In the early stages of most NFL practices, there are a couple periods reserved for drills known as ‘indies.’ That’s short for ‘individual’ and it is referring to individual positions, as in, ‘Hey linebackers, you go work by yourselves over there and the offensive linemen are going to bounce off each other over there.’
If you happen to be in attendance at one of these practices, which of these groups are you going to watch during indies? It’s the receivers, right? How sharp are that guy’s breaks? Which of these rookies looks fast? Was that a one-handed catch? And when the indies are done and the players get back together for 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 drills, it’s the same story. Passing plays are more interesting than runs (particularly with no tackling) and your eyes are going to follow the football. And where does that football go? To the receivers!
As the Buccaneers set to conduct the first practice in their 2022 training camp on Wednesday, I am here to tell you that the receivers are going to be the life of the party. And that’s not just for the reasons stated above. I know that telling you to pay particular attention to the receivers during a practice is like advising you to keep a look out for that Steph Curry guy in the NBA finals, but in this particular camp in this particular season, there is no position that offers more overall intrigue than the wideouts.
Just look this cast of characters
The Established Star Looking for Even More
Just because he’s as reliable as a metronome doesn’t make Mike Evans any less exciting to follow. He gives this unit star power right up front, which it needs to be interesting, and he’s usually good for a handful of impressive downfield catches in training camp. In fact, this is the first tweet I ever had blow up:
So, perhaps you heard that Mike Evans made a KINDA GOOD catch today in practice. Here's what it looked like. pic.twitter.com/IzhbKeNxBg
Evans is famously the first player in NFL history to begin his career with eight straight 1,000-yard seasons, and continuing that streak is obviously a goal. But Evans is also still trying to make his game better this deep into his career. During the Bucs minicamp, he spoke about how he has continued to refine the ways in which he maintains his body and what he has found to be the ideal playing weight. He believes that has him position to be even better in his ninth season. Give me a front-row seat for that.
The Key Cog in the Offense Fighting Back from Injury
My favorite “on-pace-for” note from last season was Chris Godwin’s catch total in December. Through the first 13 games of the season, Godwin had 92 receptions, which was already the third-highest single-season total in franchise history. He had four games to go and he was on a roll after big games in wins over Atlanta and Buffalo; heading into the 14th game, against New Orleans, he was on pace to finish with 120 receptions, which would demolished Keyshawn Johnson’s team record of 106 in 2001.
And it’s not like he was slowing down in Week 14. He had five catches through the first 16 minutes of the game. He then caught a sixth pass just two minutes into the second quarter, out in the left flat. Just as he turned upfield, cornerback P.J. Williams came flying in at knee height and that was it for Godwin’s season and record chase. Torn ACL. Done for the year.
Godwin’s high volume of catches does not tell the full story of how critical he was to the Buccaneers’ offense. One of the best blocking receivers in football, he routinely was involved in the blocking right around the point of attack, often after going in motion and stopping at the end of the line. He was the Bucs’ best option in the slot and their best run-after-catch guy. When constant two-deep safety looks limited Tom Brady’s downfield opportunities, he responded with a quick-rhythm attack and that made Godwin’s role underneath even more important.
Godwin’s injury did not stop the Buccaneers from giving him the franchise tag this offseason or subsequently signing him to a long-term deal. Clearly, they envision him remaining an extremely vital part of their attack. The question now is, how soon will that be true? Bowles and Godwin resisted attaching a specific timeline to the receiver’s recovery during the offseason, so it’s unclear how close he is to a full recovery. Will he start training camp on the active/PUP list? When will he get back on the field? Is there a chance he’ll be in the lineup against Dallas in Week One?
The Big Free Agent Acquisition
Providing the Buccaneers with a little bit of insurance if Godwin is not ready at the start of the season is former Falcon Russell Gage, one of the Buccaneers’ most important offseason additions. Gage can do some of the same things that Godwin does, in terms of having outside and slot versatility, and he emerged as a top option in Atlanta last year when the Falcons’ receiving corps was thinned out.
Of course, Gage himself did not see much offseason action as he was dealing with an unspecified injury, so he hasn’t yet started working on his onfield chemistry with Brady. Once Gage gets on the field, it will be very interesting to watch how he is utilized in the offense and how much of Brady’s favor he can gain. It helps that the veteran quarterback reportedly urged Gage to join him and his group in Tampa.
The Bucs’ offense didn’t change much between the 2020 Super Bowl campaign and last season, and that was just dandy because it was a very, very good offense. The 2021 offense ranked second in the NFL in total yards and total points and first in passing yards, and that was even better than the 2020 squad that finished seventh, third and second in those same categories. Wasn’t broke, didn’t need fixing. It’s hard to maintain that type of continuity in the NFL for long, however, so this year’s offense is going to have to adjust. Rob Gronkowski is retired, Antonio Brown is gone and Godwin is an early-season question mark. Gage could be in for a lot of action.
The Rookie Trying to Crash the Party
The Buccaneers didn’t select a wide receiver at any point in the draft for the first time since 2016, so we don’t have to factor a rookie into the equation when trying to figure out how the depth chart will shake out, right? Not so fast.
The Buccaneers may not have spent any draft capital on this position in 2022, but they did sign four undrafted rookies, and one of them has already made a splash. It’s possible that fellow rookies Jerreth Sterns, Kaylon Geiger or Kameron Brown will eventually emerge from the pack, but out in the lead at the moment is Utah State’s Deven Thompkins.
You know who is looking forward to watching Thompkins closely in training camp: Todd Bowles. Yeah, that’s a good thing for the young receiver. Said Bowles when asked at the end of minicamp if anyone in particular had stood out to him: “I would love to see what Thompkins does in training camp. He’s quick, he’s fast, he’s explosive off the ball and he’s made some good catches.”
Thompkins is listed on the Bucs’ roster at 5-8 and 155 pounds, and that might be a bit generous. That’s how a guy who piles up 102 catches for 1,704 yards and 10 touchdowns last season goes undrafted. But if you’re looking for someone unexpected who might crash the party in the Bucs’ crowded receiving room, Thompkins is where you should start.
The Deep Threat Looking for a Rebound
Scotty Miller, a sixth-round pick in 2019, had a surprisingly impactful role in the Bucs’ Super Bowl-winning offense. He seemed to connect with Brady quickly during training camp and then he emerged as a solid deep threat, catching 33 passes and averaging 15.2 yards per grab while scoring three times during the regular season. In the playoffs, he turned in one of the most important plays during the Bucs’ four-game run, a down the sideline dagger of a touchdown with just seconds left in the first half.
Last year, however, a turf toe injury halted his momentum and kept him out of the center of the offense even after he returned to the field. He caught just five passes in the regular season, then another five in two playoff contests. There’s no reason to believe that Brady and Miller can’t find that same chemistry again. Miller is just 24 (turning 25 in less than a week) and the injury he worked through last year should have no lasting impact on his speed. The question is, do the Buccaneers have too many other options? Miller’s first order of business is competing with the likes of Tyler Johnson, Cyril Grayson, Jaelon Darden and Breshad Perriman for the remaining three or four spots on the wide receiver depth chart.
The Second-Year Player Trying to Nail Down the Return Job
Speaking of Darden, he’ll have to battle to keep his spot, as well. A fourth-round pick in 2021, Darden eventually won the Bucs’ punt and kickoff return jobs, but he didn’t hold them for the entire season. The Bucs thought an immediate impact in the return game was a possibility for the North Texas product when they traded up to take him in the draft, which would give him time to carve out a role in the offense with his shiftiness and lateral quickness.
That may be the same spot that Darden is in a year later. He had just six catches during his rookie season, so he certainly has not found that steady job in the passing attack yet. And that means he may need to win the return jobs once again in order to be on the roster and have a helmet on on game days. Wide Receivers Coach Kevin Garver said during the spring that the wideout competition was wide open beyond the obvious stars at the top.
The Late-Season Breakout Trying to Prove It Was No Fluke
The Bucs were running thin on options at wide receiver late last season after Godwin and Evans were injured in the same game. Heading into Carolina in Week 16 it seemed likely that Antonio Brown, himself just coming back from a three-game NFL suspension, and Tyler Johnson would be the starters. Instead, it was Grayson who joined Brown for the first play and ended up being on the field for 79% of the offensive snaps. The coaching staff had been impressed with his commitment to some of the dirty work of the position, like blocking at the line and downfield, and that got him on the field, which subsequently gave him a chance to catch three passes for 81 yards. The following week in New York, Brown abruptly left the stadium shortly after halftime and it was Grayson who was there in the game’s waning seconds to catch a 33-yard game-winning touchdown pass from Brady.
Grayson then ran into his own hamstring trouble and wasn’t able to continue building on those two eye-catching performances. It seemed that the former collegiate sprinter had turned a corner in his long path to developing into an actual NFL receiver, and it also seemed like Brady and the team’s coaching staff had come to trust him on the field.
So now the question is, was that a brief but interesting blip in Grayson’s NFL trajectory or was it a sign of what is to come? There are bigger names on the list of receivers the Buccaneers are taking into training camp this year, but there may not be a more intriguing one than Cyril Grayson. The wide variance in the possible outcomes for Grayson make him a must-watch figure in this year’s training camp.
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