Midseason Report: Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Mike Williams needs to improve in the second half.
Mike Williams needs to improve in the second half. /
Mike Williams' numbers are down.
Mike Williams' numbers are down. /

In stark contrast to the Buccaneers’ situation at running back, Tampa is pretty loaded at receiver and seems to be developing its tight end of the future, provided Luke Stocker can finally stay healthy. In a way, that’s part of what makes the Buccaneers’ offensive struggles so frustrating, they have a lot of weapons to throw the ball to.

Right now at receiver the Buccaneers have a plethora of talented young playmakers like Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, Dezmon Briscoe and Preston Parker, not to mention Sammie Stroughter and Michael Spurlock who can both contribute as well. Unfortunately for the Bucs these guys haven’t had a chance to really explode in any game yet, largely thanks to play-calling and poor execution. But if there’s one group on the team not to worry about, it would be the group at receiver.

Tight ends on the other hand have been a question mark. On paper Luke Stocker and Kellen Winslow look like a formidable duo but both have a high propensity for injury and Stocker may actually be the more-oft injured of the two, which is saying something.

We’ll start by taking a look at the receiving corps before turning our attention to the tight ends…

Play-calling Has Been Lousy

The Buccaneers receiving corps could be one of the most lethal in football if employed properly. Unfortunately it almost never is. When the Buccaneers can put three or four wide receivers on the field there are not a lot of defenses with the ability in their secondary to cover all of them, specifically four.

Dezmon Briscoe, Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn are all big-bodied (6’2 or taller), fast receivers who could start for most teams. Everyone saw what Mike Williams did last season, Arrelious Benn just smacks of potential and Dezmon Briscoe had to wait his turn but when it’s all said and done he may be the best of the three of them. Not a lot of teams can boast a trio of talented receivers like that, Tampa can and they also have a slot option that adds a fourth legitimate weapon to that crew in Preston Parker.

Trust me on this, the Bucs’ third and fourth options at receiver are better than almost every team’s nickel corner, and everyone’s dime-back. They have that kind of depth at the position.

The problem is the Bucs almost never test a defense that way, they’ll still forget to run the football but they’ll pass out of two tight end sets or with a full-backfield and never really test a secondary the way their receiving corps is built to.

Look at Green Bay’s offense, as we talked about on TPP radio Sunday night, the Bucs are a lot like the Packers were a couple years ago. I’m not saying they are nearly that talented (yet), but they have a promising young QB and some weapons at receiver.

When the Packers call a game they’ll spread a defense out and challenge them to either overload and come after the quarterback (which gives one-0n-ones to receivers who can win those match-ups) or they have to try and actually cover the routes which is far from easy. It puts pressure on the defense either way.

Dezmon Briscoe needs more chances.
Dezmon Briscoe needs more chances. /

The Bucs don’t really do that until late in games and that’s when they have the most success. It’s a lack of pragmatism that has this receiving corps mis-utilized and this offense limping instead of sprinting full-speed ahead.

The NFL, and football in general, is trending towards an offensive style that uses multiple looks to keep defenses off-balance. That may be news to you because the Bucs don’t typically employ that strategy but they could. The Bucs could spread you out and do it well, but they’re also equipped with the potential to employ a power run game too. Having one only makes the other more effective. Eventually you can throw out of one and run out of the other and vice versa.

Think about it, if you spread four wide with LeGarrette Blount in the backfield you’ve created mismatch problems across the defense. Now the opposing team has to decide if they want to defend with their dime set and take a linebacker or lineman off the field or whether they want to go nickel and get stuck with a safety or linebacker on a receiver (most likely Preston Parker). The defense  has to decide if they want to try and bring pressure and take their shots with one-on-ones or drop into coverage and give the Bucs space to run. Those are mismatches, folks. If they bring a dime set LeGarrette Blount or Josh Freeman can both take on DB’s and gain good yards on the draw. If they bring a nickel on to try and counter a run you have a linebacker on a fast receiver all day. It opens up beautifully.

Why is that not happening more?

That’s what’s frustrating about the receiving corps, is they could be doing so much more but have been held back by play-calling, and as we’re about to discuss, their own mistakes.

It’s Partially Their Fault Too

One thing that is a bit disturbing when you look at the Buccaneers’ first half is the number of targets compared with the number of receptions for the Buccaneers receivers. While most of the Bucs have been good about reeling in the balls that come their way, two of the biggest contributors to last year’s success have been far from reliable when targeted.

Mike Williams has been targeted 71 times and has 37 catches, meaning he catches just over half of the balls thrown his direction. Kellen Winslow is slightly better, having caught 35 of the 64 passes thrown to him. While these rates aren’t all on the receivers, they have to improve from both in the second half if the Buccaneers want to be successful.

In fairness, Williams had issues like this last season. In fact if Williams had caught more of his targets last season he would have been around 1,200 yards and 100 receptions instead of just 65 for 964. Last year Williams caught passes at the same rate, he had 127 targets with just the 65 pulled in for receptions. The problem is the lack of improvement. In the second half, if Williams wants to come close to his production from last year he’ll need to really get a grip on things and improve how often he catches the balls thrown his way.

Winslow on the other hand is having a down year in regard to the passes he’s bringing in versus times he’s been targeted. He caught about two-thirds of his targets last season while this year he’s just over half. There are obviously other factors at play here, but Winslow will also need to be better in the second half for the Buccaneers to be playoff-bound.

Finally, A Word on Luke Stocker

I heard someone say the other day that Kellen Winslow’s time in Tampa was done now that Luke Stocker is here. I can’t say how much I hope that was totally incorrect. Luke Stocker may develop into a great tight end someday, but through eight games I’m not even sure he’s been an upgrade over the group of tight ends Tampa had last year. Stocker has been injured more than Winslow in his first NFL season, a tough feat to accomplish, and has caught just seven passes all season.

Really though, the Bucs continued insistence on two tight end sets and forcing Stocker into the equation has been less about Stocker’s development and health and more about Greg Olson’s play-calling decisions. The Bucs would frankly be better suited to start bringing James Lee back out to block as the second tight end and running mostly single tight end, multiple receiver looks from here on out. At this point the Buccaneers roster is what it is and the two tight end looks haven’t been paying off so far.

In a lot of offenses the tight end can pay huge dividends when employed correctly, but in a lot of other offenses it’s not a staple. The Bucs are built in such a way that outside of Winslow, they probably shouldn’t be looking to get the other guys involved. The receiving corps is deep enough, and Kellen Winslow is a good enough receiver himself, that in passing situations it’s a waste of personnel to have a second tight end out on the field (unless it’s purely to block). In running situations, Stocker isn’t elite blocking anyways so you might as well telegraph it and put James Lee in there (or hell, leave him in to block on passing downs, again, pragmatism).

My point is, until I see otherwise I feel like Luke Stocker is about as effective an offensive weapon as James Lee. That’s not being harsh either, it’s just based on the Bucs personnel and strengths, I’d rather see them use Lee as a second tight end, and I’d like to see them use less two tight end sets all together and a lot of more spread.

Preston Parker has been a revelation.
Preston Parker has been a revelation. /

First-Half MVP

Preston Parker was a guy who took a different path to the NFL. Make no mistake about it, he’s always had that level of talent, but he also needed to grow up a bit to make the most of it. At FSU after several off-the-field mistakes he was finally dismissed, he then headed to Northern Alabama to be coached by Terry Bowden. He may have left the FBS to finish school, but at FSU Parker was truly a weapon, and after getting himself together at Northern Alabama, he made the Bucs last season an undrafted free agent.

Last year Parker paid his dues on the practice squad before finally seeing limited action due to injuries at the end of the year. This season he has made his mark. Parker won kick-return duties in camp and has emerged as the team’s leading receiver over the first half of the season. In many ways Parker has been what a lot of fans hoped Sammie Stroughter would develop into, a dynamic slot guy, probably at the expense of Stroughter himself. At 6’0 200, Parker has exceptional speed and agility, but also a durable enough frame to survive going across the middle of the field.

We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg with Preston, and make no mistake about it, he’s one of the best prospects on the Tampa roster.