Near the end of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2018 training camp, Head Coach Dirk Koetter was asked to identify a position on the team, other than its completely-revamped defensive line, that had seen the most improvement since last season. Koetter's knee-jerk reaction: Wide receiver.
It was a curious, and perhaps instructive, choice, given that the Buccaneers had added only one player at the position, a fifth-round draft choice who wasn't likely to have a big role on offense in the early going. Koetter's contention would seem to hinge on a number of good players getting better…and, in fact, there's a strong chance of that happening.
Mike Evans is already an all-star but he had the lowest yardage total of his four-year career in 2017. DeSean Jackson is a well-established big-play maker in the NFL but the Bucs had trouble unlocking that explosiveness in his first year in town. And second-year man Chris Godwin is coming off an outstanding finish to his rookie season, one that hinted at a great deal of near-future promise. The Buccaneers also have a rock in the slot-receiver role in Adam Humphries and that aforementioned fifth-rounder, Justin Watson, plus do-everything reserve Freddie Martino.
Godwin is probably the best candidate in that group for a big step forward in production this year, but he thinks the whole group is going to take that step together.
"I think we can be a lot better," said the 2017 third-round pick out of Penn State. "We made a lot of good plays last year, but I think that extra year of experience with the unit that we have, all the bumps and bruises that everybody took, all of those were learning experiences for us. Everybody's a year older, a little more experienced. We understand what our roles are in the group, and I think that everybody accepting those roles and doing them to the best of our abilities is going to really help us take that next step as a receiving group."
Godwin had 10 catches for 209 yards in the last two weeks of his rookie season, but the biggest play was undeniably the 39-yard touchdown catch that beat New Orleans in Week 17. It was an incredibly dramatic event, coming on the Bucs' last offensive snap of the season, and it helped launch Godwin into a very strong 2018 offseason. He was praised repeatedly by Koetter throughout the spring and into training camp.
"I think it did a lot for my confidence," said Godwin of his touchdown against the Saints, a play that made have ended the game in a far less satisfying way if he had been tackled inside the 10-yard line to let time run out. "I've always believed that I can play at this level, but there are certain things that when you first get into a league that you look for – your first catch, your first touchdown, stuff like that. For me to have my first touchdown come on the last play of the season took that weight off my shoulders and [said to me], 'You belong.'"
As for Godwin's long-term future in the NFL, which teammates talk about in glowing terms, Koetter offered a possible roadmap on Wednesday by comparing him to former Atlanta Falcons star Roddy White.
"I mean that totally as a compliment because Roddy's one of the best guys I've ever coached," said Koetter. "[Godwin] competes in everything – that was Roddy. Competes, toughness, smart; could play every position; would knock your block off if he got a chance; wants the ball in crucial situations."
To get the ball in those situations, a receiver first has to be on the field, and that was the biggest difference between Godwin's relatively light production in the first half of 2017 and his big numbers at the end. Every indication is that he will see even more playing time in 2018, including an opening-week depth chart that essentially refers to him as a co-starter with Jackson.
Godwin didn't see that depth chart, though, and he didn't see any reason to worry about it.
"At the end of the day, it's going to take all of us in the receiver room to make it," he said. "We're not going to be able to go where we want to go if we're not all doing our part. If we're worried about the wrong things like who's starting or who's getting so many catches or opportunities, then we're going to be distracted and not be able to perform.
"All that you can do is go out and just play. If you put your best forward, regardless of what happens after that you have to be able to live with the results. So I try to do that. That's how I try to live."
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Wednesday at AdventHealth Training Center.
EVANS READY FOR A LEAP: The Buccaneers started the 2017 season with a four-man battle for the two starting spots at safety, with veterans Chris Conte and Keith Tandy as the incumbents being challenged by rookie second-rounder Justin Evans and late signee T.J. Ward, who had been released by the Broncos. It only took about a quarter of the season, however, for Evans to nail down one of the two spots and begin playing every down of every game. Meanwhile, something of a timeshare continued in the other spot for much of the year.
That was a quick rise for Evans, but Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith thinks his ascent might be even steeper in his second season. On Wednesday, Smith revealed that he believes the former Texas A&M star to be an NFL all-star in the making.
"In my opinion, he's got Pro Bowl capability," said Smith. "I tell you, he's got that ability to be a Pro Bowl player. And he is one of the most athletic safeties that I've been around. I think he's got a very high ceiling. He's a safety that's got athleticism of a corner. He's prepared himself to have a really good year this season – a breakout season."
Smith said that Evans has a good grasp of the Bucs' defense now, made even better by a stretch in training camp during which injuries prompted the team to play the safety as a nickel corner on the first-team unit. That experience gave Evans a better understanding of what the Buccaneers' other defenders are trying to do on every play.
But the factor that may allow Evans to rise to Pro Bowl status is a better understanding of what opposing quarterbacks are trying to do, particularly the three MVP candidates the Bucs routinely face in the NFC South. Evans and the Buccaneers will go up against one of them on opening day when they face Drew Brees and the Saints this Sunday.
"I feel that the biggest area that he'll have a jump is not giving up the explosive plays," said Smith. "He's had an opportunity to now face the quarterbacks in our division. Sometimes when you're a safety, the quarterbacks will look you off and [you'll] give up the play down the field. I think Justin will see great improvement there. I don't think there's going to be plays like that there's going to be those, 'Uh-ohs.'"
Last year in two games against the Saints the Buccaneers gave up five completions of more than 30 yards, including one for a touchdown and two more of 23 or more yards. The first one was a 36-yard touchdown pass down the middle of the field to Ted Ginn in the Saints' Week Nine win in the Superdome. The Bucs won the rematch in Tampa, 31-24, but still gave up two 40+-yard completions.
Those were surely not all the fault of Evans and the Buccaneers' secondary as a whole, hindered to some extent by an unproductive pass-rush up front, had a tough 2017 season. But they're expecting big improvement in 2018 and some of that could come from Evans making a big leap and actively shutting down those big plays.
HEALTHY IMPROVEMENT: The Buccaneers dealt with a number of injuries during training camp and the preseason, which surely put them in the same boat as the NFL's other 31 teams. The Bucs lost a few players to injured reserve – most notably defensive tackle Mitch Unrein and linebackers Devante Bond and Riley Bullough – but mostly came through the preseason with their core intact.
Tampa Bay was without the services of a number of players over the last two weeks of the preseason but it appears that the team is trending in the right direction now that the games are starting to count. In fact, Koetter said on Wednesday that his squad was, "probably the healthiest we've been for a long time."
Indeed, only one player on the 53-man roster (or the 11-man practice squad) was completely unavailable for practice on Wednesday as the Bucs started game-planning for Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints. That would be rookie defensive tackle Vita Vea, who has not practiced since suffering a calf injury on the third day of training camp.
There were three other players who were limited in practice on Wednesday, according to the season's first official injury report, but even that was mostly good news. Starting left tackle Donovan Smith and rookie cornerback M.J. Stewart both returned after missing roughly two weeks due to foot and knee injuries, respectively. Guard Evan Smith, who is usually one of the team's two active reserve linemen on game days (when he's not in the starting lineup), was also limited due to a hip injury.
Of course, the Saints did the Bucs' one better – or perhaps three better – listing only one player on their Wednesday injury report. Andrus Peat, the team's starting left guard, did not practice due to a quad injury.