Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken said something interesting on Wednesday: "Really good quarterbacks make guys look really good." To be clear, he's not the first to say it. In fact, he's not even the first person within the Bucs' organization to say it during training camp. Head Coach Dirk Koetter has said the exact same thing. But for whatever reason, this time it triggered a train of thought that I'm going to ask you to go with me on.
Each time it's been said, it's been in reference to quarterback Jameis Winston, who has not only been working with the first team as you'd expect from a franchise quarterback, but due to his unavailability for the first three games of the season, has also been taking a substantial amount of snaps with the third team. This is to allow quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who will take the helm for the first three games, the opportunity to mesh with the first team as well. But a by-product of this split is that young, developing receivers are now getting more quality reps because of who is throwing to them: a guy that makes everyone around him better, according to Monken.
It just so happens that the Bucs are faced with a positional battle at receiver that is one of the toughest in recent memory. There are conceivably nine or 10 receivers vying for five or six spots on the 53-man roster because they're that good.
Let's look at some of the standouts (not all because we'd be here all day). I think everyone can agree on one rookie receiver that's quietly made a lot of noise… Justin Watson. The team's fifth-round draft pick out of the Ivy League's University of Pennsylvania has gone from pushups after dropping a pass in rookie minicamp to pushing off defenders and hauling in a toe-drag touchdown in his second NFL preseason game. A touchdown from quarterback Jameis Winston, who he's developed a consistent relationship with. He'd worked with the third team initially, getting reps with Winston that way. Even after being elevated to the second team and getting snaps in with the ones in some situational work, he's still been building up his rapport with Winston by routinely working after practice with him. And what do you know? Watson has made a strong case to be that fifth receiver, in front of even some more experienced receivers.
One of those receivers is Freddie Martino, who has been on and off the Bucs' practice squad since 2016. He routinely works more with the second team, but has been working with Winston after practice as well. His advantage is that he's been working within the Bucs' system for years now but never before has he gotten this many reps with Winston.
Then there's rookie Sergio Bailey who probably would have had little to no meaningful snaps with Winston had it not been for his reps with the third team. Bailey has impressed as camp has gone on. Enough to where the former Eastern Michigan receiver was bumped up to second-team work and even caught a touchdown in last Saturday's game in Nashville.
Have you connected the dots yet?
What do all these standouts have in common? They've all worked heavily with Jameis Winston. I can't help but wonder if the quality reps provided by Winston have played a role in how well the young Bucs pass catchers have been developing, therefore significantly contributing to why this receiver battle is even happening. Winston is elevating their game because he is setting a higher on-field standard. With Winston as their quarterback, they simply can't be 3s anymore.
Yeah, I just made a claim that Winston's reps with the third team are a major reason for why the Bucs have such a tough decision to make at wideout. If he's a great quarterback, he makes those around him better. If those around him are third-team receivers, he's making those third-team receivers better. Ipso facto, there are more receivers at a higher level, making the decision of who to cut or place on practice squad much more difficult. How's that for a hot take?
View photos from the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp practice Wednesday at One Buccaneer Place.
I'm going to go even further to say the benefit is mutual. The thing about being a quarterback taking reps with the third team is you don't have the same room for error as you would surrounded by veterans. As a quarterback, an experienced center can help in making the right protection call or "Mike" ID – which can sometimes just serve as confirmation that you each saw the same thing. Your receivers have had more reps at sight adjustments and being hot off blitzes so you're all on the same page. But when you're the only vet, you're more accountable by default. Communication is the most important factor in trust and to get that trust with guys you aren't as familiar with, you have to over-communicate.
Being able to communicate more clearly leads to more growth in Winston as a leader on the field, which will only further benefit him when he returns to his first-team responsibilities. Therefore, the work he's getting with the third team is helping him get better, too. He's getting the best of both worlds so it seems that Bucs fans will be getting the best out of him.