Ever since Kellen Winslow Jr. joined the Buccaneers in 2009, he has been QB Josh Freeman’s favorite target. Not only did he perform spectacular his first season as a Buccaneer, his 77 receptions and 884 receiving yards were both single season record breakers in Buccaneers history for a tight end. The following season, he had 66 receptions for 730 yards, averaging 11.1 yards per carry. Throughout his career in Tampa, he has not missed any games and has caught 143 passes for 1,614 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s proven to be a reliable receiving threat for the Bucs. Although he hasn’t miss any games and has played exceptionally well, his knee injury has plagued him for the last several seasons, and has needed to be operated on six times in the last seven years, therefore, limiting him in practices and workouts, and in how often he is on the field. This may or may not be the reason he is such a huge liability when it comes to the running game. The Bucs have two other veteran tight ends on there roster with John Gilmore and Jeremy Stevens. Stevens was recently let go due to drug charges, and Gilmore is an excellent run blocker, but lacks good hands in receiving.
In the 2011 NFL Draft, the Bucs offered their 2012 4th round pick to the Eagles to move up 12 spots and grab tight end Luke Stocker from the Tennessee Volunteers to fill this void. Stocker was viewed as a potential 3rd round pick and one of the only complete tight ends in the draft, excelling in both blocking and receiving. The Bucs had a draft grade of a 2nd round pick for Stocker, and when they saw that he was available as a 4th round pick, they aggressively sought out to make him a Buccaneer. He was underused in the passing game in college, but was a reliable pass threat when given the ball. Due to not receiving as many catches as he deserved, he gained a lot of experience in blocking for the running game. In the 3 years Stocker played in college, he started all 3 years and in his senior year had 39 receptions for 417 yards and 2 touchdowns, averaging 10.69 yards per carry. Throughout his total career in college, he recorded 85 receptions for 956 yards and 8 touchdowns, averaging 11.24 yards per carry. These records surpass that of seven time pro bowler tight end Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys, when he played for Tennessee in college.
Stocker should exceed all expectations at the pro level. He isn’t the greatest run blocker or most intimidating deep threat at the tight end position, but with good pro level coaching, the weight room, and Kellen Winslow to mentor him, I predict a bright future for Stocker. He is an excellent route runner, is great at exploiting open space and defensive zones, and is ideal for creating defensive match up challenges. Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator, Greg Olson, is very fond of the two tight end sets for his offense, and used this formation 25.5% of the time last season. However, he was unsuccessful with it last year because when defenses saw Winslow on the field, they knew that it was unlikely for the Bucs to be running the ball on that play. Now they have the versatility to confuse defenses when lining up in a two tight end set. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the two tight end set, allow me to explain the benefits of its uses. When used, the defense will choose to prepare for a run or pass play. If they prepare for a running play by closing in their players at the line, the Bucs can audible their strategy to a passing play and have Winslow, Stocker and Mike Williams immediately become a deep threat. If the defense spreads to prepare for a passing play, the Bucs can audible to a running play and power their way up the middle. Look at how good the Patriots did with the two tight end sets with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. This is what having a player like Stocker will bring to our offense.
I expect Luke Stocker to make an immediate impact. In his three years playing in college, he’s had to adjust to three different offensive systems under three different head coaches. He’s shown that he can pick up a system fairly quickly and adapt to what is expected of him. During this offseason, he’s spent time practicing and working out with Jason Witten to prepare for this season. At 6’5 and 258 lbs., he presents a big presence in aiding the running game. The fact that he is a rookie could also be a benefit in the red zone. With all the other offensive threats we have, Stocker could go unaccounted for. Expect Stocker to make an immediate impact and possibly find himself playing more downs than Winslow towards the later part of the season. Not because he is better than Winslow, but because using Stocker could potentially prolong Winslow’s career as a Buccaneer.