Allow us to introduce (or re-introduce) to you Cameron Brate, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers all-time postseason leader in career receiving yards among tight ends.
Or perhaps you know Cam Brate better as the man with more touchdown receptions than all but three players in Buccaneers franchise history.
And in case you were wondering, this is the same Cam Brate who first arrived in Tampa just a few days after Mike Evans, and before every other player on the Bucs' current roster except for Lavonte David and Will Gholston.
All of which is to say, when you're discussing the longest-tenured Buccaneers who are so richly deserving of the Super Bowl experience and the players who could make a difference in said Super Bowl, remember to include Mr. Brate.
Rob Gronkowski is the Buccaneers starting tight end and their third-leading receiver during the 2020 regular season. Gronkowski has started every game and played 76% of the team's offensive snaps, including the playoffs. Brate has played 32% of the snaps and is a starter only when the Bucs open a game in "12" personnel with two tight ends on the field. He wasn't even the primary complement to Gronkowski in that package until O.J. Howard suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in Week Four.
And yet, as the 2020 playoffs have shown, Brate can still be an integral part of the passing attack when his number has been called. And it's been called a lot in the past month. He has caught 11 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown in the past three games. Brate had a season-high 80 yards on four catches in the Wild Card win at Washington then contributed another 50 yards on four grabs in the Divisional Round at New Orleans. While he only recorded 19 yards on three grabs in Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, he also scored his first postseason touchdown on a simple eight-yard play-action pass on which he released from the line at the snap and ran straight upfield into the end zone.
Brate may be in the midst of his most productive stretch of the season but it always seemed to be a matter of when and not if. Tom Brady called Brate right after the Buccaneers traded for Gronkowski in the summer and told him that not only would he love working with Gronkowski but that there was still a role for him in the offense. Brate always had a rapport with former Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston, and he and Brady started to build the same thing during improvised summer workouts.
"Cam gets a lot of mismatches," said Tight Ends Coach Rick Christophel. "He's up on guys that might be safeties or might be linebackers. I think that's important. The trust factor between Tom and Cam has helped. When you get the ball thrown to you up here you'd better catch it, and Cam's been catching the ball. That makes a big difference for a quarterback. I think that trust factor has been built."
Brate had just 18 offensive snaps and did not catch a pass during the first three games of the season when Howard was healthy. His usage ticked up noticeably after that, of course, but it wasn't until after the Week 13 bye that he began to see an increased level of playing time on a weekly basis. He played 25.3% of the offensive snaps before the bye and has been on the field for 42.0% of the snaps during the seven-game post-bye winning streak that propelled the Bucs to Super Bowl LV.
"The season started and I didn't really have too big of a role at the beginning of the year," said Brate. "But O.J. went down with injury and obviously that hurt our team. O.J.'s a great player but at that point in time I had to step up and embrace a new role. I got thrown in and had to play quite a bit more. I kind of picked up a little bit every week throughout the year to get to the point where I'm at now. At the bye week, we kind of re-evaluated what we were doing as an offense and I think we've gotten a lot more multiple with our personnels and stuff like that and just utilizing everyone to the best of their abilities. Whether it's playing a couple snaps a game at the beginning of the year or playing quite a bit more like I have in the past few weeks, as long as we get the win, man, I'm pretty pumped."
Brate's 149 receiving yards this year are exactly one more than Bucs Ring of Honor member Jimmie Giles had in his playoff career. His 29 touchdown receptions for Tampa Bay during the regular season are only topped by the totals of Mike Evans (61), Giles (34) and Kevin House (31). And Brate has been with the Bucs for a long time, first signing as an undrafted free agent out of Harvard in the spring of 2014. The Bucs drafted Evans in the first round that year and he is the only player left from that draft class. That was David's third season and Gholston's second. Brate spent his first year on the practice squad and briefly got away early in 2015 when he was signed by the Saints, but he has been on the active roster since early that season. Like David, Gholston and Evans, he's been through a lot to get to the sport's pinnacle.
"It's been a lot of tough years in Tampa," said Brate. "We hadn't won, before this year, too many games. A lot of really tough seasons, long seasons, kind of getting in our own way, just finding different ways to lose games. This year has just been so much fun, coming into work every day, working with these guys. We just kind of found a way to work together and to kind of fix some of those problems that plagued us in the past. Being one of the guys who has been here a long time, it's been a wild ride. … I'm so thankful for guys like Lavonte David, Will Gholston, Mike Evans who have been here a long time and suffered through a lot of tough seasons, just kind of sticking to it. All that hard work over the years has paid off, finally."
Could Brate continue to be an important part of the offense in the Super Bowl. We've already made the argument this week that Gronkowski, the greatest postseason tight end of all time, is a good bet to make some big plays. That could be true even if the Buccaneers continue their postseason trend of relying on Gronkowski's blocking skills in-line with the offensive line on the majority of snaps. It's that trend that has sprung Brate for his 11 postseason catches.
Brate argued on Tuesday that it has been the Bucs' decision to mix up their personnel packages more since the bye week that has really put the offense into high gear. And now they'll be facing a Kansas City defense that allowed 954 receiving yards to tight ends during the regular season, the fifth-most by any team. The Chiefs blitz aggressively, which can throw an offense off the tracks like it did to the Buccaneers in the first half of Kansas City's Week 12 win in Tampa. The Bucs adjusted well after halftime and have learned a number of lessons from that first meeting.
"Kansas City's a very aggressive defense," said Brate. "They really challenge offenses. They play a lot of man coverages across the board and they blitz a ton. A lot of Cover Zero, really force the quarterback to get the ball out of his hand quick. They definitely present a challenge in that regard. We all have to be on-point with our protections and our hot routes, sight adjustments and stuff like that because they usually send one more guy than you can block. That's something that we weren't necessarily on the same page with when we played them in Week 12, and that's why we really struggled in the first half.
"I think that was a big moment for us as an offense; it kind of forced us to all get on the same page and make sure we were all on-point with some of the minor details and blitz pick-ups and routes and stuff like that. Yeah, it's going to be a challenge again on Sunday because I'm sure they're going to dial up some stuff that we haven't seen on tape. It's something that we've been stressing this week and it's definitely going to show up on Sunday."
Like some of his teammates, Brate has waited a long time to be on the NFL's biggest stage. He battled through some seasons with more downs than ups, and he came into 2020 unsure what his role would be or even how the NFL season would unfold amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Now here at the end, he's in position to potentially play a big role in Super Bowl LV. Stranger things have happened…this year.
"It's been a wild ride this year, to say the least, really for everyone," said Brate. "It's been crazy. It feels like we're living in some bizarro world. We were all locked inside for a long time with the quarantine and everything like that. The Bucs signed Tom Brady. We got Gronk. It's just been a crazy year."