The Tampa Bay Buccaneers slot receiver position has been a weakness for a number of years now and it’s time the Bucs fixed that problem.
They have one of the leagues best wideout tandems in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, but the Bucs lack that quality third receiver who can alleviate some of the stress off Jackson and Williams, while providing whoever is playing quarterback a reliable third option.
The experiment with Kevin Ogletree lasted only four games before he was cut, and while Tiquan Underwood played relatively well once he signed, it’s unclear as to whether the Bucs would like him back. Eric Page, on the other hand, is a very raw prospect as a receiver, which diminishes his chances of making the slot receiver position his own over an established playmaker.
With free agency and the draft drawing closer, the Bucs will certainly have a number of options from each category. Here’s a look at some players the Bucs could target.
The free agent class of 2014 has some very viable options. While Anquan Boldin is the highest profile receiver on the market, he’s a player the Bucs won’t be making an offer too (unless something drastic happens). Some realistic options for the Bucs include Emmanuel Sanders, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Brandon LaFell, Riley Cooper, and Julian Edelman among others.
The five players listed above aren’t the best receivers on the open market, but they are five players who will fill the Bucs need at the slot receiver position. Key elements of playing the slot position are speed, good hands, and the ability to run effective routes. Being smaller in height is usually considered an asset too. All five of those players have the majority, if not all, of those attributes making their value high.
Another advantage is that the Bucs likely won’t have to shell out a ton of money to sign any of those guys, or any other free agent at that position. Edelman will be in high demand after his stellar season for the New England Patriots, and it’s likely the highest bidder will earn his services because Edelman has never been “paid.” If the Bucs do want him, they can pay him. Sanders and Heyward-Bey earned $2.5 million this season, with Sanders more likely to command a raise. Cooper and LaFell only made six figures on rookie contracts, so they could be affordable options, even if they do demand a pay rise.
The players already mentioned are still relatively young in terms of NFL experience. If the Bucs decided they want a player who has experience, then Jerricho Cotchery could be an option. He revitalized his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers last season after a couple of very mediocre years since his departure from the New York Jets after the 2010 season.
If the Buccaneers decide they want to kill two birds with one stone, then signing Devin Hester or Dexter McCluster would be ideal. Both players are elite kick returners, something the Bucs have lacked for what seems like forever. While Erik Page did a solid job last season, Hester and McCluster would be significant upgrades.
They also know how to play in the slot, something Hester has shown an ability to do during his eight year career. The chance to reunite with Lovie Smith may also be a factor that favors the Bucs. It should be noted though that Hester didn’t catch a single pass last year, the one year where Smith was not his head coach.
In his four years with the Kansas City Chiefs, McCluster has played exceptionally well and had a career year in 2013 where he caught over 50 passes. He has incredible speed that makes his value even higher. He began returning kicks in 2013 again after essentially taking 2012 off and ran two punt returns back for scores. His playmaking skills alone will make him a popular target for teams, and the Bucs should be in that mix.
The 2014 draft is one of the deepest in recent years at the receiver position, which gives the Bucs a number of options with their draft selections.
However, using their first round pick on a receiver should not happen. Jackson and Williams are an elite tandem, and while adding a player like Sammy Watkins would give the Bucs the best receiving corps in the league, they have too many other needs to use the seventh pick on a receiver. Even the idea floated that the Bucs take Watkins (assuming he is still available) and then trading Williams makes no sense as the Bucs haven’t improved whatsoever while wasting their first round selection.
However, using a pick in the second round or later would make more sense. The slot position is a weakness, but it’s not the number one weakness, hence why that first round selection is better off being used elsewhere.
The second round could see the Bucs pick up a great young player. Brandin Cooks of Oregon State, who had a massive year (128 catches, 1730 yards, 16 TD’s) could be a viable selection.
Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, both of LSU, are other projected second round picks that would make sense for the Bucs.
The latter rounds also give the Bucs options. The Bucs do not currently have a third round pick and because of that, the Bucs may look to the fourth round or later to make a selection on a receiver.
If they do that, they won’t be short of options. Robert Herron (Wyoming), Tyler Lockett (Kansas State), and Jalen Saunders (Oklahoma) could be fourth round picks. To help their draft stock, they all had excellent 2013 seasons.
Josh Huff (Oregon), Ryan Grant (Tulane), Jeremy Gallon (Michigan), Eric Ward (Texas Tech), Kevin Norwood (Alabama), Tevin Reese (Baylor), and Shaq Evans (UCLA) are all viable late round options.
The slot position is an area that the Bucs need to address immediately and 2014 provides them the best chance to do so. Whether they ultimately find their new slot receiver through free agency or the draft, there are a number of players with varying levels of experience who the Bucs could see running across the field for years to come.