It is no secret that the Bucs would like to improve their middle passing game, which lagged a bit last season. According to ProFootballFocus QB Josh Freeman completed 93 of 144 attempts for 824 yards in the 0-9 yard range of the middle of the field. When we look at a team with strong TE play and outstanding slot receivers, the New England Patriots, who relied on a combination of Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker to work the short middle, the contrast is pretty apparent. Tom Brady completed 169-218 for 1660 yards in same area of the field.
Now comparing the Bucs power-running, more traditional pro-style offense with the Patriots’ spread offense is not an apples-to-apples comparison, but I think the disparity highlights the Bucs strengths in the passing game, which is outside the hashes. Josh Freeman’s rating was 90+ on throws outside the hash marks with the exception of the deep right of the field. Tom Brady, by contrast, was under 100 rating in three of the six outside passing ranges. Clearly Freeman is a strong passer outside the numbers and the offense plays to his strengths. But to improve their production, the Bucs need to establish a presence outside of their outstanding wide receivers on the perimeters. Will that be WR Kevin Ogletree, newly signed this off season from Dallas? I think so. Ogletree is just 25 years old and his production has improved steadily as his number of snaps has increased. He could be the answer the Bucs are looking for coming out of the slot this season.
Recently Leo Howell highlighted the training camp situation at the TE position with a great piece. The TE picture is murky. While many writers, myself included, thought the Bucs should draft a TE high, the front office obviously disagreed. Luke Stocker does not really look like the answer as a pass catcher. He is not a bad receiver, but he needs more polish on his routes, but he proved last season that he can catch the ball: Stocker was targeted 21 times and hauled in 16 of those, with 2 drops. One player who is hard to figure out is Zach Miller, who the Bucs picked up after he was waived-injured by the Jaguars. Miller has struggled to stay healthy but the converted QB has proven an ability to catch the ball when given the chance. He averages nearly 15 yards per catch. Tom Crabtree, the former Packer, is the most intriguing TE prospect that the Bucs take to camp. He never had the chance to jump up the depth chart in Green Bay, but I would not be surprised to see him emerge as the starter by opening day in Tampa Bay.
Whoever the players they settle on for these two critical positions – slot WR and TE – the Bucs will see a lot more offensive success this year if they develop a complementary passing game over the middle to pair with their excellent outside passing game. The emergence of the middle passing game will help keep the chains moving and help to take some of the double-teams off WRs Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.