Here's the career stat line for one particular Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver:
150 games played, 132 starts, 525 receptions for 8,907 yards and 57 touchdowns.
And here's another wide receiver career stat line:
147 games played, 68 starts, 394 receptions for 5,435 yards and 31 touchdowns.
Now, virtually any Buccaneers fan would be able to identify the owner of the first line as Vincent Jackson who, in his 12th NFL season and fifth year in Tampa, is clearly the dean of his position group. If the second line is harder to pinpoint, that's because we cheated. That's actually the combined career totals of all the other receivers on Tampa Bay's roster.
The difference was even more pronounced before the midweek move that brought in Cecil Shorts and his 218 career catches to replace Evan Spencer, who has yet to appear in an NFL game. Even so, the corps of receivers surrounding Jackson includes one player who just turned 23, another one who was an undrafted free agent just 16 months ago, and another who has mostly played on special teams during his three-year career.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday, September 7th.
From Jackson's point of view, however, those five actually make up a reasonably deep and definitely dangerous crew. The 23-year-old, of course, is Mike Evans, who is just the second player in NFL history to record two 1,000-yard seasons before turning that age. The former undrafted player is Adam Humphries, who has emerged as a very dependable slot receiver, winning that job very early in training camp this year. And the special teams ace is Russell Shepard, who looked like a much more viable NFL receiver during the most recent preseason.
And then there's Shorts, whose arrival instantly lengthens the receivers' overall level of experience.
"It's just adding a veteran guy, giving us more depth," said Jackson. "There's nothing like depth in this league. Just to be able to get fresh bodies in there, and obviously if things happen and guys get banged up, you have some guys that can step in quickly. A mature guy like that, I know he's going to pick up the system quickly and be able to help us very soon."
As the starters, Evans and Jackson are proven 1,000-yard receivers in the NFL, and Evans appears poised for even bigger things. Shorts has spent much of his five-year career as a number-two receiver and nearly hit 1,000 yards himself in 2012 in Jacksonville. The biggest leap this year could come from Humphries, who has given quarterback Jameis Winston a very reliable target in the middle of the field.
"Jameis calls him 'Mr. Reliable,'" said Jackson. "He's just that nice, safe, go-to guy when you need those crucial yards in the middle of the field. He just has been a great asset to us and obviously a great find. Hats off to our staff for finding such a talented player, kind of unknown coming out of college."
Humphries contributed 27 catches and 260 yards to that combined line above, but that was in about a half of the season as the primary slot receiver. He appeared to be a much more polished and explosive player in training camp and the preseason and he obviously has the confidence of his quarterback. It's the potential of young players such as Humphries and Winston – and the fact that they've all been able to develop uninterrupted in the same system under Dirk Koetter – that has Jackson confident in the Bucs' passing attack in 2016.
"We're a pretty young team, and when you have young guys that are getting a lot of playing time and a lot of experience, another year under their belt is big," said Jackson. "So we know we can see the maturity and the development of some of these young players that are very vital to us. Knowing that [we did not have] to change systems, having Dirk still here, him bringing in some of his coaches and we just continue to develop under that system. Another year for [quarterback] Jameis [Winston], he's so much more confident in everything that he's doing. You can definitely tell that everybody's just getting more and more comfortable with the people in this building."
- Atlanta's receiving corps, meanwhile, continues to be led by superstar Julio Jones, who caught 136 passes last year to tie Antonio for the second-highest total ever in a single season. Jones provides a conspicuously difficult test for Vernon Hargreaves in the rookie cornerback's very first regular-season game.
"He's one of the best, and everybody knows what comes with that," said Hargreaves, who said he likes the challenge of starting his career against Jones. "So we're getting ready to go. I'm excited. I'm not really too sure what to expect from a regular-season game, but at the end of the day it's football and I'm ready to play."
Hargreaves has shown that he can excel both on the outside and in the slot and is likely to be used all over the field. As such, it seems nearly certain that he'll find himself covering Jones at some point on Sunday, even if it's not a straight matchup all day. The Bucs have confidence in their first-round draft pick and don't mind getting an immediate look at how well he matches up against the league's best.
"Vernon is a very competitive guy and we've brought him along where he can play both inside and outside," said Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith, who as the Falcons head coach for seven years reaped many benefits from Jones's play. "So he's going to get his opportunities to get matched up against Julio in this ball game. Julio is one of the top receivers and there's no better way to measure where you're at than going against one of the best receivers in the NFL."
Jones has averaged 116 yards per game in his career against the Buccaneers, but that's hardly a damning indictment of Tampa Bay's defense. Over the last three years, Jones has averaged 112 yards per game against all of Atlanta's competition. Completely shutting Jones down may not be realistic, but the Bucs added such players as Hargreaves and free agent Brent Grimes in order to have a better shot against him and the other dangerous NFC South receivers. Hargreaves has years of battles with Jones ahead of him, the first one coming this Sunday, but it's not the first time he's been faced with a stiff challenge.
"It doesn't matter if it's a college game or an NFL game – I'm sure he's been in some big-time games at the college level," said Jackson of his young teammate. "It's going to be exciting for him, and as we go through the season I'm sure he'll get more and more comfortable in those situations. But, yeah, it's your first NFL game. There's really nothing like it."
- The Buccaneers' official injury report, already pleasantly light, got a little better on Thursday when tight end Luke Stocker returned to full participation in practice. He had been held out on Wednesday with a back ailment.
Stocker is one of two starting tight ends listed on the Bucs' offensive depth chart, and he's the most proficient blocker of the five players the team retained at that position. Koetter and his staff consider Stocker to be one of the most trustworthy players on the field for them, so his presence on Sunday is quietly important.
The only other players on Tampa Bay's injury report are two rookies: safety Ryan Smith (hand) and linebacker Devante Bond (hamstring). Smith was still full-go on Thursday while Bond was still limited.
The Falcons' injury report had more changes, but mostly because veteran defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux got a day off on Thursday after veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney had one on Wednesday. Neither was injury related. More importantly, Jones returned to full participation after being limited on Wednesday. Safety Dashon Goldson, a late-August signing after the team got short on depth at the position, was added to the report with a hamstring injury, participating in practice in a limited fashion.