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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Jalen McMillan Wants to 'Change the Dynamic' at Bucs Games

Third-round rookie Jalen McMillan hopes to carve out a big role alongside two prolific receivers – much like he did at Washington – and help take the Bucs' offense to another level


In 2023, Jalen McMillan's fourth and final season at the University of Washington, an MCL sprain in his left knee caused him to miss the middle of the Huskies' campaign. As Washington stacked win upon win and moved into the thick of the national title race, McMillan was eager to get back on the field after averaging 103.7 receiving yards and a touchdown over the first three games. One of his fellow big-play receivers, Ja'Lynn Polk, told him to take a little more time to heal after he suffered a couple setbacks, because the Huskies needed him badly to achieve their ultimate goals.

"He kind of emphasized that to me, to always be ready," said McMillan. "I was rushing back from the injury, trying to get back, and I was reaggravating it, so he told me to take time off [because] they were going to need me for the stretch."

McMillan did return for the final four games, which included a national semifinal win over Texas and a loss to Michigan in the title game. He caught nine passes for 131 yards in a conference championship win over Oregon to secure a spot in the playoffs, then scored a touchdown in each of the two playoff games. Washington's high-powered offense included three players who would be drafted among the first 37 picks this spring: quarterback Michael Penix (eighth), wide receiver Rome Odunze (ninth) and Polk (37th). McMillan went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the third round, and team officials believe it was only the receiver's missed time due to the knee injury that allowed him to be available at that point in the draft.

Because of that series of events, McMillan is moving from one situation into another that could prove to be fairly similar. The Huskies had Odunze and Polk but still gave a major role to McMillan. The Buccaneers have Mike Evans and Chris Godwin but will be playing a majority of their snaps in three-receiver sets under new Offensive Coordinator Liam Coen, and McMillan could once again be that critical third target if he can prove he's the man for the job.

That will be determined in the months ahead, primarily in training camp and preseason games, and Head Coach Todd Bowles says its too early to tell how much of an impact McMillan will make as a rookie. If there is a competition for the third receiver spot, the primary competitor would be Trey Palmer, who essentially filled that role as a rookie in 2023 after being drafted in the sixth round. Palmer had 39 catches for 385 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie and sometimes affected the game in ways outside the stat sheet with his field-tilting speed.

Is McMillan capable of carving out a big role in three receiver sets right away? Godwin, who is now well established as an NFL star and has surpassed 1,000 yards in four of the past five seasons, was the last receiver the Buccaneers drafted in the third round. His rookie season was promising but the final numbers were modest: 35 receptions for 525 yards and one touchdown. Bowles said the key for McMillan will be mastering the offense above the neck.

"Physically, yes, but mentally we have to see how he grasps the system," said Bowles. "I can't answer that right now until he grasps the system, and how fast he grasps the system, how fast he catches on. Physically, he can step in and play football, but there's a lot more to the game than that."

View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookies arriving for Rookie Minicamp.

One concern for McMillan in terms of earning playing time is figuring out where he would fit in three receiver sets. He played about 94% of his snaps out of the slot in 2023, but as Buccaneers Wide Receivers Coach Bryan McClendon pointed out earlier this week, the team plans to move Godwin back into the role of their primary slot receiver. That would seemingly mean McMillan would need to be a good option at the X or Z positions to get onto the field with much regularity.

"The thing that you like about Jalen is his position flexibility," said McClendon. "He is a guy that can play all three spots, and when I say all three spots, I mean the X, the Z and obviously in the slot. He gives you comfort that wherever we need to put this kid to get him on the field the fastest, you can do that. When you watch him on film and see his ability to beat man-to-man and make those contested catches and get yards after catch and everything, you get excited."

McMillan pointed out that he wasn't always a slot specialist at Washington and said he feels comfortable playing inside or outside.

"Very comfortable," he said. "I played outside for two years at Washington before moving into the slot, so I kind of have that versatility."

There's not much more that needs to be said about Evans in the Bucs' offense after he posted his 10th 1,000-yard season in as many NFL years and had one of his best campaigns in years in 2023. Statistically, Godwin is the second-most productive receiver in franchise history and he's still only 28 years old as he moves back to a position from which he has drawn huge numbers. The Bucs' third-receiver spot, however, is less certain, and if the winner of that job can prove to be a difference-maker, too, the passing attack could be very dangerous in 2024.

McMillan wants to be one of the players who makes that happen.

"At Washington, the whole standard in the room was to make the stadium go boom," he said. "People come into the stadium with expectations, and you're supposed to meet them and let their emotions soar. Every time, we focused on that. Whether it's me or my teammate, that's just the goal. That's one of my goals, to change the whole dynamic of the stadium."

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