On September 15 of last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released three players from their practice squad in order to devote those spots to a couple of defensive positions that had been thinned by injury. One of the players who was let go was first-year tight end Cameron Brate, a move that then-Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter later admitted had him "worried sick."
Koetter had reason to worry; the New Orleans Saints swooped in the very next day and signed Brate to their own practice squad. Coincidentally, the Bucs traveled to New Orleans a few days later for what would prove to be a 26-19 victory that Brate watched from the opposing sideline.
Some of the best photos from the first week of Training Camp.
Fortunately for Koetter and the Buccaneers, a player can be signed off of another team's practice squad if the signing team is willing to put him on their active roster. The Bucs, who never wanted Brate to get away, did exactly that on September 22, one week after the move that had put a knot in Koetter's stomach.
The move to reclaim Brate proved to be a good one when starter Austin Seferian-Jenkins missed a good portion of the season with a shoulder injury and the young Harvard product emerged as the team's best pass-catching tight end. However, that move last September 22 now looks like it may have an even greater impact on the 2016 season.
On Wednesday, after the sixth practice of Tampa Bay's 2016 training camp, Koetter – who is now the Bucs' head coach – confirmed what simple observation of the offense seemed to indicate: Cam Brate has risen to the top of a very deep group of Buccaneer tight ends.
"I don't think there's any big secret: Cam's been working with the first group," said Koetter. We're deep at tight end and Cam's at the top of the depth right now."
The Bucs won't publish an official depth chart until five or six days before their preseason opener, and even then it will still be a work in progress. Brate knows this, and that's why he plans to continue fighting for a starting position every day.
"It's so early," said Brate. "I'm just trying to come out every day and be consistent. That's so big for everyone – it's really the theme for training camp, to just try to come out and get better every single day. It's good to be on top, I guess, right now but we still have something like 10 practices and four preseason games, whatever, so [there's] a long way to go."
When the Bucs do put out that first depth chart, it may actually list two "TE" spots among its 11 offensive starters. That appears likely because the Buccaneers have no players listed as "fullbacks" on the roster; players like rookie Danny Vitale, who was labeled a fullback during the NFL draft, are now listed as tight ends. Veteran Luke Stocker, the best blocking tight end on the roster, started almost every game last year and could occupy the other TE first-team spot. In fact, he and Brate were on the field together for several snaps during full-team drills. The primary competition for Brate would still appear to be Seferian-Jenkins, a very promising talent who has seen his first two NFL seasons interrupted by injuries.
Brate's rise does not mean the Buccaneers have forgotten Seferian-Jenkins' potential.
"He's working hard," said Koetter of Seferian-Jenkins. "He's working at it. Austin's trying to get better every day. Sometimes, luck of the draw, a guy may not get balls thrown to him some days, or he gets it thrown to him and it's a bad throw or something like that. But Austin's working at it; that's all he can do right now. He's just got to work. Anybody that's fighting for a job, that's all he can do.
"The best players, the guys that are playing the best, are going to play. 'Catching up' for some guys is knowing what they're doing, 'catching up' for some other guys is, you've got to play better. I'd say [Seferian-Jenkins] falls into that category."
](http://www.buccaneers.com/news/article-1/Buccaneers-2016-Training-Camp-Schedule/12606920-b1fe-40af-ba9c-420899588921)What's becoming more and more apparent, however, is that Brate also has a deep well of potential to tap. That actually started to become evident last fall if one took a little bit deeper look into Brate's main statistics: 23 catches for 288 yards and three touchdowns. What makes those numbers a little shinier is the fact that they were achieved on just 30 targets.
Brate, in fact, had some of the best "yards per target" and "catches per target" numbers in all of the NFL, especially among tight ends. To qualify for the league lead in such categories, a player needs to average two receptions per games played by his team, or 32 by the end of the season. However, if one lowers that qualification to all players who caught at least 20 passes last year, Brate shows up rather prominently.
The former undrafted free agent averaged 9.60 yards per target in 2015, which ranked 17th in the NFL (minimum of 20 catches) and fourth among tight ends. Brate's rate was just behind that of New England's Rob Gronkowski, who averaged 9.80 yards per target, albeit on four times as many targets.
Brate caught 76.7% of the passes thrown his way by Jameis Winston, which ranked 24th in the NFL (minimum of 20 catches). That ranking is misleading, however, because 22 of the first 23 spots were occupied by running backs, who catch a lot of very short and unguarded passes. Philadelphia's Brent Celek, at 77.1% was the only tight end and only non-RB who had a better catch rate than Brate.
Of course, the Bucs knew Brate could catch a football from his tape at Harvard. What they didn't know was if he could block well enough to stick as a tight end in the NFL. Not surprisingly, that's a part of his game that Brate has been working on particularly hard. He's added five to 10 pounds to get up to a playing weight of 250, and he has joined all of the tight ends in extra sled work before every practice, as prescribed by Tight Ends Coach Jon Embree.
"I came into the league never really having done it, so it's always been a big thing for me to try to get better at blocking," said Brate. "I worked really hard in the offseason to try to gain some weight. Coach Embree's done a great job – we're out there 30 minutes early every day working technique. It's been showing up, not just for me but all the tight ends really. Just keep on improving our technique because if you have good technique you can block anyone.
"Coach Embree [says] the big thing for tight ends, usually we're blocking bigger guys, so it's all about footwork, making sure you have quick feet because usually your advantage is quickness. So getting our feet in the ground and hitting the big guys before they hit us, really."
Koetter and Embree surely break down every practice-field block by Brate and the rest of the tight ends during film review. What has made Brate stand out to the naked eye, however, has been his work in the passing game. If Brate continues to develop, and if he continues to produce enough to stay atop the depth chart, the Buccaneers could end up with one of the deepest tight end positions in the NFL.
"He's making plays," said Koetter. "He's making plays and he's making them consistently and he's improving in the run game. [Brate's run-blocking] is improving. Nobody's going to call him Mark Bavaro but he's improving.
Added Brate: "I think I've been doing a good job of getting open through these six practices and just being in the right spot at the right time. Hopefully when I'm in the quarterbacks know that I'll be where I'm supposed to be, a good outlet in case anything happens. I think I've been doing a good job of catching the ball. Obviously there's still a lot of room for improvement all across the board."