Midway through the 2016 season, the best thing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense has going for it is obvious: No QB-WR combination in the NFL has produced more than the eight touchdown passes from Jameis Winston to Mike Evans. Both Winston and Evans are on pace to produce the most prolific numbers ever at their positions in franchise history.
Evans is clearly a burgeoning NFL star, but Winston wouldn't be on his own record pace if not for contributions elsewhere in the passing game. And with the loss of Vincent Jackson to injured reserve, the failure of Louis Murphy to return from the PUP list additional injuries to the likes of Cecil Shorts and Russell Shepard and the utter lack of continuity in the backfield, it hasn't exactly been easy to keep the Buccaneers moving.
Instead, it has taken hard work. Extra work. Work that Winston and his pass-catchers are more than willing to put in. Beyond Evans, the team's top two contributors in the passing attack have been wide receiver Adam Humphries and tight end Cam Brate, two former undrafted rookies who are really in their first full NFL seasons. Winston has definitely appreciated the work put in by those two still-developing players, a process that started in the offseason but has extended into the fall.
"The offseason is so important and people really put in work in the offseason and you're able to develop some chemistry and you have a head coach who is going to put you in good situations, you've got to take advantage of those opportunities," said Winston. "Cam Brate in particular, is a person that's up here before everyone else, on off days he's up here for four to five hours a day. Same with Adam Humphries. It's no coincidence who's having success on our football team, the people that are putting in that work on a day-to-day basis."
Evans has already posted two 1,000-yard seasons in his first two years in the league, and he seems likely to become just the fourth player to start his career with straight such campaigns. It's Humphries and Brate who might be making the bigger leaps forward. Humphries, who was pressed into service largely due to injuries last year, won the slot receiver job straight out in training camp this year. With 30 receptions for 337 yards in eight games, he has already exceeded his 13-game totals from last year, and he's bumped his per-catch average up from 9.6 yards to 11.2.
It's a similar story for Brate, who played in 14 games last year and had 23 catches for 288 yards and three scores. In eight games this year, he already had a 28-291-4 line, and that touchdown total is tied for the league lead among tight ends. Brate and Humphries are following the lead set by Evans, who has been repeatedly praised by Head Coach Dirk Koetter this year for his consistency and dedication to his craft.
"We're staying after practice every day for 15 minutes working on our craft, catching more balls and running more routes," said Humphries. "We're trying to be the best at our positions, and Mike's obviously had a great year so far. That's a tribute to the hard work he's put in. When you see him make that one-handed grab [against Atlanta] it makes you want to go out there and make a play, too. It's fun seeing your teammates be successful and it lifts the spirits of your team."
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After the loss of Jackson, the Buccaneers have essentially used a committee approach at the flanker spot across from Evans. Shorts has started two games there and Humphries one, and Shepard saw his playing time increase significantly before his hip injury in Week Eight. First-year man Freddie Martino is also in the mix. As the second half of the season progresses, it's possible that some roles will become more defined, but for now the passing game is staying aloft through a variety of contributions. Evans is obviously the number-one target, but the attention paid to him creates opportunities for others, with Brate and Humphries in particular taking advantage. They can do so because they've been working on it since the spring.
"This offseason, we had a bunch of time on the weekends and everything to get together," said Brate. "We went over to Skyway Park and [put in] a ton of extra work, just developing that chemistry and getting the timing down for where he wants us to be on certain plays. That's huge, and it's showing so far."
There's room for improvement, of course, in the Buccaneers' 14th-ranked passing attack, and in Brate and Humphries individually. The way those two work, they should find it.
"It's always important, just for our chemistry, for our timing," said Humphries of the extra work they've put in. "We all have a good relationship, too, so it's always fun, just meeting up in the offseason and working. Just working on the timing, like I said. With 'Monk' coming in, Coach [Todd] Monken, he's helped us, staying after practice and really perfecting our craft. This is our job and we want to be the best at it."