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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

What Could the 2023 Season Hold for the Bucs TE Room?

An overview of the Buccaneers tight end room through the scope of the team’s retooled offensive system under Dave Canales

2023 TE room

A year ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers saw the departure of future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski and vested veteran O.J. Howard during the offseason. The Bucs looked to the 2022 NFL Draft to bolster the tight end room, selecting Washington's Cade Otton in the fourth round (106 overall) and Ko Kieft in the sixth round (217 overall) out of Minnesota. 

With nine-year veteran Cameron Brate and free agent pickup Kyle Rudolph, Cade Otton was not originally slated as the club's starter, but he earned the coveted status as the season progressed. He emerged as a breakout player in the Bucs offense, fortifying the unit. Otton entrenched his role as Tampa Bay's hybrid 'Y' tight end, adding value as a pass-catching threat and as a blocker. Otton played 70% of the Bucs' snaps (803) and accumulated 391 receiving yards on 42 catches. He averaged 9.3 yards per reception, moving the chains for Tampa Bay. The combination tight end became a catalyst in the intermediate/underneath area of the field, separating from coverage at the break point. Otton showcased his route-running skills and will vie to usurp his 2022 performance come fall in an increased leadership role. 

Last season, Otton's signature play became the game-sealing touchdown grab against the Los Angeles Rams. From first-and-goal with 13 seconds remaining in the Week Nine matchup, the ball was snapped, and Leonard Fournette motioned to the left, which deceived the Rams' bunch formation. Cade Otton chipped the linebacker – selling the run - pivoted and turned his body around to catch a perfect Tom Brady pass out of the flat, resulting in a 16-13 victory at Raymond James Stadium. He became the catalyst that sparked the team's offensive resurgence.

Most rookie tight ends take a couple of years to acclimate to the intricacies that encompass the position at the pro level, largely due to the fact that many tight ends either work solely as a glorified slot receiver or as an in-line blocker at the college ranks. In his rookie campaign, not only did Otton add another dimension to the Bucs' passing game and hold point in the run game, but he earned the trust of Tom Brady. 

Ko Kieft primarily served as an h-back, lining up outside of the offensive linemen and out of the backfield. Kieft played 22% (265) of the team's snaps and notched 80 receiving yards. He used his blocking prowess at the line of scrimmage to create in the run/pass game, providing opportunities for teammates. He showcased his physicality on special teams, racking up a team-high 11 tackles (seven solo). 

The Bucs opted not to re-sign Cameron Brate and Kyle Rudolph, once again turning to the draft to reload in April. Tampa Bay selected Purdue's Payne Durham in the fifth round (pick 171 overall). Durham served as a 'Y' tight end in the Boilermakers' spread offense, splitting his snaps between the slot and inline. Durham has a large catch radius and is adept at catching outside of his frame. He presents another pass-catching mismatch for Dave Canales to employ in 12 personnel – an alignment that features one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers. 

Gone are the days where tight ends are simply regarded as tweeners, not fast enough to be wide receivers and not strong enough to be offensive tackles. The position has evolved, no longer viewed as an extra piece in the offense but in many cases, the focal point. Andy Reid modified the Chiefs' offense around Travis Kelce, allowing him to affect the perimeter and in the process, shattered preconceived notions. Similarly, the 49ers' offense is built around George Kittle. Not only does Kittle open running lanes on the edges and exploit voids as a pass-catching menace, but his presence gives the Niners an element of deception. Now, the position is touted as a premium in the modern era of the game. 

In 2023, Otton will step into the role of TE1, and Canales will strive to maximize his potential, along with Kieft and Durham. Canales is expected to implement a system that is similar to that of the Seattle Seahawks, where he served as the quarterbacks coach in 2022. The revamped system will embody the methodology of marrying the run and the pass. There will be an increase in movement come fall, including traps, pulls, misdirection, along with wide and mid-zone to instigate a diverse rushing attack to stimulate play-action. 

In 2022, the Seahawks utilized 12 personnel on 29.5% of plays, complementing the skillsets of Noah Fant, Will Dissly and Colby Parkinson. Both Fant (660) and Dissly (569) played 60% of Seattle's snaps, while Parkinson played 41% (443). For comparison, Seattle's third tight end, Parkinson, played significantly more than Brate (355 snaps) and Kieft (265 snaps). The Bucs used 12 personnel 17.4% of plays in 2022 and that number will likely rise for the Bucs in 2023 with the team's current roster. The grouping provides balance and versatility because defenses cannot explicitly key in against the run or pass. Offenses can use both productively from 12 personnel, achieving mismatches in the passing game as defenses counter with a larger lineup and extra blockers available each play works to fortify the ground attack. 

Although there is no set blueprint to diagnose what the Buccaneers' offense will resemble in 2023, one thing is clear, the tight end room will play a pivotal role in its success.

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