In the wake of losing Vincent Jackson to injured reserve, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have done what any good organization would do when faced with a loss of productivity: They've convened a committee.
Jackson started each of the Buccaneers' first five games as the wide receiver opposite top target Mike Evans, even finishing last Monday's win over Carolina after suffering an ACL injury at some undetermined point in the contest. He was on pace for his lowest full-season receiving totals since 2006, but he still filled a very important role in the Bucs' offense and did it with his trademark consistency. Now, somebody will be stepping into his spot in the starting lineup, but that player won't necessarily be asked to replace everything for which Jackson was responsible in a typical game.
Among those who will be asked to contribute more are Cecil Shorts, Russell Shepard, Adam Humphries and Donteea Dye. Basically, all of the other receivers on the roster; Louis Murphy, who is close to returning from the reserve/PUP list, will likely factor in soon, as well. The point will be to move forward without a drastic change in the overall offensive approach.
"I don't know if we'll differ very much," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "You are who you are. Now, is it going to be more by committee, and getting some guys back healthy and some guys in the mix? Sure. But we have to be who we are and continue to improve."
At the moment, there are a lot of moving parts in that puzzle. Shorts has just returned to practice from a hamstring injury he suffered in Week Two, not long after joining the team. He has all of one catch and 11 snaps in the Buccaneers' offense, but he has worked with Head Coach Dirk Koetter in Jacksonville and he has five previous years of NFL experience. Dye just re-signed with the team six weeks after being waived with an injury settlement. Humphries is most comfortable in the slot, where he has produced about five catches and 50 yards per game so far this season. Shepard has mostly played on special teams throughout his career and has three receptions this year. Murphy could be motivated this week or two weeks from now.
All of them will be asked to step up in some manner, and the size of their contributions will probably develop as time goes on.
"How we absorb what Vincent does will be a little bit of a work in progress," said Koetter. "We're working on that this week. We made a couple moves; there might be some more moves to be made. As in all injuries, even though injuries are horrible, the show goes on."
If Humphries stays in the slot, Shorts could initially draw the biggest chunk of playing time thanks to his experience. He said he feels confident about returning from his injury on Sunday in San Francisco, though that will be determined by him and the team as the week goes on.
"First, I want to pay my respects to Vince," said Shorts. "He's been playing a long time at a very high level. You don't want anybody to get hurt, but it's kind of sad to see him get hurt like that. But, yeah, it's an NFL business and the next guy's got to step up. Everybody in that room knows what Vince brought to the table so we're going to try to do our part, do the best we can.
"I think the biggest thing for me is making sure I know my assignment and do my job. That time I had when I was out [due to injury] was a good time to catch up and study a lot of stuff. So I'm kind of caught up from a gameplan standpoint, not necessarily the whole offense but the gameplan and what's going on. So I feel pretty confident out there."
Dye got an unexpectedly large dose of playing time last year as an undrafted rookie thanks to a similar rash of injuries, including two to Jackson that limited him to nine starts. After he was waived/injured late in the preseason, he was not eligible to re-sign with the Buccaneers until this Monday, though he drew some workouts around the league and could've signed elsewhere. He said he had no idea if the Bucs would call and didn't hear from them at all until last week.
"It's all just a blessing," said Dye, who doesn't have Jackson's size but could provide a speed element on the edge. "It kind of happened last year to me; I'm just having the same situation as last year. I'm just blessed to be back, blessed to be a part of a game. I'm sad to see V-Jack go down – he's got such a big role in our offense. I'm just ready to play the role that I have now and continue to go.
"I had no clue that I would be back in this situation. I always hoped that I would – they gave me my first shot, it's like home. I'm just happy to be here."
Monken things the Bucs can reintegrate Dye into their game plan quickly.
"He knows our system, being here all last year and all the way through this summer and training camp, so we're excited to get him back," said the coach. "There are some things that we've changed or added so we've got to get him up to speed, but he looked fine [in practice]."
Shepard has played between six and 14 offensive snaps in each of the first five games, usually replacing either Evans or Jackson in a two-receiver set. He's already just one shy of his single-season high in receptions, and he had a very strong training camp and preseason. So far, he has still been more important to the Bucs as a special teams ace (and captain of that crew) but that could change in the weeks to come.
"I think you'll see his role increase," said Monken. "He's had a role in every game offensively; sometimes he's been more of a focal point than others. He's a good football player and we expect him to pick up some of that."
Humphries could remain the team's primary slot receiver and still pick up some extra reps in two-receiver sets on the outside. He's up for that task but also thinks the Buccaneers have enough on the wideout depth chart to keep a major move from being necessary.
"This being my second year in the offense, I feel like I'm pretty comfortable going to the outside position," said Humphries. "Obviously, I've been working all slot this year, but if they need me to go outside and run some outside stuff I can do that. But with D.D. coming back and Cecil and Louis Murphy coming back, those are three guys who are very capable of playing the outside position."
Pictures of the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday, October 19th.
When the dust settles and receiver roles begin to stabilize again, the players who see the biggest uptick in playing time will likely be the ones who can give the Bucs what Jackson has for the last five years: Dependability.
"First and foremost, the guys that end up taking Vincent's place have to be as consistent as he's been," said Monken. "That's the biggest thing with Vincent – playing as long as he has, he doesn't always have to have the reps on the [practice] field in order to be able to take it to the field. He can take it from the meeting room. He does a lot of things in the run game so we have to have some guys step up and do that. But I'm confident in the guys that we have that we'll be just fine."