Chris Godwin spent the first half of his NFL rookie season as a sort of multi-purpose Band-Aid. Now his Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a deeper cut they need him to cover.
The Buccaneers drafted Godwin in the third round this past spring and marveled over the next few months at his veteran-like performance on the practice field. However, the Bucs also signed deep-threat wide receiver DeSean Jackson to be their "Z" wideout, adding him to the existing duo of "X" receiver Mike Evans and slot receiver Adam Humphries.
Since all three of those roles are already ably filled, Godwin's playing time comes here and there, when he gives one of those three a break or comes in as part of a special package, sometimes to take advantage of his run-blocking skills. He has also played quite a bit in the kicking game and has recently taken on a bigger role as a gunner in the absence of some other key special-teamers.
In that sporadic playing time, Godwin has seen roughly a dozen targets, catching eight passes for 83 yards. Only once has he had more than two passes thrown his way in a game, and never more than three. There's a good chance that will change this Sunday against the New York Jets.
"His role has been primarily as a special teams [player]," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter of the rookie receiver. "Some of our gunners have been beat up [and] Chris has been playing more of a special teams role and [as] a fourth receiver. We said from the day we drafted him that we felt like Chris initially would start out as a four for us, but a guy that could ascend to a two. He has definitely shown signs of that. You can't ascend to anything until you get your opportunity."
That first opportunity seems to have arrived. The Buccaneers will play Sunday's game without Evans, their top pass-catcher and one of the most prolific receivers in the NFL. Evans has been suspended for one game due to his actions in an altercation with the Saints' Marshon Lattimore, and that leaves a hole of about five catches, 67 yards and half a touchdown per game in Tampa Bay's offense on Sunday. That's an average Evans game in 2017; often his output is quite a bit more than that.
"It's definitely going to be impossible to replace Mike," said tight end Cameron Brate, who is second on the am in catches and tied with Evans in touchdowns. "He's one of the best receivers in the NFL. But collectively – receivers, running backs, tight ends – those targets are going to have to go somewhere. It's a good challenge for us. Everyone across the board is going to have to step up without Mike, but it's a challenge we're looking forward to."
Indeed, it will not be Godwin's job alone to make up for the absence of Evans. However, he is the player most likely to see a large rise in playing time on Sunday. Jackson, Brate, Humphries and rookie tight end O.J. Howard may get more attention from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (himself a fill-in for the injured Jameis Winston), but they all already see a high number of snaps. Besides Godwin, who is well-suited to play the X, the Buccaneers have Bernard Reedy, a slot-receiver type, and Freddie Martino, a versatile player who was just promoted from the practice squad.
Godwin certainly thinks he has a chance to make a greater impact this week.
"I think it's a great opportunity for me," said Godwin. "Anything I can do to help the team is my main concern, so I'm looking forward to the opportunity. It's really exciting. It's an opportunity for me to stand up and show what I can do. I'm excited to help my team in a bigger role."
When Koetter described Godwin as a potential number-two receiver, that wasn't meant to put a theoretical ceiling on the receiver's future. The reason for the wording is obvious: The Buccaneers have a clear number-one receiver in Evans, who is still only 24 years old. Having Godwin develop into a productive complement to Evans in the years ahead would be the perfect scenario for the Buccaneers.
Godwin's teammates have already seen enough from him to believe that can happen.
"Me personally, I've liked what I've seen out of him since the first day he was here in OTAs," said Humphries. "I think he showed everybody what he had in those months in the offseason and in camp. He's a guy that we all know could be a number-one receiver down the road; he has that kind of talent. I have no doubt he's going to come out and play well on Sunday."
This weekend, Jackson may be the Buccaneers' number-one receiver in the Jets' eyes. As such – as Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken suggested on Thursday – New York may choose to have its top corner, Morris Claiborne, shadow Jackson (assuming Claiborne is healthy enough to play). In turn, that could create even more opportunities for Godwin on the other side. Monken also said something, which was actually in reference to running back Peyton Barber, that would be relevant for Godwin in that case: "If you take advantage of those opportunities, you will get more opportunities."
Though he's been largely out of the spotlight since his run of near-daily standout practices in training camp, Godwin believes his game has gotten stronger in the weeks since. He has better adjusted to the speed of the game and started to pick up some of the subtle nuances of playing receiver in the NFL. Godwin would obviously like his play in Sunday's game, even if it just an extended cameo until Evans returns, to be the beginning of a climb to a more substantial role. For this week, however, he's staying focused on the task at hand.
"I definitely think this will be the start of that, but I like to try to take it one play at a time," he said. "So each play I want to prove that I can execute at a high level, and more opportunities will come. I'm looking forward to that.