After the pass-catching corps limped to the finish line last season, camp standouts will look to prevent such issues in 2022.
We’re all familiar with the big-name weapons in the Bucs offense, both in the present and the recent past.
Mike Evans and Chris Godwin have remained stalwarts for years, and Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski only added to the passing game’s lethality the past two years. As much as these players are to thank for the team’s best stretch of success in almost two decades, injuries and, uh, other circumstances late last year derailed the offense and put the team at a disadvantage.
Fast forward to training camp now, and it’s the clear the team does not wish to experience déjà vu. With Brown and Gronk out of the picture, the team invested $10 million per year in Russell Gage and even brought in Julio Jones with hopes he can stage a late-career renaissance. They drafted Cade Otton to play tight end, and Kyle Rudolph joined as additional veteran insurance to pair with Cam Brate.
As substantial and flashy as all those moves are, the real key to remaining insulated from injuries and the like lies further down the depth chart. And with the first preseason action one week away, the Bucs will hope to see some standout youngsters and depth pieces translate strong camps into actual game performance as they face a difficult roster crunch in less than a month.
With the team likely to keep 6 active receivers and 4 spots (Evans, Godwin, Jones and Gage) set in absolute concrete, names like Tyler Johnson, Jaelon Darden and Deven Thompkins have separated themselves in the early going.
Johnson is particularly notable since he made unfavorable headlines last year for showing up to camp out of shape. By all accounts, it’s clear he’s improved his conditioning and approach. Given he has largely failed to step up at multiple points, that drive is necessary to avoid the roster bubble.
“He came in in great shape,” Todd Bowles said earlier this week. “I think he’s learned the offense a little more so he’s playing a lot freer than he was the last two years. This is a great camp and he’ll get a lot of playing time and we’ll get to see what he’s really doing.”
Darden ended up being another player who disappointed in game action during his rookie campaign, both as a pass catcher and kick returner, so it was critical for him to stage a quick turnaround this offseason. He wowed in mini camp a few months ago, and now he’s been drawing strong praise from the coaching staff.
“I really like what Darden’s doing right now,” Bowles said. “His approach all offseason has been outstanding. He works hard, he keeps his head down and he plays ball.”
Given that practices have shown he’ll also get first cracks at the return jobs again, and Darden will need to make the most of several likely opportunities in these three preseason games to show that GM Jason Licht was not a fool for investing multiple draft assets in him.
Finally, Thompkins is the long shot who comes in with long odds. Just 5-foot-8 and less than 160 pounds, he’s the type of player who fills a specific niche and needs to maximize his opportunities. So far he has not disappointed.
On Wednesday’s practice, he took a jet sweep and made two defenders miss with some shifty cuts to gain several yards after the catch. He’s proven generally sure-handed, and he has easy explosiveness that’s also getting him looks at returner.
He’s a player who Bowles praised, unprompted, back at mini camp workouts, so the coaching staff will keep a close eye on him moving forward.
This all goes without mentioning Scotty Miller, Breshad Perriman and Cyril Grayson, who also will attempt to stake their claims. Not all these names will slip onto the 53-man, though one or two will likely land on the practice squad.
Given the headaches the team dealt with before, it’s a problem I’m sure it is happy to work through as camp pushes on.