Staff Writer Scott Smith and I have been discussing a series of topics surrounding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in an offseason-esque debate. On Monday, we deliberated on the team's Offensive MVP. On Tuesday, we went back and forth on the Bucs' Defensive MVP candidate. Next up on the rundown, it is time to chat over who was the most impactful rookie for the Buccaneers in 2022.
First-year players do not always leave a meaningful mark during their acclimation process to the NFL. For all, there is a learning curve. For some, the adaptation and absorption happens at a quicker pace. Individually for the Bucs, there were several impressive performances and significant contributions from the rookie class including tight end Cade Otton, running back Rachaad White and punter Jake Camarda – all three of whom were listed as the starters on the depth chart at their respective positions (eventually). Although the stats may not wow for Otton and White, they made their presence felt.
Otton concluded the year with 42 receptions for 391 yards, a 9.3 average per catch and two touchdowns, including the game-sealing score against the Rams. The prototypical 'Y' tight end became a go-to target for Tom Brady over the middle of the field and White garnered attention for his shiftiness and lethal stiff-arms. The Arizona State product concluded the year with 129 carries for 481 yards and a touchdown. Then there is the case of Camarda, who consistently pinned the opponent back and gave the Bucs positive field position. On 79 total punts, Camarda averaged 48.8 yards per punt, with his longest being a stunning 74-yarder against the Rams. During the 2022 season, Camarda pushed the opponent inside their 20-yard line 22 times.
With this talented group, it poses a challenge in choosing the most impactful. There are some pretty evident top-candidates, however, pinpointing one is difficult. Picking first certainly carries weight so Scott, who do you nominate on this point?
Scott Smith: TE Cade Otton
I recently answered a very similar question in one of my mailbags and I went with punter Jake Camarda (by just a hair over Otton), so I'll go in a different direction this time just to be contrarian. Also, since we're only picking two candidates and only three were highlighted in the intro above, allow me to briefly give some love to a few others. Zyon McCollum looks like he'll be an ace gunner at the very least, Ko Kieft makes it fun to watch a guy block and delivers some hard hits on special teams and Deven Thompkins breathed some life into the Bucs' return game late in the season.
In picking Camarda in that mailbag I conceded that if the Bucs hadn't drafted the Georgia star they would have found somebody to punt the ball, just maybe not somebody as impactful. But maybe they would have. Camarda replaced Bradley Pinion, who then went to Atlanta and averaged 45.9 yards per punt, with a net of 41.2. That's not as good as Camarda did (48.8 gross, 41.6 net), but it's not far off. None of this is to demean Camarda's performance, which truly justified the use of a fourth-round pick on him and suggested the Bucs will have one of the league's best punters for quite some time (including four seasons on a rookie contract). I'm just looking for a way to weight that against what Otton did.
If the Bucs did not draft Otton – also in the fourth round like Camarda – would they have been able to find a replacement that gave them what the rookie did. Internally, I don't think there was a likely candidate. Cam Brate is one of the most accomplished tight ends in team history but, when asked in the postgame locker room after the Dallas loss about that possibly being Tom Brady's last game, he joked (?) that it might be his too. At this point, I doubt Brate would have supplied the same level of blocking as Otton could in order to be on the field for 70% of the snaps, like Otton was. Fellow rookie Kieft filled a nice role for the offense but probably couldn't have provided the same receiving contributions. And the small role that Kyle Rudolph ended up suggested he wasn't going to be a 70%-snap guy, either.
Externally, maybe the Bucs could have found a suitable replacement, but there's no guarantee of that and it's not like they were dripping with cap space. My guess is that without Otton the Bucs would have gotten very little production out of the tight end position. Brianna mentioned Otton's numbers earlier – his 42 catches led all rookie tight ends and his 391 yards were third. He was also second in that group with 19 first downs produced; that's the kind of chain-mover the Buccaneers needed. Otton showed off terrific hands and the ability to hold onto the ball while taking hard hits on shots down the seam.
Otton only caught two touchdown passes in his rookie season, but they were big ones. His first NFL score came with nine seconds left against the Rams in Week Nine, turning a 13-9 deficit into a 16-13 comeback win. His second came with three minutes left against the Saints as Brady rallied the Bucs from 13 points down to win, 17-16, in Week 13. Otton impressed with his maturity and veteran-like carriage from Day One after he was drafted and looks like he'll be a big part of the Bucs' offense for years to come. He was the team's top rookie in 2022.
Brianna Dix: P Jake Camarda
It is tough to argue with Scott's point but to play devil's advocate, I am going to go with "Clutch Camarda." Given the Bucs' worst-ranked rushing offense – influenced by the flow of games and Tampa Bay falling behind – going with rookie running back Rachaad White seemed irrelevant. Despite White's dirty runs on first/second down and prowess as a slash back, overall, opponents did not have to account for the Bucs' run game.
For the purposes of this debate, Camarda is deserving of top-rookie status. The fourth-round draft pick put up record-setting numbers in 2022. Against the Los Angeles Rams, Camarda averaged 59.5 yards on six punts – which is the best mark in team history. He hit a 68-yarder in the first half to the cheers of the crowd and a jaw-dropping 74-yarder in the third quarter that tied for the longest punt in franchise history. In addition, he lobbed a 66-yarder in the fourth frame that barely touched the goal line for a touchback. Camarda kept the team's hopes alive by repeatedly pinning the Rams inside their own 10-yard line. He was awarded the game ball for commanding the field position battle and achieved NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. Special teams' players do not usually occupy headlines and if so, it is usually for mistakes: missed field goal, botched onside kick, blocked kick, etc. In this instance, Camarda drew attention for elite play – a rarity in the NFL, especially for a punter.
As Scott mentioned above, Camarda averaged 48.8 gross (team's previous single-season record, 45.9 by Bryan Anger in 2016) and 41.6 net on 79 punts in 2022. Without Camarda flipping field position in favor of the Bucs, the club would have been in many tough situations during the course of the season. The former Georgia Bulldog's average punt traveled 59.4 yards from where he kicked it this season, which ranked fifth in the NFL. Additionally, Camarda's average hang time of 4.57 seconds was fourth in the league, giving coverage men time to get downfield. Camarda made a sizeable impact for the Buccaneers in 2022, deserving of recognition.