Tom Brady has thrown to the likes of Randy Moss, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker, to name a few. Over the course of two decades in New England he's had all kinds of talented targets around him. As he leaves the Patriots and starts a new chapter in Tampa Bay, he's inheriting arguably the best pair of starting wideouts in the NFL and maybe one of the best duos with which he's ever worked.
The Mike Evans-Chris Godwin combination was surely one of the top draws for Brady as he truly tested free agency for the first time in his illustrious career. The Buccaneers also have a potentially outstanding tight end duo in O.J. Howard and Cam Brate and a running back in Ronald Jones who took a big step forward in his sophomore season. It is safe to say, however, that the receiving corps behind Evans and Godwin is unproven, if not without its own potential to grow.
"There's still a lot of avenues that we can use to get some players, but we like our receiver group," said General Manager Jason Licht in advance of the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft. "We obviously like Mike and Chris. We think we've got the best tandem in the NFL, or arguably the best tandem in the NFL, and there are not a lot of teams that can say that. We think Scotty [Miller] still has a bright future. We've got some young guys. [We've got] Justin Watson, who stepped up late in the year. Then we've got some young guys that we liked from what we saw, not just in games in flashes, but in practice at the end of the year. [Head Coach] Bruce [Arians] has a very good background and reputation – and well-deserved – in developing some young talent, whether they're undrafted, late-round draft picks or street free agents. We feel pretty good with what we've got. Ideally, you'd like to add depth at every position."
Miller was a sixth-round pick a year ago, and while he lost some time to hamstring injuries he did show some big-play potential and has top-of-the-charts speed. Watson was a fifth-round pick in 2018 who spent much of last season contributing on special teams before getting more late-season action after injuries to Evans and Godwin. The receivers who Licht referenced as late-season additions are Cyril Grayson, Spencer Schnell and Jaydon Mickens, and also returning is former CFL standout Bryant Mitchell, who was having a strong training camp last summer before losing his season to a preseason knee injury.
There are various reasons to hope some of those players behind Evans and Godwin could emerge in larger roles in 2020, but they have a combined 69 regular-season NFL receptions. The player who proved to be a productive third receiver for the Bucs last year, Breshad Perriman, is now a New York Jet. He had 36 receptions for 645 yards and six touchdowns after his strong run at the end of the season. Miller or Watson or one of the others could provide the same output but it would not be surprising to see the team add to that group over the next month or so.
Licht said that Brady did not suggest any specific changes to the Bucs' group of pass-catchers but the two did talk about potential additions.
"In terms of his input on what we need – no," said Licht. "Mostly the conversations were what he's excited about working with. I had some conversations, as well as Bruce [Arians], about what we were ideally looking to add – maybe not even through the draft, maybe after the draft, maybe through free agency still."
The first rush of free agency is over and a number of receivers got big deals to stay with their current teams or find new NFL homes, including Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb, Robby Anderson and Emmanuel Sanders. The draft is next, beginning on April 23, and it is as loaded with highly-regarded wideout prospects as any draft in a long time. After the draft, there is typically a second wave of free agent signings as teams look to fill holes they weren't able to address over draft weekend from those players who didn't quickly get new deals in March.
If they choose to make it one of their top priorities on the first two days of the draft, the Buccaneers could easily land a receiver who could be expected to make an impact as a rookie. They would probably have to use their first-round pick (number 14 overall) to land the likes of CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs or Justin Jefferson. The second round (number 45 overall) could work if the target is the likes of Denzel Mims, Laviska Shenault, Jalen Reagor, Tee Higgins or Brandon Aiyuk. There are other receivers who might normally be considered second-round talents who could be pushed into the third round by the incredible depth of the position. Other highly-regarded pass-catchers include K.J. Hamler, Chase Claypool, Tyler Johnson and Michael Pittman, Jr. Those players present a wide variety of options in terms of size, speed and playing style.
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Licht will be mostly alone in his house when he decides whether or not to pick from that deep class of receivers, thanks to the stay-at-home precautions being observed to slow the spread of COVID-19. Those same restrictions will be affecting how teams prepare for the upcoming season, with no certainty yet as to when players will get to be back on the practice field. That could give some general managers pause when deciding whether to use the draft to fill a role from which they need immediate production. However, Licht says that team architects still must take a long-term view.
"In terms of having Tom on our roster and looking for immediate impact players, there's a balance here," he said, "Obviously, Tom isn't – probably – going to play for the next ten years. He's been kind of a freak of nature in terms of playing at the level that he has at his age because he takes care of himself so well. I can't put a timeline on how long is going to play, but you also have to think about the future as well. If you try to go for the guy that you think is only going to be able to play next year, and you expect him to come in and make an instant impact – I think you're fooling yourself a little bit. All of these players are going to need some developmental time, especially with the backdrop that we're in right now with the little bit of uncertainty of when we're going to be able to start. Players need reps, so there may be a little bit of focus on the intelligence and the ability to pick up things than there has been in prior years."
If the Buccaneers do come out of the draft without a new wide receiver they could add one with experience in their offense in Jaron Brown, who served under Arians for five years in Arizona and was a good complementary player who peaked at 31 catches for 477 yards and four touchdowns in 2017. Brown spent the last two seasons in Seattle but had just 30 catches in that span. In Arizona, he saw about 60% of his snaps in three-receiver sets but was not often the slot receiver, which would indicate that he was coming in when Larry Fitzgerald moved into the slot, which is a role that Godwin worked to great effect last year.
Other free agent wideouts who have not yet signed anywhere include Taylor Gabriel, Rashard Higgins, Ted Ginn, Paul Richardson, Chester Rogers and Demaryius Thomas.
At about 5-8 and 170 pounds, Gabriel might look like a slot receiver but he's spent most of his career playing primarily on the outside. That's where he got almost exactly 75% of his snaps over the last two years in Chicago. He's good with the ball in his hands, as he's ranked 17th in yards-after-the-catch per reception since entering the league in 2014. In that category, he's put up very similar numbers to Tyrell Williams and D.J. Moore. Gabriel had 67 catches for the Bears just two years ago.
Higgins is only 25 and might still have the upside that was suggested by a 39-catch season in 2018 for the Browns. Another receiver who has gotten most of his snaps on the outside, Higgins was something of a forgotten man last year in Cleveland. The Bucs might see if they can take the Browns' odd man out and get a lot out of him for the second year in a row after hitting on Perriman.
Richardson got a pretty big contract in Washington two years ago after some up and down seasons in Seattle but missed time with some injuries and didn't produce at a high level for the Redskins. He could be looking for a one-year "prove-it" deal somewhere else to get his career moving in the right direction again. Ginn could continue his late-season tour of the NFC South and give the Bucs another deep threat, as he still has very good speed. The issue with him and Thomas is how much they have left in the tank. Thomas has played with three teams over the past two years and also spent last offseason in New England before being traded to the Jets.
Rogers saw his season cut short by a knee injury but had 53 grabs in 2018. Rogers is a receiver who has been used a lot in the slot – 82% of his snaps last year – but his career average of 11.0 yards per catch might indicate he's not as dynamic with the ball in his hands as someone like Gabriel. That said, Rogers has a career 9.2-yard average on punt returns and could add value to the Bucs in that way.
It's even possible that the market is pumped up by a few more free agent receivers after the draft, if teams land replacements for expensive veterans and elect to move on. Either way, there appear to be plenty of options for the Buccaneers to add to Tom Brady's arsenal of weapons in the next couple months and an apparent motivation to do so.