Scott Smith and I completed the first week of Give Me Five with both of us looking back on the more recent history of the Buccaneers. He gave me the topic of best individual seasons by a Buccaneer in the last ten years, while I fired back a couple days later with the topic of best regular season wins over the past two decades. Lists. Everyone loves lists, right?
And it was fun re-living (and for me, getting a history lesson) in some of the best wins of the past 20 years Tampa Bay has seen in the regular season. Scott did a great job describing each in detail. So much so, that I feel like I was there for them. He, of course, actually was and hearing firsthand accounts of Buccaneer lore is always welcomed as far as I'm concerned.
Now – we look ahead. After challenging me to predict the top five categories that the Bucs will improve on statistically, it's my turn to turn the tables on Scott and give him his topic.
Today's Topic: The players who will register the most receiving yards this coming season in order.
Yes, that last part is key. It probably isn't difficult to come up with the five players who will catch the most passes from quarterback Tom Brady in 2020. However, putting these guys in order is a different story. A more difficult story. And it is what I am asking Scott to do.
Hey, he took away the most obvious statistical improvement from me on Tuesday, so it's only fair in my eyes.
You know that Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are WR1 and WR2, sure. Last season, both went for over 1,000 yards and were selected to the Pro Bowl despite both players' seasons getting cut short due to injury. Godwin ended up playing one more game than Evans, so he unsurprisingly then ended up with the most receiving yards on the team with 1,333 last year. Evans wasn't far behind though, tallying 1,157 receiving yards himself. Call it Wheel of Fortune because it's a toss-up going into 2020 as to who will end up on top. Plus, you're adding one Rob Gronkowski to the mix. How many yards will he amass with a quarterback he's had nearly a decade of history with already? It's anyone's guess.
Well, actually, it's Scott's guess now. That is the conundrum I have bestowed upon him for this week so let's see what he comes up with, shall we?
Scott Smith: This was harder than I thought it would be, but still a fun exercise. I feel like I have to provide some explanations of my approach before I dive right into the list.
I started by coming up with a projection of how many yards Brady would throw for in 2020. The Bucs threw for a league-leading 5,127 yards last year with Jameis Winston at the helm while Brady threw for 4,057 yards in New England with an underwhelming pass-catching corps and a very strong defense. I think we should split the middle on this – Brady should have better production with a much stronger cast around him and the Buccaneers will try to have a more balanced offense that doesn't need to throw for 320 yards a game. So let's go with 4,500. I looked up a number of outside projections that have Brady right around in the 4,300-4,500 range.
Now, how do we divvy it up? Spoiler alert: I'm going to keep Chris Godwin and Mike Evans in the top two spots, as they were last year by a wide margin. Read on to find out in what order they land. After that, I have to decide what the Bucs' passing attack is going to look like. Assume a tight end in one of the 3-5 spots, but who will do more, the second tight end or the third wide receiver? And will Brady help propel one of the running backs in the top five?
My answers, which will inform the rest of this article, are 1) Yes, the second tight end will produce more than the third receiver and, 2) Yes, a running back will make it into the top five. Now we can proceed.
5. TE O.J. Howard
As Carmen noted on Monday, there's a good chance the Buccaneers' offense will take the field in "12" personnel more often in 2020 than they did in 2019, meaning they'll be using two tight ends at a time quite a bit. Yes, this was the team's second-most common offensive package after "11" personnel last year, but by a pretty wide margin behind the favored "11" package (three receivers). Tampa Bay's usage of the two-TE grouping was at roughly a league-average level in 2019.
Carmen's not just speculating here; Head Coach Bruce Arians was practically chuckling when he recently noted how set up the Buccaneers were to exploit 12 personnel. This is a team that has some very interesting options for their third receiver – Tyler Johnson, Scotty Miller, Justin Watson – but certainly none that are yet proven as consistent NFL producers. The Bucs' third-leading receiver in terms of yards last year was indeed Breshad Perriman, but he actually got the majority of his 645 yards after both Godwin and Evans were sidelined in the last three weeks. That's not to discredit his performance; Perriman stepped up big-time to fill the void, and even before then he was starting to come on. But I think it's safe to say that if Godwin and Evans had stayed healthy through the last three or four weeks that a good chunk of Perriman's yards would have gone to them instead.
After that, the Bucs' next two leaders in receiving yard were tight ends – Howard and Cam Brate. Now you add Rob Gronkowski to that group and you have three proven producers at tight end, which explains why Arians is certain he'll be using "12" more often. That's why, when making this list, I decided to go with a second tight end on this list over a third receiver. And, spoiler alert, this means I have Gronkowski higher on the list.
That said I still think this could be a good situation for Howard. I could see him getting a lower volume of catches than Gronkowski but having a very strong yards-per-reception figure. Howard can definitely stretch the seams; in 2017 and 2018, his first two NFL seasons, Howard led all qualifying tight ends with an average of 16.6 yards per catch. (Gronkowski was third at 15.2). It was those numbers, in a pair of seasons that ended on injured reserve, that had the expectations sky high for Howard going into 2019. His per-catch average fell to 13.5 yards in 2019, which still isn't bad for a tight end but isn't a true measure of what he can do.
I'm seeing Howard catch about 28 passes at a clip of about 15 yards each, and thus ending up with 420 yards to finish fifth on the team.
4. RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn
This is a bit of a hunch. Vaughn showed he could be a useful pass-catcher in his last season at Vanderbilt and the Bucs drafted him believing he could be a weapon out of the backfield. As Arians said on the night Vaughn was drafted, "We know that he's got good speed. We know that he can catch the ball. We know that he's good in space – he's been very productive there."
Brady definitely knows how to get his running backs involved. One of his great skills is putting the football in the perfect position for a pass-catcher to grab it on the run and gain extra yardage, and that's particularly true on the shorter routes that running backs and slot receivers are likely to run. Over his last five seasons in New England, Brady completed at least 84 passes to his top three backs, and in each of the last three that number was north of 110. Of course, those Patriots teams didn't have a WR duo like Evans and Godwin, so there were more balls to go around for running backs. James White was the leader each of those five seasons, catching between 40 and 87 passes each time.
My hunch here is that Vaughn does prove to be the top pass-catching back in the Bucs' stable and that his role will include a good number of third-down snaps. We don't know yet if he's got the same abilities as White, so predicting a 70 or 80-catch season would be awfully bold. But I'm guessing he ends up with around 50 grabs. White's per-catch average also fluctuated from season to season between 7.7 and 10.3, but overall he has averaged 8.8 yards per reception in his career. That would have ranked 10th among NFL backs last year.
Let's not put Vaughn in that top-10 category just yet. The Bucs' Dare Ogunbowale averaged 8.2 yards per catch as the primary third-down back last year, on 35 catches, so I'm confident Vaughn can match that. Let's give him 55 catches at that right, and that leads to 450 yards, or just a bit more than Howard to sneak into fourth.
3. TE Rob Gronkowski
One can't ignore the fact that Gronkowski missed last season on a short-lived retirement, and that his retirement decision was based on a buildup of injuries that made playing the game a struggle. We must also acknowledge that his 52.5 receiving yards per game in 2018 was his lowest total since his rookie season. These are valid reasons to temper our expectations and not expect the 1,300-yard Gronkowski of old to rematerialize as he comes out of retirement and joins a new team.
On the other hand, this isn't just any new team. This one happens to have his partner in profuse passing production, quarterback Tom Brady. Those two made up perhaps the greatest QB-TE combo in league history for most of the last decade, a run that included 90 touchdown passes (postseason included). I fully expect Brady to target his big and fast tight end frequently.
Besides, if we accept 52.5 yards per game as a reasonable amount of production, that's nothing to sneeze at. Over 15 games, that would equate to 840 yards. I'm not even going that bold. Let's say that Gronkowski plays in 13 of the 16 games and gets 50 yards per outing. That's 650 yards, and that's my prediction for the team's second-leading receiver.
View photos of tight end Rob Gronkowski in the new Buccaneers uniforms.
2. WR Mike Evans
Evans has famously joined the great Randy Moss (his childhood NFL idol) as the only players in league history to open their careers with six straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Who would have thought that six years into his career Evans would produce at as high of a level as he always has and yet not be the Buccaneers' leading receiver?
That's how good Godwin was in 2019, and that's why this is no insult whatsoever to put the greatest receiver in franchise history second on this list. This wasn't so much a passing-of-the-torch as the number one, as from Vincent Jackson to Evans, but more of Godwin simply joining his teammate at the top.
Through the 12 games in which both Evans and Godwin were healthy from start to finish, the two were nearly equal in receiving yards, and they had swapped the lead back and forth several times during the season. At the three-quarter pole, Godwin had 1,121 yards and Evans had 1,096. That put them on pace for 1,494 and 1,461 yards, respectively, in a full season. Then Evans injured his hamstring on his only catch in the 13th game, a 61-yard touchdown, and Godwin did the same thing a week later after catching five passes for 121 yards in Detroit (plus 91 yards in the 13th game). So the final tally was 1,333 yards for Godwin and 1,157 for Evans.
Both of these guys are easily capable of getting to 1,500 yards. Evans has already done it, in 2018. Godwin probably would have gotten there last year but for his injury. The thing is, the presence of both guys makes that tougher on both guys. Yes, they were on pace to get close to that mark last year, but the Bucs' offense looks like it will be more diverse in 2020. Plus, we should probably factor in that one or both could once again miss a couple games.
That's why I'm going to put Evans at 75 catches in 2020, which would be right between what he did in 2018 (85 with a pre-breakout Godwin and no Gronkowski) and the 67 he had last year. His career average is 15.7 yards per catch but he's been better than 17 yards per grab each of the last two years, so let's put him at an average of 16.5 yards in 2020. That works out to around 1,237 yards, which I'll round up to 1,250.
View photos of wide receiver Mike Evans in the new Buccaneers uniforms.
1. WR Chris Godwin
Evans' total of 1,250 will make this close because I'm going to put Godwin at 1,350. Yes, he got virtually that total in just 14 games last year, but again, the greater diversity might cut into his numbers. Godwin ranked second in receiving yards per game among qualifying players only to New Orleans' Michael Thomas. I'd think he'd be in the top five again, but with either slightly lower per-game numbers or perhaps a few games on the sideline.
The main reason that I went with Godwin over Evans in this heavyweight battle is that he's got a more diverse role that puts him in position to get more targets. He played close to half of his snaps in the slot last year and led the NFL in receiving yards when being targeted over the middle of the field. He also proved to be fantastic with the ball in his hands, providing the most YAC (yards after catch) of any of the Bucs' receivers. Again, Brady is excellent at putting the ball in the right spot to let his YAC stars do their work, and it is those opportunities that I could see putting Godwin past Evans in this friendly competition.
So let's keep with the round numbers and put Godwin at 90 catches, averaging 15 yards per grab. (His career average is 15.1 and it was 15.5 last year.) That put him at 1,350 yards, 100 more than my Evans projection.
Do these projections make sense when added together? Well, we started with a supposition of 4,500 yards for Brady. The five projections listed above add up to 4,120 yards. That leaves 380 yards for every one else. Last year, the Buccaneers' top five players in terms of receiving yards accounted for 3,903 of the total of 5,127. That left 1,224 for everyone else, and here I'm only leaving 380 for the field.
So, yes, that seems a little off. That suggests I'm being a little too optimistic about one or two of the players above – maybe Vaughn? – or that I'm underestimating what Brady can do with this personnel around him. If he actually pushes something like 4,800 yards, this would probably make more sense. Or perhaps the difference will be in the inevitable injuries or game absences for other reasons, and with the reality of playing a season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it's easy to guess where the uncertainty would come from.
In any case, I'm sticking with this top five and in the order presented, even if the projections prove to be a little off. Any thoughts on this, Carmen?
Carmen's Thoughts: Yeah, I didn't make this easy on Scott, but I knew he'd be up for the challenge. I don't think I'd change anything, actually. I particularly like his reasoning for putting Godwin in the top spot. While Evans is that bonified 'X' receiver that is probably the greatest threat, he's almost always lined up outside. Godwin moves all over and has more of a work horse role in this offense. It'll likely lead to more catches as a result. But I'm looking forward to both of those guys eclipsing 1,000 yards yet again in 2020.
The stats on Gronkowski were especially eye-opening when Scott broke it down like he did. You're telling me he'd only need 50 yards a game in 13 games this season to be the third receiver? I have to think that surpasses possibility and treads into the realm of guarantees even with him taking a year off football. That's what could make this such a great year for him, though. He doesn't have to carry the load in order for this offense to be successful because of the two aforementioned receivers. I'm looking forward to this symbiotic relationship among them that forces opposing defenses to make some extremely tough decisions. Good luck with that @ opponents.