monster numbers, but the Bucs might also like to see what they have in the North Texas rookie.
The temptation is obvious. With Evans and Godwin stressing opposing defenses on intermediate and deep plays, Brown keeping those defenses honest if they want to throw double-teams at the starters and Rob Gronkowski working the seams, throwing in an underneath player who can take quick flips and turn them into big plays is almost unfair. It's mainly a question of whether that kind of role materializes this year or not.