Last week, as Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken considered the future of wide receiver Chris Godwin, who came on strong at the end of his rookie season, Monken made this observation:
"I see him as a starter."
That's a strong and complimentary assessment, but it also sets off bells in one's head for the simple fact that the Buccaneers already have very competent starters at all three receiver spots (X, Z and slot). There doesn't seem to be any reason to reduce the amount of time that Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries – three very important cogs in the NFL's fourth-ranked passing attack last season – are on the field.
Photos from the Buccaneers' OTA practice on May 22.
And, indeed, Monken wasn't lighting a depth-chart controversy at the receiver position, which he coached the past two seasons before Dirk Koetter's decision to allow him to concentrate solely on his coordinator role in 2018. It was simply a statement on the caliber of player that Godwin is proving to be, regardless of the obstacles between him and the starting lineup.
And, to be clear, the Buccaneers think that is a very high caliber indeed. As Godwin navigates his first full NFL offseason, and as players and coaches around him react to what they are seeing, it's clear that the hopes for the former third-round pick are lofty, and ever-ascending.
"He's earned the right to be a starter," Monken clarified. "Now, whether it works out that way or not, I don't know. But he's earned the right, finished the year that way. Whatever we've asked him to do, he's done it well and he's only going to continue to get better. Why? Because he's big, he's fast, he's physical, he's smart and he's going to continue to develop. And it's important to him. He takes care of his body, does it exactly the way you want."
Skyler Fulton worked alongside Monken in the receiver room last year, and with Monken's elevation to strictly O.C., he was promoted to wide receiver coach this year. He knows he's inherited one of the most talented wideout groups in the NFL. Evans is just the third player to crack 1,000 yards in each of his first four seasons, Jackson remains one of the NFL's most dangerous deep threats (even if the Buccaneers were unable to unlock that potential last year) and Humphries excels in the specialized slot role. Godwin's playing time late last season came about when Jackson was sidelined by injury, and the Bucs hope that doesn't happen again. As such, it's not necessarily simple to see how the team will get more out of Godwin in his second year – and beyond – but everybody seems confident it will happen.
"When it comes to that, we've got so many good players, we could have that conversation [about starters] and play that back and forth," said Fulton. "But from the standpoint of, 'Is Chris good enough?' No question. What Chris has done and continues to do, he's going to continue to ascend as a wide receiver. That's why we picked him in the third round. That's why he was playing a ton at the end of the season. And as Chris continues to do things right and play hard, he's going to continue to ascend.
The Buccaneers nabbed the former Penn State star in the third round a year ago, with the 84th pick overall. From a very deep pool of attractive receiver candidates, he was the 11th one taken, but one wonders if the order would be the same if those players were re-drafted now. Of the 10 receivers taken before him, only Pittsburgh's JuJu Smith-Schuster (62nd overall) and the Los Angeles Rams' Cooper Kupp (69th) produced more than Godwin's 525 receiving yards. And both Smith-Schuster and Kupp were starters for roughly half of their rookie seasons.
Godwin's most notable strength at Penn State was the deep ball, but the Buccaneers quickly found out that they had added a very well-rounded receiver who can play any of the three positions and who carried himself like a fifth-year veteran.
"Like I've said before, he's going to be a number-one in this league, and soon," said Evans, who is most definitely a number-one in this league. "He has all the tools. He's a smooth route-runner, [he's] strong, he can do it all. He'll block. I mean, he's just the complete package, a really good player and he's going to continue to get better."
Godwin also has outstanding hands. In the Buccaneers' first OTA practice on Tuesday, Godwin had one of the day's top highlights with a stunning one-handed catch of a pass behind him and about a yard off the grass. That's not the first time Godwin has stood out this spring.
"He's had a real good offseason in general," said Koetter. "Chris is a good player, so it's not surprising, but he's had a good offseason overall."
Added quarterback Jameis Winston: "Chris Godwin always has good days. He's definitely a superstar for us."
There are promising tidbits all around Godwin's rookie stat line. "Catch percentage," or receptions divided by targets, is a bit of a flawed metric in that targets can be subject and some passes are simply a lot more catchable than others. For what it's worth, though, Godwin was credited with catching 34 passes on 55 target for a catch percentage of 61.8%, which means Winston had a better success rate throwing to the rookie than Evans (52.2%) or Jackson (55.6%). (Humphries, whose job in the slot included a lot of high-percentage screen passes, had a catch percentage of 73.5%.)
Godwin also put up an average of 15.4 yards per catch, which was higher than all of the players drafted before him except Smith-Schuster (15.8). He also averaged 9.55 yards per target, an excellent figure that ranked seventh among all NFL wideouts with at least 50 targets, not just rookies, in 2017. In that category, he slots right in between Julio Jones and Brandin Cooks, though those two players obviously had a much larger sample size.
The Buccaneers think Godwin will eventually be putting up good peripheral numbers with a much higher volume of catches. Fulton says the only thing standing between the second-year wideout and elite status is time.
"Chris does everything the way you're supposed to do it," said the coach. "He comes in, he takes care of his body, he works hard, he does what he's supposed to do and he does it the way we coach him to do it. To me, again, for Chris it's just experience. The more experience he gets the more he [will succeed]. Even that being said, Chris already carries himself like a vet. But there is no substitute for experience.
Godwin's per-catch average got a nice little spike with less than 10 seconds left in the season. Facing the playoff-bound New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium in Week 17, the Bucs found themselves down by a single point, 24-23, in the game's waning moments. They had driven into Saints territory and – with 15 seconds and no timeouts remaining – needed to get just a bit closer to have a shot at a game-winning field goal. In fact, the primary read on the final play-call of the season was a sideline pass to Evans out to the left. Winston, however, saw a one-on-one opportunity for Godwin wide on the right and, when Godwin beat his man off the line, decided to take it. The pass was on the money but Godwin still had to haul it in as he crossed the 10-yard line and avoid being tackled before he crossed the goal line. He did both, and the Bucs won.
"You go out, you make plays like that on the NFL stage, in a pressure situation, at the point we were at in our season, when he caught the touchdown against New Orleans to win the game, it's just another step of maturity and confidence," said Fulton. "Now when we get into a similar scenario, that's nothing to him. He's done it before, he knows he can do it."
From the talk around team headquarters this spring, the Buccaneers are clearly expecting more big plays from Godwin…and perhaps soon.