The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2022 training camp is underway and, as I noted on Tuesday while veteran players were reporting to team headquarters, the wide receiver position is packed with intrigue this summer. Amid a deep cast of characters with compelling storylines is rookie Deven Thompkins, who tore it up in OTAs and minicamp.
Thompkins signed with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent out of Utah State, where he put up enormous numbers despite being relatively undersized. Like all undrafted players, he faces an uphill battle to crack a 53-man roster right out of the gate, but history suggests that somebody from those ranks will make it. Sometimes it's a couple somebodies.
Last season was an exception, sort of. Undrafted rookie kicker Jose Borregales did survive the initial cut to 53 but was subsequently waived and added to the practice squad after veteran kicker Ryan Succop came off the COVID list. No other undrafted rookies made the initial active roster but guard Nick Leverett, who had been signed after the draft the year before, was kept.
In a broader sense, though, the undrafted demographic was heavily represented on the Buccaneers' 2021 roster, as is usually the case. In fact, there were 57 players on the roster at the end of the year, including four on injured reserve, and 12 of them had originally come into the league as undrafted free agents, though not necessarily with the Buccaneers. That was more representation than any specific round in the draft. Here is how those 57 players broke down in terms of how they originally came into the league:
1st Round: 11…Six of those were Buccaneer picks and five, like Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul, started out elsewhere. Barring additional moves, this number is going to go down in 2022. Former first-rounders Suh, Pierre-Paul and O.J. Howard have all departed and the only addition in that category is safety Keanu Neal. The Bucs did not make a first-round draft pick this year after trading down to number 33 before taking Logan Hall.
2nd Round: 11…The longest tenured player on the team, Lavonte David, is in this category. Two of these 11, Ali Marpet and Rob Gronkowski, have since retired.
3rd Round: 6…It's looking increasingly likely that Chris Godwin is going to work his way into a group of franchise icons the team has found in the third round, including Ronde Barber, John Lynch, Martin Gramatica, Mark Carrier, John Cannon and Scot Brantley.
4th Round: 6…Will Gholston, a fourth-round pick in 2013, has now played in 136 games for the Buccaneers. That's 11th in team history, and the only fourth-round pick to have played in more is former center Tony Mayberry with 160. Gholston could surpass that if he stays in Tampa beyond this season, though he is currently on a one-year contract.
5th Round: 4…This group got an in-season addition when the team signed former Seahawks and 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman. Both he and former fourth-rounder Bradley Pinion are now gone, however.
6th Round: 4…Ready for a little-known fact that is going to blow your mind? Are you sure? Okay, here goes: Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, wasn't drafted until the sixth round!! Can you believe it. The man who snaps him the ball, Ryan Jensen, is in the same company.
7th Round: 3…All three of these players were huge for the Bucs on special teams in 2021 – Ryan Succop, Grant Stuard and Patrick O'Connor.
Undrafted: 12…The biggest contributor in this group was outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, who came into the league as an undrafted free agent out of Colorado State with the Broncos in 2014. Tight end Cameron Brate is the longest tenured Buc in this group.
Now, none of this is to suggest that a team is better off loading up on undrafted players rather than first-round picks in any given year. It's simply a matter of volume. In a typical year, a team will add one first-round pick and 12 to 18 undrafted free agents to its pool of roster candidates. You only have to hit on two of those UDFAs to beat out the first-rounders. It's just a reminder that some of the names you barely recognize on the Buccaneers' camp roster right now could become very well known down the road. Like maybe Deven Thompkins.
Now on to your questions.
A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to email@example.com.
Could Ko Kieft beat Kyle Rudolph out for a TE spot or would the Bucs keep 4?
@johnfostt (via Instagram)
Well, sure, Kieft could surpass Rudolph on the depth chart. He would need to demonstrate that he is as effective of a blocker on the professional level as he was at Minnesota, and I've got a feeling he'll have no trouble in that regard. However, given that Rudolph is also a proven producer in the passing game at this level, Kieft would probably have to demonstrate that he has untapped potential in that area. There were some whispers of Kieft showing more than expected as a receiver during OTAs, but I think it would be a bit aggressive to bet that a tight end who had 12 catches in four collegiate seasons is going to immediately blossom into a two-way player in the NFL.
That said, I do believe there's a good chance the Buccaneers will find a way to keep four tight ends on the active roster to start the regular season. They carried only three tight ends through most of last season, instead using the practice squad elevation option to patch up the position when injuries thinned it out. However, the Buccaneers did break camp with four tight ends in 2020, and notably one of those four was a man known almost exclusively for his blocking, Antony Auclair. The depth chart fluctuated a bit during the season between three and four tight ends but was back to four heading into the playoffs.
That 2020 team obviously had Rob Gronkowski, whose combination of blocking prowess and downfield receiving potential gave the team a tight end they could leave on the field for 80% of the snaps. And even with that player, the Bucs still carried three other tight ends and could tailor various packages around their different strengths. Rudolph has certainly been that true two-way 'Y' tight end for most of his career, but saw his offensive snap percentage dip to 48% last season with the Giants. The Bucs also drafted Washington's Cade Otton in the fourth round this year with the idea that he could develop into that 'Y' tight end, but it's hard to predict how long that could take to happen. Tight end is not the easiest position for players to make the transition from college to the pros.
So the Bucs potentially have two guys who could become the primary eater of tight end snaps, but there are question marks around both. Given that, it would seem to me to be more likely that the Buccaneers will keep four tight ends around so they can mix and match different combinations (the fourth being veteran Cam Brate, of course). Now, if they like Kieft but can't figure out how to make it work under the 53-man limit, they could try to get him onto the practice squad and possibly elevate him for games during the season, but he would have to clear waivers first. The Bucs traded up about 20 spots to make sure they got Kieft in the draft, so they may not be comfortable with the idea of exposing him to that waiver wire.
Of course, we can't keep a fourth tight end without going a little lighter at some other position. Maybe the Bucs keep three running backs instead of four, especially if one or both of those rookie tight ends shows some value on special teams. Maybe the team goes a little lighter on the offensive line, but there's a lot of strong competition in that unit this summer and it's easy to identify at least nine guys who have a great shot at making it onto the 53. And it's kind of hard to figure out how the Bucs could keep fewer than six receivers, especially after signing Julio Jones.
So the maneuvering on the 53-man roster might prove to be a little difficult, but I would definitely not be surprised to see the Bucs keep four tight ends to start the season.
Is Julio Jones going to be healthy enough to help us win?
@1koolkutta (via Instagram)
Well, Jones passed his physical or there would have been no contract signed on Wednesday morning. Head Coach Todd Bowles later acknowledged the injury issues that Jones has had over the past two seasons but said that the veteran receiver is healthy now. Jones' problems in those seasons were primarily hamstring strains, and it sounded as if the Buccaneers would proceed cautiously in order to give Jones every chance to maintain his current good health.
That's especially true because the Buccaneers made this move with the long view in mind. When asked what prompted the Bucs to add Jones to what many perceive to be a stacked receiving corps already, Bowles referenced the string of injuries that made maintaining the NFL's top-ranked passing attack a bit of a high-wire act late last season. Chris Godwin was lost for the season in Week 15; Mike Evans, Cyril Grayson, Jaelon Darden and Breshad Perriman all missed time due to injuries and/or COVID; and Antonio Brown left the team in Week 17.
The Bucs would prefer not to live through that sort of merry-go-round again in 2022, but injuries are a part of life in the NFL and it's best to be prepared. And it's not often you can build depth with the addition of a player who, if he can recapture some approximation of his form from 2019 and before, would be among the best in the league. Bowles said the Bucs, led by shrewd General Manager Jason Licht, are simply making themselves prepared for the long haul.
"If you look at last year, we got beat up pretty good in the receiver room and we kind of limped to the finish line at the end," he said. "If you wait until midseason you're not going to get a good football player, you're going to be grabbing guys. Jason is very smart. We're going to do the smart thing and try to get a lot of depth now so we don't have to stumble or hit a rock on the way, trying to win some ballgames. We've got people that can step in that know how to play."
Anyway, the real answer to your question is, we'll see. Jones is healthy now and he played at least 14 games per season every year from 2014 to 2019 before running into those hamstring troubles. Can he maintain his current health through training camp and the preseason, and can he still be a factor in December? We'll see. But the Bucs are betting that he can.
Which team are you excited to play the most this season?
@rackiejeyes (via Instagram)
I'm not sure there's ever been a Buccaneers season in which this question would be more difficult to answer. Tampa Bay's 2022 schedule is absolutely loaded with contenders and just down-right exciting teams. I could take just the first four weeks of the season and form three credible answers. (That would be Dallas, Green Bay and Kansas City. It would not be New Orleans, particularly in New Orleans.)
This schedule has both teams from the last Super Bowl and both teams that lost to those Super Bowl competitors in the conference championship games. Of the Bucs' 14 different opponents, eight were in the playoffs last year and that doesn't even include the Saints, the Ravens or the Browns. I personally think the Ravens could go all the way this year and we all know what an issue the Saints have been for the Buccaneers in recent years.
My first answer, which does not really satisfy the spirit of the question is Seattle. Wait a minute, you are saying right now, with all those teams you just mentioned your going to pick a Seahawks team that went 7-10 last year before trading away Russell Wilson? That's right, but it's for a purely selfish reason. The Buccaneers will meet the Seahawks in Munich in mid-November for the first NFL game ever played in Germany, and I will be there. Of all the road trips the Bucs have lined up for this year, the one to Germany is what I'm most excited about. I told you it was selfish.
But no, neither Drew Lock nor Geno Smith is the quarterback I'm most excited to watch against the Buccaneers this season, so I will give another answer that is more in line with what the questioner was looking for. And I came very close to picking Cincinnati, the Bucs' Week 15 opponent. If the defending AFC Champions are good again this year, they will probably be in an absolute dogfight in the AFC North. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers could be in a heated battle for NFC supremacy at that point in the season. There's a chance that these are two very highly-motivated teams going at it in mid-December. Joe Burrow is absolutely fascinating even if you're not a diehard Bengals fan, and I'm anxious to see Ja'Marr Chase in action close up.
But, just as they were in Super Bowl LVI (harsh), the Bengals are my runners-up. My actual, final, no-really-this-time pick is the Los Angeles Rams.
For me, it's the recent history of this head-to-head series that puts this game over the top. The Buccaneers have lost a total of 10 games, playoffs included, since Tom Brady arrived in 2020, and three of them were at the hands of those Rams. Another four were perpetrated by the Saints, but as division mates they are guaranteed to be on the schedule twice a season. These Rams of the far-flung NFC West keep popping up due to various scheduling quirks, and it hasn't gone well so far.
The most recent of those three losses to L.A. was the real heartbreaker. The Bucs rebounded from a loss to the Rams in November of 2020 to go on a tear that lasted all the way through victory in Super Bowl LV. The Bucs dropped another one in SoFi Stadium the following September but that didn't stop them from going 13-4 and ending up back in the Divisional Round of the playoffs and with home field advantage over those same Rams. The visitors dominated well into the third period but Tom Brady engineered one of his patented comebacks, this time from 27-3 down to a 27-27 tie with less than a minute left in regulation. Unfortunately, Matthew Stafford hit Cooper Kupp deep down the middle of the field and Matt Gay walked it off with a 30-yard field goal against his former team.
You know who probably remembers every second of that game in vivid colors? Tom Brady. I can't imagine there's a team on the schedule that Brady wants to beat more than the Rams this time around. Los Angeles has a top-heavy, star-studded roster that makes them an intriguing opponent without considering any other factors, from Stafford and Kupp to Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. But add in a Tom Brady who probably wants this one very badly, and usually figures out a way to get what he wants, and this one should be intense. So mark your calendars: Sunday, November 6, kickoff at 4:25 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium. Rams-Buccaneers – my choice for the most exciting game of the season.