Vincent Jackson, who has three 1,000-yard seasons in his last four years with the San Diego Chargers, will be split wide for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this fall. Dallas Clark, one of two tight ends ever to catch 100 passes in a game, will be at the end of the line. Mike Williams, who has been in the NFL two years and had exactly 65 grabs in each of them, remains a popular target. Doug Martin and Michael Smith could give the Buccaneers a new dimension as pass-catching threats out of the backfield. Third-year receiver Arrelious Benn and second-year tight end Luke Stocker are still on the rise.
Obviously, Josh Freeman, the Buccaneers' 24-year-old quarterback will have a lot of potential targets this season, the most promising field of pass-catchers he's ever enjoyed. The biggest difficulty might be figuring out how to get the ball in each of those players' hands enough times.
And yet, there is still a very good chance that Freeman will look to third-year man Preston Parker, the former undrafted free agent out of North Alabama, when he really needs a first down.
Freeman is learning a new offense under first-year Head Coach Greg Schiano and Offensive Coordinator Mike Sullivan, as are all of those potential targets. That group makes progress every day of work during the offseason, but obviously some players are going to progress more rapidly than others. Asked recently to identify a teammate or two who has really impressed him so far this offseason, Freeman landed on what might have been a surprising choice: Preston Parker.
It's a little less surprising, however, when one considers the confidence Freeman obviously had in his young teammate last year, and how Parker's career seems to be on a steady uphill climb.
In his second season in the NFL, after a rookie season in which he really only got a chance to play at the end and pitched in with a total of four receptions, Parker caught 40 passes for 554 yards and three touchdowns. That was actually the second-highest total on the team among wideouts after Williams' 65 catches, and that came despite the fact that he has yet to start an NFL game. Because he primarily plays the slot-receiver position – or has so far – Parker tends to make his biggest impact on third downs, when the team goes to three or four-receiver sets. Of Parker's 40 grabs last year, 25 resulted in first downs, a percentage of 62.5% that was second on the team to the 63.1% mark put up by Williams.
"On third down, the slot is important," said Parker. "They look to you to pick up the first down. They put those plays in by design; they want you to get past those sticks. I think it's because I'm kind of quick, kind of shifty. I'm quicker than fast…that's what they said at the Combine. That's what you need in the slot. They press you, you get a lot of looks, a lot of coverages. You've got to adapt to it."
Indeed, Parker has been adept at getting a good release off the line and working quick-hitters with Freeman over the middle, plays on which he can catch the ball on the run and pick up extra yardage. Parker's average of 7.7 yards after the catch last year was the best mark among all Buccaneers and doubly impressive in that it included very few straight-up deep bombs. Parker actually ranked 19th in the entire NFL in that category and – amazingly – second among all receivers. The top 16 players on that list are all running backs, who benefit from a healthy dose of screen passes that are almost all after-the-catch yardage, followed by tight end Brent Celek. Among receivers, only Atlanta's Julio Jones, at 7.9, had a better after-catch average than Parker.
Parker's confidence has steadily increased as he has become aware that he can produce results like that in the NFL, despite his humble beginnings.
"It's good to get a good year in because you know what to expect," he said. "You know how hard it is, you know how games are…you just know the circumstances so you can prepare for them now instead of being nervous or indecisive. Now you can just come out and play. I think really it comes from off the field, just growing up, knowing the NFL, knowing it's really a job and bringing it out here. I'm showing Josh that I can be a target. I just want to show him that I'm capable."
Parker needs to prove that to a new coaching staff, as well, as do all of his teammates. Schiano and his staff will have a difficult job determining which receivers to keep this year and which to put into primary roles from among the likes of Jackson, Williams, Benn, Parker, Sammie Stroughter, Dezmon Briscoe, Ed Gant and others. The good news for Parker, who also brings value in the return game, is that he has already impressed Schiano as much as he has Freeman.
"I think he's improved quite a bit, both as a returner and as a wide receiver," said Schiano. "Not that he wasn't productive before, because he was. But I see him doing things that are really going to be helpful. That's why I said the competition at wideout is excellent, and the cream will rise to the top. It's a good group. With more reps and more reps, Josh is going to become more and more comfortable [with them]."
Parker said the maturity he has gained over the past two years came in large part from seeking out the highly respected Earnest Graham to be his mentor. Graham is no longer with the team, but Parker has been fortunate enough to pick up a new role model in Jackson.
"I just take advantage of Vincent Jackson being here," said Parker. "Sometimes he's already ready, he's in the meeting room with his book open and his pen ready. I look to the side and say, 'Okay, I've got to get ready…he's been [in the NFL] eight years. It's good just to have him here so I can learn from him."
Obviously, Parker can also benefit from Jackson's presence on the field, as the big-play threat that the new Buc receiver provides is likely to draw an inordinate share of attention from opposing defenses. Parker expects his role to continue to be in the slot, and that position may be more ripe for the plucking than ever with Jackson and Williams on the outside. Parker knows he just has to continue to get open, because his quarterback already believes in him.
"It's good to have your quarterback single you out like that," he said. "It's great to hear that. I'm glad that it's showing to him. I'm glad he said my name and I'm just going to keep showing him that he can come to me on third down, or any down whenever I'm in there. He has confidence in me, that's all it is."