John Smoltz, the Hall of Fame pitcher for (mostly) the Atlanta Braves for over two decades, followed an unusual career path. First, he was a front-of-the-rotation starter, a multiple-time all-star, for a dozen years on a juggernaut Braves team in the 1990s, peaking with a 24-win Cy Young season in 1996. Smoltz then missed the 2000 season due to injury and then came back primarily as a reliever in 2001.
Smoltz proved to be incredibly good at that second job, too, saving 154 games over four seasons and nearly winning another Cy Young award in 2002. Then, abruptly, in 2005 he went back to starting and was an all-star two more times while averaging about 225 innings pitched per season over a three-year span.
For most MLB pitchers, when they transition from starter to the bullpen well into their careers, it's a one-way trip. Smoltz somehow cycled back, at the age of 38, and picked up a starter's workload again, eventually becoming the only pitcher in baseball history with 200 wins and 150 saves.
Cameron Brate, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' ninth-year tight end, is in the midst of his own unique career path in the NFL. This is not to suggest that Brate has the same prominence in his sport as Smoltz did in baseball (though they do have the same number of championship rings…sorry, Braves fans). But like Smoltz, without ever switching teams Brate has seen his role trend towards less work then suddenly boomerang back towards, apparently, starter status.
Smoltz once commented that, ironically, his incredible 55-save season in 2002 made people forget all of his great work as a starter and assume he was always meant to be a stud closer. His second run in the rotation put the lie to that idea, which he undoubtedly felt good about. Now Brate is relishing the opportunity to going back to his own prominent spot in the rotation.
"Early in my career, I was kind of asked to play pretty much every down for a few years and I really enjoyed that experience," said Brate. "Like I was saying before, just getting into that rhythm, having a good feel for that…it's a little bit harder when you're just going in for just passing, which is kind of what I've done the past few years. So I tried the past couple years to just technically really work on the run game stuff. It's kind of been a point of emphasis, just trying to improve every single day on that. I'm looking to take some steps forward in that regard."
Brate's already something of an outlie as an undrafted free agent out of Yale who not only stuck in the NFL but has built a long career. His playing time and production peaked in the 2016-17 seasons, when he started 15 games and racked up 105 catches for 1,251 yards and 14 touchdowns. He played 66% and 54% of the snaps in those two seasons, respectively, on a team whose other tight ends were the likes of Brandon Myers, Luke Stocker and a rookie-year O.J. Howard in 2017.
Brate's playing time began to diminish in 2018 and he hasn't played 50% or more of the snaps in any season since. Howard, the first-round draft pick, became a focal point and then in 2020 Rob Gronkowski arrived and had his own career renaissance. Brate's target shares went down, too, though he remained an effective red zone threat and a reliable producer of touchdown catches. Brate is, in fact, third in franchise history in receiving touchdowns, with 33, and only one behind Jimmie Giles for second place.
Now Gronkowski has ridden into a second and presumably more permanent retirement and Howard has gone to Buffalo in free agency. As this year's training camp approached, the Buccaneers' tight end depth chart consisted of Brate and his 115 career games played plus four rookies. Sensing this was a little light on experience, General Manager Jason Licht signed veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph just before the start of camp. Rudolph, who is a proven blocker and pass-catcher, should have a fairly prominent role but Brate clearly sees a welcome chance to once again enjoy the ins and outs of an entire game.
"The last couple of years behind Gronk, - you know, he's a guy that can do everything," said Brate. "He's in there 90% of the time, so for me, I think that's a little bit harder of a role – when you're not playing all the time and you're kind of just thrown out there on third down and got to beat man coverage and stuff. After having that experience, now where I'll probably be used more a little bit on early downs, I love that – kind of get into the rhythm of the game. [I'm] excited for that challenge and looking forward to it."
Todd Bowles has a new role in 2022, too, as he was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach in March to succeed Arians, who has transitioned into a support role. Obviously, Bowles has focused most of his attention the past three seasons on the Buccaneers' defense, but now he's evaluating every player on the roster and he sees a player in Brate who still has a lot to offer.
"He's solid, he's extremely intelligent, he's a quarterback on the field," said Bowles. "He's got great hands, he's a great route runner and he's a very willing blocker. I'm very pleased with Cam and everything he's done. He brings a lot to our team, on and off the field."
This new shot at a starter's share of reps comes at a perfect time in Brate's career. He reports that he feels healthier than he has in about six years – he was finally able to pick up golf! – and that has allowed him to make the most of his offseason and be better prepared for what will be asked of him this fall. He's worked hard on various aspects of his game, most notably blocking, and he said it has paid "huge dividends."
All of that said, Brate isn't necessarily expecting to have another 50 or 60-catch season. That my not be in the cards for any of the Bucs' tight ends given how many wideouts are going to be juicy-looking targets for Tom Brady. It would not be a surprise, in the post-Gronk era, to see the Buccaneers' offense morph into more of a receiver-driven attack behind Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Russell Gage and Julio Jones. That's fine with Brate, who is just happy to be in the mix.
"You look at our roster, our strength is receivers, top to bottom incredible group," he said. "So as tight ends, we're probably not going to get as many targets as those guys, because why would you throw to me when you can throw to Julio, Mike and Chris? We just have to always be ready when our number is called. I think the coaches do a really good job of mixing up personnel. You don't want to just rely on one personally grouping the whole time – the defense, that doesn't really give them too many wrinkles when they're game-planning. I'm sure they're going to do a good job of mixing up personnel but it will be interesting to see what we do, what our identity is on offense."