Wide receiver Mike Evans was one of the stars of Tampa Bay's first win with Tom Brady, catching seven of Brady's passes for 104 yards in the 31-17 decision over the Carolina Panthers in Week Two. Evans scored the Bucs' second touchdown as they rushed out to a 21-0 first-half lead, and his 50-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter was the big play in the team's first touchdown drive.
Evans' exploits last Sunday brought some of his career statistics to nice round numbers. His 23-yard touchdown catch was the 50th of his career, and those 104 yards gave him 25 career 100-yard performances. Both are franchise records for a long shot.
Evans has already claimed virtually every record related to catching the football for the Buccaneers, but his touchdowns are of particular interest…at least to me. He passed Jimmie Giles for the receiving touchdown record quite some time ago, as Giles previously set the mark at 34. Now Evans is chasing a legend. Forget touchdown catches, we're talking about overall TDs. Evans has already passed James Wilder for second place in team history and the only man still ahead of him is the A-Train.
That would be Mike Alstott, for the one percent of Buccaneer fans reading this who don't already know that, or didn't already know that the touchdown record has been safely in Alstott's pocket for a decade and a half now. The man who would not be denied at the goal line finished his career with 71 touchdowns, and until Evans came along nobody else had even hit the 50-TD mark.
So, is Alstott's record ultimately in danger? Keep in mind that Evans actually has 51 touchdowns because he scored another one on a fumble recovery against the Giants in 2018 when Jameis Winston coughed the ball up while trying to run one in. That leaves him 20 behind his fellow Mike, and 21 away from holding the record alone.
The thing about touchdowns is that they can be fickle. Just look at Evans' TD totals from his first four seasons (2014-17): 12, 3, 12, 5. He had five more catches in 2017 than he had in 2014 but scored seven fewer touchdowns. That said, he settled in with eight touchdown receptions each in 2018 and 2019 and is well on his way to at least that many with two through the first two games of 2020.
Maybe we should look at this on a per-game basis rather than a per-season basis to smooth out the peaks and valleys. Evans has 51 touchdowns in 92 games played, which means he scores 0.554 touchdowns per game. If he can keep up that rate – and why not? – it would take him 38 games to get 21 more touchdowns and surpass Alstott. Taking potential injury absences out of the picture, 38 games would take us exactly to the midway mark of 2022.
That sounds pretty doable to me. Keep in mind that Evans is still only 27 years old and would be 29 during the 2022 season (his birthday is in August). He should still be going strong at that point. He's also under contract with the Buccaneers through 2023. I know those deals of five or more years don't often make it through the duration, but perhaps by then he will have another new deal. I'm sure the team would like Evans to be a Buccaneer for life.
No matter who ends up with the record a couple years from now, both Mike Alstott and Mike Evans will be forever remembered as two of the greatest players in franchise history. Still, it will be interesting to watch this chase.
One footnote: It occurred to me to wonder if it is more common for a team's all-time touchdown leader to be a running back, as is the case for the Buccaneers, or a wide receiver. As it turns out, it's pretty even. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, 16 have a running back as their career touchdown leader and 14 have a wide receiver with that record. One team, Buffalo, has a tie between a wide receiver and a running back and the last one is led by a tight end. It might not surprise you to know that team is New England and that tight end is current Buccaneer Rob Gronkowski.
If no other franchise sees a change at the top and Evans does overtake Alstott, that would completely even things out – 15 franchise each led in career touchdowns by a running back or a receiver.
Now on to your questions for this week.
A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thoughts on Scotty Miller's progress? Will we see him utilized more?
@hunter_vail, via Instagram
I fielded virtually the same question last week about Rob Gronkowski and I'm going to start at the same spot I did with him: Scotty Miller is getting "utilized" plenty. He has clearly won the third-receiver job, and in the opener he played 43 snaps while Chris Godwin played 66 and Mike Evans played 65. Last weekend, Godwin was not available but Miller's role stayed the same and it was Justin Watson who essentially took Godwin's snaps. In that contest against Carolina, Watson played 54 snaps, Evans 53 and Miller 42. Through two games, Miller has played 65% of the Buccaneers' offense snap, which is a very big role, especially on a defense that can also deploy Watson and tight ends Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cam Brate.
The Buccaneers have two many offensive groupings – "11" and "12" personnel. The first features three wide receivers and one tight end; the second features two receivers and two tight ends. The Bucs have been in one or the other for 108 of their 122 snaps so far. That means that, while it's not a perfect split because there are some different combinations of specific players within those two categories, the third receiver and the second tight end are competing for snaps. So far, Miller has 85 and Howard has 71.
So what Hunter is really asking me here is, are the Buccaneers going to throw the ball to Miller more often after he was targeted just three times in Week Two against Carolina? And the answer is that it is going to vary from game to game. The Buccaneers can call plays with Miller as the first read for Tom Brady, but that doesn't mean that's where the ball is necessarily going to go. Similarly, Miller could be the third read on another play and end up with the ball in his hands. As Bruce Arians has said many times, the defense dictates where the ball is going to go to some extent.
Miller was targeted six times in the opener in New Orleans, just one fewer than Godwin, and he ended up with a career-best five catches and 73 yards. It certainly looked like the beginning of a breakout campaign for the speedy second-year wideout, and I still believe that's what it was. Keep in mind that the Bucs had both Evans and Godwin for that game, and though Evans was a bit slowed by a hamstring injury he still demanded attention from the Saints (and drew two big pass-interference flags). Without Godwin in Week Two, the Panthers' defense didn't face that Sisyphean task of trying to get extra coverage on both him and Evans. It may be that without Godwin on the field, Miller found the Carolina defense paying him more attention.
With a few exceptions along the way, there's reason to believe that Evans and Godwin will be productive in almost every game they play. Even if the defense can dictate where Brady goes with the ball to some extent, there are also ways that the Bucs can force the issue. A good example is the perfect back-shoulder pass that Brady threw to Evans for a 23-yard touchdown against Carolina; there was a Panthers' defender right with Evans but there was no way he could react in time to stop Evans from spinning and catching the pass behind him.
Opportunities for a third receiver are not going to be as steady from week to week, so I think you'll see more games in which Miller puts up big numbers mixed in with others where the ball simply isn't finding him. But don't worry about his utilization. Brady clearly likes what Miller brings to the offense and the two forged an obvious connection during training camp.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster as it currently stands.
Is it possible for Todd Bowles to run a scheme with Carlton Davis Sean Murphy Bunting Jamel Dean and Antoine Winfield as the secondary? There are several teams that utilize the tight end and maybe Jamel Dean would be a better match up for a receiving tight end with his length and coverage skills compared to Jordan Whitehead who is more of a thumper who is very good in run support.
James P. Taylor (via email to email@example.com)
To clarify, you must be talking about the base defense, with four defensive backs on the field, because Dean is already on the field when the Bucs go to their nickel. And so far this year, the Bucs have been in the nickel for 61.8% of their defensive snaps, so Dean has been on the field a lot. Sure, you could extend this idea to still letting Dean cover the tight end when the opposition has one of those on the field in their three-wide alignment, but then you'd have Whitehead matched up with a receiver.
So what you're talking about is replacing one of the safeties with a cornerback explicitly to get (what you suspect would be) better coverage on tight ends. It's an interesting idea, James, and I get your point about Dean's size and length. It certainly wouldn't faze Todd Bowles to put an unusual grouping of defensive backs on the field, and a one-safety, three-corner package would certainly be uncommon.
But I don't think it's likely. The flaw in the argument here is that covering a tight end will be the only job that this player – be it Whitehead or Dean – would have to do during the game. It's obviously not as simple as that. As you mentioned, Whitehead is indeed a hard-hitter and he's been important to the run defense. He is currently fourth on the team with 11 tackles and six of those have come on running plays. There will also be times when Whitehead isn't as close to the line of scrimmage and the Buccaneers are playing something like a two-deep zone. You might say that Dean could handle that role as a deep safety – I don't know if that's true or not – but it would be a big waste of his true skills.
Dean is very, very fast. He ran a 4.3-second 40-yard dash at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine, which was better than any receiver clocked that year. That would help him against the faster tight ends but is of more use against even speedier wide receivers. He's also turning into a pretty sticky cover man, and his man-to-man skills against receivers – along with the good work of Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting – allows Bowles to be aggressive with bringing pressure at the quarterback.
Besides, Whitehead is anything but a liability when he ends up matched against tight ends. The Panthers only got one catch for eight yards from their tight ends last Sunday. The Saints fared better with Jared Cook's 80 yards in Week One but 46 of those came on a busted coverage by another safety, not Whitehead. Whitehead has 4.5 40-speed of his own and while he's not a tall safety he is absolutely ripped and very strong. Last season, the Buccaneers had plenty of moments when they lined him up in one-on-one coverage with the tight end and he more than held his own. If he hadn't the Bucs wouldn't have left him in that role.
Another thing about having Whitehead oppose a tight end is that doesn't always involve following him around on routes. On many occasions, where Whitehead lines up is based on where the tight end is before the snap, and often that is in-line with the O-Line. When Whitehead recognizes that the play is a run in such cases, now his job changes, and it's one that he's good at.
I like your creativity, James, and the idea of having Dean on the field as much as possible, but I would be surprised if we saw the package you describe become commonplace.
Any updates on Tyler Johnson? I thought he was going to play.
I think if this had been a normal offseason, and if Johnson hadn't missed most of training camp with a leg injury, he would have been in the thick of the battle for the third-receiver job. I'm not sure he would have beaten Miller but he might have shown enough to be in the mix to some extent. And then when Godwin became unavailable to play in Week Two, Johnson would have been a strong consideration to fill in.
Of course, we know none of that happened. The Buccaneers definitely didn't want to let Johnson get away so they kept him on the 53-man roster, but his path to playing time is proving longer than we probably imagined back on draft weekend. He didn't have much of a chance to carve out a role before the season began and now the problem is that the players who were available and did carve out roles are not going to give them up easily. Here's what Bruce Arians said about Johnson this week:
"He's getting better and better. He's been on the scout team for a while now and he's healthy, getting in shape. Took him a while to get him in shape. It will depend strictly on how these other guys play. Justin Watson had such a great camp, Scotty [Miller] has had a great camp. Missing that much time, it's going to be hard for him to break in there. We have a lot of confidence [in him]. He flashes it – we know what we have in him, that's for sure."
Sounds to me like the Buccaneers are as high on Johnson's future as they were on draft weekend, but that it might be a while before we see much of him in action … that is, unless injuries became a factor. It's worth noting that both Miller and Watson are on the injury report to start this week, with Miller limited by hip and groin ailments and Watson not practicing due to a shoulder injury.
What is the most challenging obstacle/opponent the Bucs have to face this season?
Well, as for the most challenging opponent, until someone proves otherwise I think we have to consider the Kansas City Chiefs the toughest out on the schedule. That's especially true since I'm answering this question after the Buccaneers have already played on the road against Drew Brees and the Saints, who were 13-3 last year and have a ton of that continuity that is so important in 2020.
But the Chiefs have a freshly-minted Lombardi Trophy in their possession and the most gifted young quarterback in the universe. As he showed once again last weekend against the very game Chargers, Patrick Mahomes seems to be able to almost will his team to victory, no matter how far they get down on the scoreboard.
Aaron Rodgers is also on the Buccaneers' schedule and he's playing like his hair is on fire and will probably turn 2020 into a long treatise on why the doubters shouldn't have doubted him. But Rodgers doesn't have the same array of pass-catching weapons around him that Rodgers does.
The most challenging obstacle has a much wider range of possible answers. Getting so many players to hold strong throughout the season on their quarantining effort won't be easy. It's gone very well so far and Lavonte David was gushing about his team's maturity on this effort in particular, but it wouldn't take much for a slip-up. That's an obstacle in front of every team in the NFL, of course.
There's also the always-looming possibility that a key injury or two will hurt the Bucs' chances. After a startling rash of injuries to big-name players swept the league in Week Two – though thankfully missing Tampa (knock on wood) – it was hard not to wonder if the lack of an offseason and preseason played a part. If there are going to be more injuries this year due to a lack of preparation, the Buccaneers won't necessarily be spared.
My main answer though would be the amount of time it might take for the offense under Tom Brady to hit its stride. On Wednesday, Quarterbacks Coach Clyde Christensen repeated what several others, including Brady, have said: It's a work in progress. Christensen said that there are still times when Brady looks like he's running somebody else's offense.
"Each week, each day, it gets closer to him running his offense – our offense, all of our offense," continued Christensen. "It's going to take a little time. It was whatever the opposite of a perfect storm is, just not to have those reps in the offseason, not to have March [and] April to work through some of these kinks and to get to know each other. You wish that this was the second preseason game and you're working through those things, but it's not. We're in the season and we just have to accelerate it. It's happening, but it's happening slowly. It's not a done process yet. It's certainly not done yet."
So the obstacle here is the lack of a preseason and an offseason, and how that is still affecting a team that is trying to integrate a new quarterback into its offense on the fly. The fact that this new quarterback happens to be Tom Brady means the ceiling on the eventual results is very high, but it may take some time to reach it.