When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph on Monday, it was obviously an effort to replace some of what the now-retired Rob Gronkowski brought to the team over the previous two seasons. Two days later, smack dab in the middle of their first 2022 training camp practice, the Buccaneers also signed seven-time Pro Bowler Julio Jones…for the same reason?
Jones, you surely know, is not a tight end by trade and he runs about 45 pounds lighter than either Gronkowski or Rudolph. He's not going to be setting up the end of the offensive line to block edge rushers and he's not going to be Gronk-smashing his way down the field after a catch. But this is not about style or even specific function; it's about production.
The Buccaneers threw 166 targets in Gronkowski's direction over the past two regular season, and he turned them into 100 catches for 1,425 yards and 13 touchdowns. This was within the greater context of an explosive Tampa Bay offense that was already getting huge contributions from the likes of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Leonard Fournette, and for portions of those seasons from Antonio Brown. Brown is now gone, ostensibly replaced by Russell Gage, but the others remain and will be operating in an offense that will probably look a little different in Gronkowski's absence. All of those aforementioned players could be part of replacing Gronkowski's production, but when it comes to that end, the more the merrier.
Head Coach Todd Bowles sees Jones as potentially being part of that solution.
"Well, he's still a good football player," said Bowles of the NFL's active receptions leader. "We've got to replace Gronk's catches. We've got an extra weapon, especially in the red zone and out in the field and we're going to put him to use. It gives us a chance to be more creative in some of the things we do, and we're happy to have him."
With Gronk out, Jones and Gage in, Godwin working his way back from an ACL tear and some younger receivers looking for more work than last year, the Buccaneers' passing attack is likely to be a work in progress in 2022. Just as Tom Brady had to adjust from Bruce Arians' 'no risk it, no biscuit' bombs-away offense in the 2020 Super Bowl season to a quick-rhythm game in 2021 against defenses designed to take away the big play, the Buccaneers will likely have to make adjustments again in 2022. Of course, in making that transition from 2020 to 2021, the Bucs' passing game actually got better, so there's no reason to worry that any coming changes will be painful. It's just a matter of sorting out where the ball goes.
And along the way the Buccaneers may have to deal with the absences of some of their key offensive cogs, as they did down the stretch last December and Januar. So not only is the addition of Jones part of the Gronk Solution, but he also provides the kind of depth that could pay off in a big way during a long season.
"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," said Bowles. "If you wait until midseason you're not going to get a good football player, you're going to be grabbing guys. [General Manager] Jason [Licht] 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."
Jones missed 14 games over the past two seasons primarily due to hamstring injuries but declared on Wednesday that he is "100% healthy" with "nothing lingering" or holding him back. He played just one season in Tennessee after being acquired in a 2021 trade after an extremely prolific decade with the Atlanta Falcons. When the Titans chose to release him in March, Jones said he talked to his agent and immediately started thinking about going to Tampa. The draw is obvious, even if the depth chart is crowded.
"The Buccaneers organization is just giving me the opportunity to come here and showcase my skills and just to be a part of something new, to be a part of this team," said Jones. "They have everything that they need already, right? But they've got to put the work in each and every day. Nothing is given to you. You've just got to come to work every day. That's what I bring. I'm going to work every day – that's just who I am."
Jones spoke on the phone with Brady during his time as a free agent and had Tampa as his preferred destination, but admits that it's surreal to be teaming up with the fellow superstar, particularly in Tampa. All those years he spent torturing Tampa Bay defenses, he never dreamed he'd one day put on a Buccaneers uniform. Now it's Brady and Tampa Bay's offense that is putting the hurt on opposing teams and Jones just wants to be a part of it.
"I just think defenses are probably going to go zone maybe," he said, thinking of the difficulties of trying to man up against him, Evans, Godwin and Gage at the same time. "Just because of the weapons we have, we just have so many which is cool. At the end of the day, we all have to stay healthy and come to work everyday. Predictions and everything like that we just all have to come to work, be accountable to one another and hand out responsibilities. After the game or after the season, whatever happens, happens. We have to come out here and take it one day at a time to get better and get our chemistry together."