The Tampa Bay Buccaneers did something in last year's draft that they hadn't done in over a decade: They selected a wide receiver in the third round.
When it comes to the draft, the Buccaneers of recent vintage have tended to get their wideouts in the first two rounds or much later. In 2014, for instance, Tampa Bay used the seventh overall pick on Mike Evans then spent a sixth-rounder on Robert Herron. The biggest exception in the past decade was Mike Williams, a fourth-round pick in 2010 that paid off, more so than the second-rounder the team used on Arrelious Benn that same year.
Last April, thanks to a very deep class of rookie wideouts, the Buccaneers bucked their own trend by using the 84th overall selection on Penn State's Chris Godwin, the 11th wide receiver drafted overall. That was the first third-round pick the Buccaneers had used on a wideout since 2006, when they took Notre Dame's Maurice Stovall. Now Godwin himself can buck an even longer trend – the last time the Buccaneers took a receiver in the third round who went on to have a reasonably productive NFL career – say, 200 career receptions – was 1991, with Lawrence Dawsey.
Godwin is off to a good start in that regard. His rookie season ended with a bang, as his 39-yard touchdown catch on the Buccaneers' last offensive snap of 2017 gave Tampa Bay a 31-24 win over the New Orleans Saints. Godwin was also the talk of training camp, as coaches and teammates raved about his veteran demeanor and his steady production. In between, his rookie season was relatively quiet. And quietly impressive.
Three receivers were taken in the first round last April, but none were among the top five in receiving yards among rookie wideouts in 2017. Injuries played a part in that, as fifth-overall pick Corey Davis missed five games for the Titans and San Diego's Mike Williams, the seventh-overall selection, only played in 10 games. John Ross, taken with the ninth pick of the first round by Cincinnati, saw only a handful of snaps all season and injuries may have been a factor.
In terms of yards, Godwin was the third most productive receiver of the 32 who were drafted in 2017. He was fourth among all rookie wideouts in that category because undrafted free agent Keelan Cole had a strong season in Jacksonville. Though there is still plenty of time for future developments, particularly among those three first-round picks, the 2017 receiver draft has so far been more productive in the middle rounds. Once again, that's an indication of how deep the wideout talent pool was last spring.
There were 16 rookie wide receivers who recorded at least 100 receiving yards in 2017, four of whom were undrafted free agents. Three third-round picks were among the top five. The only players drafted before Godwin who out-produced him were Pittsburgh's JuJu Smith-Schuster, a high second-round choice, and the Rams' Cooper Kupp, a fellow third-rounder.
2017 Rookie Wide Receivers with 100+ Receiving Yards
The Rams (Kupp), Buccaneers (Godwin) and Lions (Kenny Golladay) all have reason to be very satisfied with their third-round wideout selections. That's an unusual haul for that round. In 2016, for instance, the top four rookie wideouts (in terms of yards) were all first or second-round picks and the first third-rounder on the chart was Austin Hooper at number 13. In 2015, Seattle's Tyler Lockett was fourth on that list but he was the only third-round pick among the top 20. In 2014, the top six rookie receivers were all first or second-round picks.
Godwin's rookie-season production was basically only limited by opportunity. A quick path to starter status or significant snaps was blocked by Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson on the outside and Adam Humphries in the slot. Godwin made three starts on the season*, once for a suspended Evans and twice for an injured Jackson, and in those three games he racked up 15 catches for 277 yards (18.5 ypc) and one touchdown. It is highly likely that Godwin's production will rise in the seasons to come as his playtime percentage increases.
If so, Godwin could quickly represent one of the most successful third-round picks the Bucs have ever used on a wide receiver. At the top of that list is Mark Carrier, a third-round selection in 1987 who is the top pass-catcher in franchise history, period. Carrier played six seasons in Tampa and finished with 5,018 yards on 321 receptions. That's the top yardage total in team annals and the second-highest receptions mark behind running back James Wilder (430).
Otherwise, Tampa Bay's history of third-round wideouts has not been stellar. Stovall played five seasons for the Buccaneers and was a special teams asset and a very popular man in the locker room, but he caught a total of 51 passes in that span. Marquise Walker, a huge third-round miss in 2002, never caught a pass in the NFL. Lamar Thomas, a 1993 third-rounder, only logged three seasons and 25 catches as a Buccaneer. Dawsey had a good, albeit relatively brief, Tampa Bay career, and before Carrier in 1987, the team had never used a third-round pick on a wide receiver.
That's still a relative rarity – Tampa Bay historically has used more sixth and seventh-round picks on that position than third-rounders – but it was the right move last season due to the depth of the talent pool. Godwin has a long way to go to catch Carrier among the Bucs' best third-round picks, and one good season does not conclusively prove he will have a productive career in Tampa. But he's off to a promising start, and that bodes well for the long-term production the team will be getting out of its 2017 draft class.
( Technically, Godwin did not start the season finale against New Orleans as the Buccaneers opened in a specialty package with Bobo Wilson and Adam Humphries on the field, but he took over Jackson's role opposite Evans and played a majority of the snaps.)*