Mid-Season Report: Tight Ends/Receivers
By Patrik Nohe
We continue our mid-season breakdown of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by examining their receiving corps.
If there’s one group of players that has exceeded the Buccaneers wildest expectations it’s been the receiving corps. Going into the year with two rookie receivers is hardly an ideal proposition for most NFL teams, but the Bucs have gone 5-3 with their tandem of rookies, and both have actually made notable contributions to the offense along the way.
Two years ago this Buccaneers regime decided to go out and add a dynamic target when they traded for former Browns TE Kellen Winslow. This past off-season they added Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. If the first eight games of the season are any indication, then the Bucs have probably addressed their receiving corps adequately. Apparently you can build a good group of receivers almost overnight.
The Bucs passing numbers this season haven’t reflected the play of their receivers. They’re currently just 19th in receiving yards in the NFL. But as many know, stats can lie. Throughout the season this receiving corps has stepped up and made plays when it’s been called upon to. Whether it was Michael Spurlock coming up with big catches against the Bengals and Browns (Michael Spurlock just hates the state of Ohio, apparently) or it was Mike Williams putting the Bucs in position to beat the Rams with effort after the catch, these young receivers have demonstrated the type of intangibles that will make them successful as their NFL careers progress.
Winslow has had a statistically average season, 33 receptions for 337 yards. But he’s doing that in spite of almost constant double-coverage. Coming into the year the Bucs’ opponents knew what Winslow was capable of and have chosen to make the rookies beat them rather than let the talented tight end do it. Teams regularly double Winslow, roll a safety over the top of him and do whatever it takes to remove him from the passing game. Even still, when Josh Freeman needs to find a guy to move the chains on a third-and-five, Winslow is still money. He can line up for a play in which the whole stadium knows the ball is coming his way and still come down with it. He should see more open looks in the second half of the season now that Williams and Benn are beginning to demonstrate their ability to hurt defenses.
What can’t you say about Mike Williams? He’s a near-prototypical receiver. He’s arguably the steal of the draft. At 6’2, 212 he’s got the size and the speed to threaten a defense anywhere on the field. He had first round talent but fell due to character issues, I don’t think there’s a team in the league that doesn’t wish they’d spent a bit more time looking into Williams now though. All he’s done in his first 8 games is lead the Buccaneers, and all rookies, in receiving. He’s snagged 5 touchdowns and over 500 yards receiving already and is on pace to smash the Buccaneers rookie receiving records with over 1,100 yards and ten touchdowns. Barring a Michael Clayton-like sophomoric collapse, Williams looks like he’s going to have a long, fruitful career catching passes from Josh Freeman
Benn came in as the team’s second round pick and hasn’t quite hit the ground running the same way as Mike Williams has. On the young season Benn has just nine receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown. Mike Williams will get that in a game by the end of the season, but there’s still a lot of reason to be optimistic about Benn. He caught his first touchdown against Atlanta last weekend and Raheem Morris has hopes that he will eventually develop into the Buccaneers deep threat. Conventional wisdom says most receivers don’t hit stride until year three. Williams has come in like a ball of fire largely due to the considerable chip on his shoulder. Benn will develop more over the second half of the season but early indicators are he only needs to be a solid number two, in light of Williams meteoric rise. Incidentally, Arrelious grew up down the street from, and played football through college with Dolphins corner Vontae Davis. Davis is one of the league’s top corners now, hopefully the benefit of going up against him for years will pay some sort of dividends down the line.
Spurlock has been a solid contributor on special teams but he also has a knack for coming up with big receptions when the Bucs need it most. He is 3rd on the team in receiving right now with 205 yards and two touchdowns. What impresses about Spurlock so far has been his timeliness and his ability to make the most of limited opportunities. I’m not sure that Spurlock isn’t a better option at third receiver than Sammie Stroughter.
Stroughter is another promising young player, a 2nd year player out of Oregon State with a lot of speed an elusiveness. Ideally I think Stroughter could develop into a very good slot option, but so far this season he has battled injuries and Michael Spurlock has been a bit more Johnny-on-the-spot. Still, Stroughter, Spurlock, Williams and Benn give the Bucs an impressive young tandem of promising receivers.
Obviously there are others on the team that have contributed in the receiving corps, John Gilmore and Ryan Purvis have combined for 4 catches as the reserve tight ends since the Bucs cut Jerramy Stevens. But the core of players in this receiving unit are a very bright spot for the Buccaneers. If things go according to plan (which they rarely do in the NFL) the Bucs could have an extremely potent group of receivers and tight ends for years to come.
I don’t know that Mike Williams will continue to produce at the same level he did in the first half. As I mentioned earlier, he has had the benefit of getting a lot of single coverage with Kellen Winslow drawing the double-teams. Before the season teams were going to make the Bucs rookie receivers beat them, now it’s become more obvious that they can actually do that. So I expect to see Winslow have a better second half along with Arrelious Benn while Mike Williams levels off a bit as he sees more attention from defenses.
Like I said I don’t give out many A’s and the lack of top-tier production from this unit, even despite being young, doesn’t allow them to be in the A-range. But this is an impressive group, an exciting group and it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch them grow with Josh Freeman for the foreseeable future.