Tampa Bay Buccaneers

All Eyes on the Receivers | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Bucs fans have questions about Mike Evans' record pursuit, Cyril Grayson's emergence and role moving forward, and more

mailbag

If Tom Brady's 22nd season in the NFL had 16 regular-season games on the schedule, like each of his first 21 seasons did, he would have finished tantalizingly close to his second 5,000-yard season. Brady set a career high in 2011 with 5,235 yards, which at the moment is one of the 12 5,000-yard seasons in league history. Brady, like six other quarterbacks on the 5,000 list, has done it exactly once. Drew Brees did it five times.

After throwing for 410 yards in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week 17 road win over the New York Jets, Brady has an NFL-leading 4,990 passing yards in 2021. That's just 10 away from joining Brees (in a fashion) as the only quarterbacks in league history with multiple 5,000-yard seasons!

Ah, but as we all know, the 2021 season, and those going forward, now has 17 games per team. Brady's not stuck at 4,990; he's got one more game to play! Raise your hand if you think Tom Brady will throw for at least 10 yards on Sunday against the Panthers.

Actually, the added game gives Brady a very good shot to make a clean sweep of the Buccaneers passing records in the major counting categories – attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns. He has already broken the first two records with 682 attempts and 456 completions; actually, he's absolutely shattered the previous marks of 626 (Jameis Winston in 2019) and 401 (Brady last year). I mean, the 2021 Buccaneers pass a lot. He needs just 120 more yards to break Winston's 2019 record of 5,109, and his next touchdown would give him 41, one more than the team record he set just last year.

It's up to you how you want to feel about players breaking team records in the 17th game of the season, though our own perception of it are not going to change the fact that those are the new records. In this case, he didn't need the last game to break the completions or attempts marks and the touchdown record he might break is his own anyway. Only Winston might have reason to complain, though I doubt he would.

So, will any other team records that aren't already broken be in danger in the 17th game. Yeah, a few. Such as:

- Mike Evans has 12 touchdown receptions. The team record is 13, as is the Bucs' standard for overall touchdowns. Of course, Evans already owns that first record and shares the second one with James Wilder (1984). Mike could break it with two more against the Panthers.

- As a team, the Bucs have scored 470 points through their first 16 games in 2021. That's not enough to break last year's record of 492, but it would only take 23 more to get it on Sunday.

- Also, the Bucs are currently at 58 touchdowns; the team record, set last year of course, is 59. The team record for total net yards in a season is 6,648 and, no, it was not set last year, surprisingly, but in 2018. The 2021 squad has 6,492 through 16 games and thus needs 157 more to break the record. As for net passing yards, the 2018 team also set that one at 5,125 and the current team has 4,905, needing 221 more on Sunday to get that record. Oh, and first downs, too. The 2018 team got 388 of those and the current team is at 383, just six away from setting a new record.

That's about it. Chris Godwin was almost 100% certain to break Keyshawn Johnson's single-season record of 106 receptions, as he had 98 through 13 games, but his devastating (emotionally) knee injury ended that pursuit. Godwin likely wouldn't have needed the 17th game to get it, either.

And 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 tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Before I start on this week's question I have to self-report for blowing one of my questions last week. I'm not terribly thrilled with the idea of self-flagellation, but I figured there were some readers out there who recalled my answer from Thursday and then saw that I was wrong on Sunday. At the very least, the Bucs fan who sent in the question would know I gave him the wrong answer and I felt he or she should know I realized it, too.

The question, from an Instagram user with the handle jrivero79, was if it was possible that Mike Evans would be able to play on Sunday against the Jets. At the time, Evans had just missed one game due to a Week 15 hamstring injury and had then placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on the following Monday. I wrote the mailbag on Wednesday and it was posted on Thursday, and Evans was still on the COVID list those two days. My thought was that with the injury and without a week of practice, the Bucs would play it cautiously with Mike and hold him out one more week.

However, Evans came off the COVID list on Friday and proceeded to play 56 of a possible 74 snaps on Sunday in the win over the Jets. Head Coach Bruce Arians said that the Bucs were working on something of a pitch count with Evans, but the dire straits at the end of the game prompted them to leave the receiver on the field a little more than originally planned.

Evans ended up catching four passes for 47 yards and a touchdown. The cool part about that is now he is just 54 yards away from getting to 1,000 for the eighth time in his eight seasons. It's a worthwhile goal and one that is a lot more in reach now since he played in Week 17.

Okay, there. I took my lumps. Now let's get to some fresh questions that I will totally nail this time.

Will the Bucs try to get Mike Evans to 1,000 yards early in Sunday's game?

- bucs_uk (via Instagram)

Hey, weren't we just talking about Mike Evans? Why stop there?

I think the answer here is yes, to a point. Winning the game is the top priority, and I'm sure Mike would agree with that. And the second priority should definitely be getting Mike to the postseason in as good health as possible. Fortunately, Bruce Arians says Mike came out of the last game "fine," so presumably his hamstring won't be an issue. Evans was listed as "limited" on Wednesday's injury report but it's hard to draw too many conclusions from those midweek designations at this time of year with so many practices converted into glorified walk-throughs.

I can't help thinking about the season finale in 2020, when Tom Brady threw 11 passes (on 15 targets) to Antonio Brown because the coaches wanted to help Brown reach certain contract incentives. The fact that Evans sat out the second half of that game with a knee issue meant more reliance on Brown, but the Bucs also called a series of short flips to Brown behind the line of scrimmage, which counted as receptions, late in the fourth quarter. The game was totally under control at that point, so the Bucs didn't really need to do anything else on offense.

It's a little bit easier to pile up the receptions than it is to get to a yardage figure, of course. Those late-game flips to Brown were all with him running right past Brady and were essentially foolproof. The Bucs could do the same with Evans but those plays might not add a lot to his yardage total. They might not work at all, and it's not really the kind of play Evans has made his incredible career out of.

Still, we're only talking about 54 yards here, and the Bucs aren't playing the Saints, so that helps. Evans has averaged 63.1 yards per game this season and 76.1 per game in his career, and those numbers go up a bit if we remove all the New Orleans games. Just last year, Evans went into the last game needing 40 yards to get to 1,000 and he had that by halftime. Which was a good thing because he hurt his knee just before the half ended and didn't play again in the second half.

My point is, the Bucs don't really have to try that hard to get Mike to 1,000 on Sunday. I don't think they will make any special effort to make it happen early in the game but rather just let things unfold organically, and Evans will probably get close to the mark anyway. If we're getting to the fourth quarter and he still needs, say, 15 or 20 yards, that's when I believe that Brady and Byron Leftwich might make a specific effort to get him the ball. But if the game also happens to be close at that point, I would expect Brady to do what he always does and find the open man, whoever that is.

Man, I hope I don't get a Mike Evans question wrong two weeks in a row!

If there is a three-way tie for the last two playoff spots between the 49ers, Eagles and Saints, who would the Bucs play Wild Card Weekend?

- scaredghost64 (via Instagram)

Before I started looking up the answer to this question, I thought I was going to have to start this answer by saying there were a couple different possibilities depending upon where the Bucs finished up between the second and fourth seeds, but that actually isn't the case. There's a very straightforward answer to your question: it would be the Eagles.

Let's hash this out. The 49ers and Eagles are both currently 9-7 and the Saints are 8-8. So the only way we could have a three-way tie between those two teams is if the 49ers and Eagles both lost on Sunday and the Saints won. Specifically, that would require these outcomes:

·    Rams beat 49ers

·    Cowboys beat Eagles

·    Saints beat Falcons

As it turns out, that combination of results also locks the Bucs into the third seed, where they are right now anyway. The Rams' victory eliminates Tampa Bay's chance to move up to the second seed and also eliminates the chance of the Bucs dropping to fourth. Why? Well, even if the Bucs win to match the Rams' 13-4 record they will lose the tiebreaker thanks to their loss in L.A. in Week Three. And even if the Bucs lose and the Cowboys win (which they do in this scenario), that Rams victory would mean it would be a two-way tie between Tampa Bay and Dallas for the three seed, and the Bucs win that due to their Week One victory over the Cowboys.

Got it? Okay, so the Bucs are locked into the third seed by the outcomes that would produce a three-way tie between the Eagles, 49ers and Saints. So we know that Tampa Bay will be playing the sixth seed, or the second of the two Wild Card teams. All we have to do now is apply the tiebreakers that will put those three teams into the sixth seed, the seventh seed and the seat just outside the door to the dance.

Here are the steps in breaking those ties:

1. Use tiebreakers between any clubs from the same division to eliminate all but one team from that division. Doesn't apply here because all three teams are from different divisions.

2. Check head-to-head records. With three teams, this only applies if one of the teams has beaten both of the other two or one of the teams has lost to both of the other two. Doesn't apply here either. Philly beat New Orleans but last to San Francisco and the Saints and 49ers didn't play.

3. Check record against conference opponents. If we assume the game results that make this three-way tie happen, Philadelphia and New Orleans would both be 7-5 and the San Francisco would be 6-6. That means the 49ers drop out and miss the playoffs and the sixth and seventh seeds go to the Eagles and Saints.

4. Any time you eliminate one team from a three-way tie, you start back over at the top of the tiebreaker list. So we're back to head-to-head, and Philadelphia beat New Orleans in Week 11. That gives the sixth seed to the Eagles and leaves the seventh for the Saints.

That conference record thing, by the way, is the reason that the Eagles have clinched a playoff spot and the 49ers have not, even though San Francisco currently holds the higher seed thanks to their win over the Eagles in Week Two. That's kind of crazy and it surely won't feel good for John Lynch's gang if they end up losing a three-way tiebreaker to a team they have beaten head to head.

There is not a single scenario in which the Buccaneers could face the Saints in the playoffs at any point earlier than the conference championship game, and if that did somehow come to pass (the Saints would have to beat the Rams and Packers on the road to make it possible), the game would be at Raymond James Stadium.

Will Cyril Grayson be starting at WR going forward?

-seth.breeding_ (via Instagram)

I mean, he kind of already is.

Grayson started the Week 16 game at Carolina in a two-receiver jumbo set (offensive tackle Josh Wells was in as a second tight end) and ended up playing 53 of a possible 67 offensive snaps, the same number as Antonio Brown. With Mike Evans back in the mix last Sunday at the Jets, Grayson joined Evans as the two starting receivers in a two-TE package featuring Rob Gronkowski and O.J. Howard. It has become clear over the past two weeks that when the Buccaneers are using bigger personnel and either running the ball or at least looking like they might run that Grayson will usually be on the field. Grayson himself is not that big – he's not like Chris Godwin – but he is strong and he's a willing blocker.

Grayson played 47 offensive snaps in that game, two fewer than Tyler Johnson and nine fewer than Mike Evans. I would say he's something of a hybrid second-third receiver at this point. With Brown now out of the picture and Godwin not coming back, the most common three-receiver set looks like Evans, Johnson and Grayson, though it could also be Evans, Grayson and Breshad Perriman.

Either way, Grayson is going to play a lot. Basically, if you consider your top three receivers all starters, which is essentially where most teams in the NFL are right now, then Grayson is likely going to be getting starter-level reps. Just like he has the last two games. As Bruce Arians put it on Wednesday when asked if Grayson would be seeing more action going forward:

"I don't know if you can see any more of him. He has about 45 plays a game now."

It really is a remarkable story. Both Arians and Byron Leftwich have recently referred to him as the team's most improved player over the past two seasons. Grayson didn't play football at LSU, he ran track and won a ton of All-American honors. He only played one season of football in high school. Grayson managed to get signed by the Seahawks as a free agent in 2017 but subsequently bounced around to six teams, including the Buccaneers, mostly landing on practice squad. He had five games played and one catch for three yards before this season. He technically hasn't spent a single day on the Bucs' active roster this season except for the four weekends in which he's been elevated from the practice squad.

But, as Arians noted Wednesday, Grayson arrived in Tampa in 2019 already possessing the speed (of course) and strength necessary to make it as a receiver in the NFL. What he needed to develop where, well, receiver things, like reliable hands and good route running. He has now done that to the point that his head coach and, perhaps more importantly when it comes down to it, his quarterback, completely trust him. Grayson is now an NFL receiver, full stop.

I don't want to go overboard, though. In his last two games, Grayson has had 95 yards from scrimmage against the Panthers and 81 plus a touchdown – a stunning, game-winning touchdown – against the Jets. Can we expect an average of 80 yards and a touchdown every other game out of Grayson, who still has fewer than 200 career NFL snaps at wide receiver? We can hope for that, especially in a post-Godwin and Brown offense, but it remains to be seen if it can happen. However, what does seem certain is that Grayson is going to continue to get the opportunity to produce over the next two-and-hopefully-more weeks.

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