Julio Jones has been the talk of the first week of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp, which is unsurprising given his superstar pedigree and how quickly he made his presence known on the practice field. However, there is another former Falcons receiver who has been just as impressive, to hear Head Coach Todd Bowles tell it.
Months before the Buccaneers brought in Jones, their longtime tormentor in Atlanta, the team signed his former teammate, Russell Gage, to a sizeable deal in free agency. The Bucs anticipated Gage joining Mike Evans and Chris Godwin in a potent three-receiver package, and possibly filling in as a starter if Godwin's recovery from a knee injury lingered into the offseason.
The project got off to a bit of a slow start, however, as an unspecified injury kept him from getting in much field work during OTAs and minicamp. As such, it was reasonable to wonder if it might take the new Buccaneer pass-catcher a little while to build up a chemistry with Tom Brady in training camp. That worry has quickly become a thing of the past, as Gage has hit the ground running and been everything the Bucs thought he would be when they made him one of their few significant free agency additions.
"The receivers are doing a good job," said Bowles after the Buccaneers' third camp practice on Friday. "Gage has really been the one to stand out. I don't think we've covered him [on a route] yet. He's been doing a good job the past couple of days. Again, we're out of pads, but he's a guy that flashes and shows quickness and fluidity and everything else that I've seen the past two days."
The Bucs are mixing in Jones where they can this week as he gradually absorbs more of the playbook. In that regard, Gage has a head start on his past and current teammate; even if he couldn't run the routes in the spring he could do plenty of studying. However, none of that work was as valuable as what he's doing now between the lines.
"It helps so much just being out there on offense, learning what Tom does, what he expects out of me and just kind of hitting the ground running," said Gage. "Playing and getting that experience with guys is always the best way to learn and to get ahead of the game, ahead of the system. That's been the biggest thing so far, I think."
Gage also credits the approach of the Buccaneers' coaching staff with putting him in position to integrate himself into the offense quickly.
"They do a good job of simplifying everything," he said. "I know what they want out of me. I know they want me to win, win on routes, win at the top of the route, win at the line of scrimmage. With it being that simple, for sure I can definitely transition over and do that."
The addition of Jones could be seen as a potential hit to Gage's snap count, but if he continues to perform as he has in the first week of camp it is going to be hard for the Buccaneers to keep him off the field. And that's pretty much the plan. Tampa Bay's passing offense is once again in a state of transition as it looks to continue producing prolific numbers without the significant contributions Rob Gronkowski made over the past two seasons. That could come from a number of sources, including the other tight ends and a couple of the running backs, but it looks likely that the Bucs' offense is going to be even more receiver-driven in 2022.
"Signing Julio was not only for the long haul; it was just as much doing different things on offense and being able to replace Gronk's catches," said Bowles. "Gronk had a lot of catches and showed up in a lot of areas. We'll approach things a little bit differently since we've got a bunch of receivers."