A total of 330 players were summoned to take part in the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine, and no single position received more invites than the nation's wide receivers. Nearly 60 wideouts will be taking turns on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf this week, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be paying close attention to all of them.
"As far as other receivers, that's one of the things that we have to get answered here in the offseason," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter, speaking at the Combine in Indianapolis on Wednesday, three days before the receivers would actually take the field. "We're working through that."
Photos of the 2017 NFL Combine participants.
By "other" receivers, Koetter is obviously differentiating between the pass-catchers the team already has and the pool of potential additions that will be available not only in the NFL Draft but also in the soon-to-open free agent market. Koetter made it clear shortly after the end of the 2016 season – a very promising campaign that saw the team miss out on a playoff spot on a third-level tiebreaker – that one thing the roster definitely needed more of in 2017 was explosive playmakers.
That offense is led by a 23-year-old quarterback who has thrown for 50 touchdowns and more than 8,000 yards in his first two seasons. Jameis Winston is clearly the future of the team and likely to be the first real "franchise quarterback" the team has ever fully developed, or at least the first since Doug Williams. Focusing on upgrading Winston's targets is obviously a sound strategy.
"Dirk and I have lots of conversations," said Koetter. "We're on the same page here and he said at the end of the year that we need to add playmakers. We'll always look to add playmakers to this team and surround Jameis with guys that can make plays. Not to say that we don't like the players that we already have, but you can always have more."
Even though the Buccaneers are in Indianapolis to evaluate the new receivers about to enter the league, their first opportunity to add to the position will be through free agency, which begins in just over a week. It's possible the team will choose to address that issue through both avenues, much as they did a year ago with the two spots that were considered the greatest areas of need at the time. The Buccaneers signed cornerback Brent Grimes and defensive end Robert Ayers in free agency and then doubled up with their first two draft picks, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and defensive end Noah Spence.
Apparently, the Buccaneers won't be short on options when it comes to the search for more playmakers.
"There are a lot of players that we like at that position, free agents and in the draft," said Licht. "That's the process we're going through now. You can't always get what you want, but we're going to do the best that we can to add depth and to add playmakers."
The 2017 draft is considered relatively strong at the receiver position, if not necessarily as dominant as some of the recent classes, such as the one that brought Pro Bowler Mike Evans to Tampa. Clemson's Mike Williams, Washington's John Ross and Western Michigan's Corey Davis are all considered likely first-round picks at the position and another four or five could come off the board in the second round.
As for free agency, NFL.com lists four receivers among its top 25 free agents. The Buccaneers cannot publicly discuss those players until free agency begins and their contracts expire, but they can reach out to any persons of interest during a two-day pre-market negotiating period that begins next Tuesday.
On the other hand, the Buccaneers can talk to their own pending free agents, a list that does happen to include a wide receiver. That would be veteran Vincent Jackson, who just completed a five-year deal signed in 2012 that ranks as one of the best free agent signings in franchise history. Licht said the Buccaneers have spoken with Jackson about the situation, but it does not sound as if his eventual outcome will greatly affect the team's search for additional playmakers.
"We did have a conversation, or conversations, with Vincent," said Licht. "I have the utmost respect for him; everybody in the organization does. In my mind, in Dirk's mind, in the owners' minds, he'll be a Buc for life. Whatever happens, happens but we'll always want Vincent to be around the organization."
Added Koetter: "Like any guy who's a UFA, those guys have earned the right to see where they stand, to test the market. Vincent's no different than anybody else. In our minds, we're going to always think of Vincent as a Buccaneer. We've got to see how that plays itself out."
It's easy to understand why the Buccaneers are looking for more offensive skill-position players who can create explosive plays. The Winston-led attack ranked almost exactly in the middle of the NFL pack in both net passing yards and points scored, and given the youth of Winston, Evans and much of the offensive line, it is likely to continue trending upward. However, Tampa Bay ranked 29th in the league in overall yards gained after the catch (YAC), and 31st in average YAC per reception.
Finding some more YAC producers would help flesh out an offense that did feature some other very useful parts in 2016. Adam Hayward and Cameron Brate, both former undrafted free agents, produced 50-catch seasons as strong complements to Evans, and both have room to improve. They will not be forgotten even as the team searches for playmakers.
Photos of Jameis Winston participating in the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine.
"Anybody that plays in the NFL, guys get better, guys improve, and we believe in player development," said Koetter. "We don't count anybody out. You always want to increase competition and you're always looking to raise your talent level at every position, but whoever we have out there we've got the utmost confidence in those guys."
Hayward fleshed out the role he had begun to fill as a rookie in 2015 and turned into one of the league's more dependable slot receivers. Brate arguably made an even bigger splash, tying for the NFL lead among tight ends with eight touchdowns, and he's expected to be an even bigger weapon next fall.
"We liked what we saw in camp last year, but this year in training camp he was one of our most consistent players, and he maintained that throughout the season," said Koetter. "He's got a good rapport with the quarterback, he's got really good hands, he makes a lot of contested catches, he's really smart and he's getting better as a blocker. I'm really excited about him."