In March, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made one of the most dramatic forays into free agency in NFL history, signing former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady after his 20 years and six Super Bowl championships in New England. More than four months later, the players who are going to be catching passes from Brady in the team's upcoming training camp still find the whole thing a little surreal.
"[We] still have got to pinch ourselves, the fact that we have him at quarterback and everything that goes along with it," said a smiling Cameron Brate during a Zoom call on Thursday. "Everyone here is just super pumped."
Brate is one of the Buccaneers' returning tight ends, a very productive one whose 24 touchdown catches since 2016 rank fourth in the NFL at his position. As it turned out, the arrival of Brady eventually led to another dramatic change in Brate's situation, because the quarterback's new challenge in Tampa prompted his long-time buddy, Rob Gronkowski, to return from a one-year retirement. The Buccaneers worked out a trade with the Patriots to reunite Gronkowski with his QB and suddenly the team's tight end room is as stacked as any in the NFL. In addition to Brate and Gronkowski, the Bucs also have super-athletic former first-round pick O.J. Howard, blocking specialist Antony Auclair and promising young prospect Tanner Hudson.
For Brate, the addition of Brady changed how the football will be distributed in the offense in 2020, while the addition of Gronkowski changed how many footballs may be available to him and others in that distribution. From Brate's point of view, though, both additions are good for him and the Buccaneers.
"It will be really interesting for sure," said Brate. "I mean we've got a really strong tight end room top to bottom. We've got a lot of really good players in the room. Obviously, when people think of Tom Brady, he goes hand-in-hand with Gronk in the way he used him in New England. There's definitely some level of comfort for him throwing to tight ends and utilizing the middle of the field, obviously to running backs and other quick-game throws across the middle."
Brate, a Harvard product, originally emerged from undrafted obscurity with an intriguing 23-catch season in 2015 and then jumped up all the way to 57 grabs for 660 yards and eight touchdowns the following year. Those remain his career-high totals in all three categories, but he had another 491 yards and six scores in 2017 and has 10 touchdowns over the past two years. It's safe to say that the arrival of Howard in 2017 has cut into his potential for targets but Brate has remained a very valuable weapon, particularly in the red zone.
Gronkowski was targeted 72 times in 13 games by Brady in 2018, their last season together. His receiving yards per game that year (52.5) marked his lowest average since his rookie year but those are still excellent numbers. Gronkowski played through a myriad injuries that year, which prompted his original retirement, and he's healthier after a year off so those numbers could go up. Even if they stay level, that would seem to be soaking up some of the opportunities that could have gone to Howard and Brate. For his part, Brate doesn't yet know how the targets and snaps will shake out – who knows anything in the current pandemic landscape? – but he thinks it's going to work out for the whole tight end group.
"It's definitely going to be an opportunity to catch a lot of passes this year for us in the tight end room," said Brate. "It's hard to say exactly what all of our roles are going to be having not practiced together, but I'm super excited with the chance to work with Tom to try and to try and learn as much as I can from Gronk too."
Howard and Brate had nearly identical catch totals last year in their first season in Bruce Arians' offense, which hasn't always featured the tight end position too heavily. Howard had more yards and Brate had more touchdowns, but their combined total of 770 yards and five TDs was probably a little less than what the team was anticipating heading into the season. But Howard was better down the stretch while Brate had one 10-catch game and a pair of touchdowns in the season's second half. There was already reason for hope in 2020 but Brate thinks Gronkowski's presence will help the returning tight ends get even better.
"I think he definitely will," he said. "[He's] arguably one of the top tight ends in NFL history – someone that I personally looked up to when I was in college being up there in New England when he was playing there and really dominating. It's going to be awesome for O.J. and [me] to kind of just run things through him and really just see the way he works and plays."