Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Unheralded receivers stepped up for Bucs on game-winning drive

TAMPA — The Bucs' come-from-behind finish Thursday night, going 67 yards with no time outs in the final two minutes to set up a game-winning field goal, would be impressive under most any circumstances.

Add in the chaos of the end of a preseason game, where the field is loaded with unproven players unlikely to make their team's final cuts, and it turned heads what undrafted rookie receivers Ervin Philips and Sergio Bailey were able to do.

Quarterback Ryan Griffin found Philips on the first pass, and he burst through contact from three defenders to get 12 yards and a first down. After an 18-yard pass to running back Dare Ogunbowale, Griffin found Bailey on back-to-back plays for 8 and 20 yards, putting the Bucs in field-goal range.

"Being around a lot of preseasons, you get to the third group and usually it's a cluster of guys making a lot of mistakes," receivers coach Skyler Fulton said. "You really can't even function and play football. For both of those guys to come in and make some mistakes in the game and still prove the stage isn't too big for them, that they're capable of making plays, to me that's been the most impressive."

The Bucs have a deep group of receivers, tough for undrafted rookies to crack, but coach Dirk Koetter said he was surprised how well Philips and Bailey stepped up under difficult circumstances.

"I've got to admit, those two guys, they did a good job," Koetter said Saturday. "A two-minute drive, no-huddle … I was really proud of those two guys. I think it elevates their confidence, and then you see Serge make a beautiful catch in the end zone today. You find guys like that in preseason. Like all of a sudden, Erv hadn't been playing outside at all, and he had to play outside in the game the other night. You can find out who pays attention in the meetings."

The Bucs have a strong recent history with undrafted players not only making the team but making an impact, like tight end Cameron Brate, running back Peyton Barber and receiver Adam Humphries. It's a reminder to this year's long shots of what's still very possible.

"I'm undrafted, man," said Bailey, 23, who caught 16 touchdown passes in the last two years at Eastern Michigan. "So I've got a lot not to prove to myself, but to prove to the world. Every day, I come in to work and want the coaches to know I'll do what it takes to be at my best."

Three years ago, Bailey was at Grossmont College, a junior college in California, and Fulton was the running backs coach there, so both have taken considerable steps forward to be working together in the NFL. Seventeen Bucs players caught passes Thursday, but Bailey led the way with 52 receiving yards.

Philips, 23, left Syracuse as the school's all-time leader in receptions, and as one of only three players in ACC history (with Pitt's Tyler Boyd and Duke's Jamison Crowder) with two seasons of at least 85 catches. Humphries said the entire receiver group takes pride in bringing all the newest player to play at a high level.

"It's awesome to see, because we take pride in our  group, and from the top guy to the last guy, we expect them to have no dropoffs and perform at a high level," said Humphries, who made the cut in 2015 as an undrafted rookie out of Clemson and has 143 catches in three seasons. "Even for me, coming in as a rookie, you think it's a long battle uphill to try to make this team. They come out and work every day, and they did well Thursday night."

The Bucs have 11 receivers competing for six spots, with Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin and Humphries set as the top four. Fifth-round pick Justin Watson and returning receivers Freddie Martino, Bobo Wilson and Bernard Reedy are also competing for those final spots,knowing another or receiver or two could come back on the practice squad.

Bailey said the established receivers have taken time to help bring the rookies along, both in summer workouts and into training camp.

"All the vets: D-Jack, Mike, Hump, even Reedy, they've all been helping me," Bailey said. "All those guys are really helpful and I appreciate them."

Making plays in the fourth quarter of the first preseason game may give Philips and Bailey the chance to get on the field a little earlier in the next game Saturday at the Titans. That means playing with better teammates and tougher competition, but the Bucs want to see how they handle that.

"It earns them more reps in practice with different quarterbacks," Fulton said. "Now that they've proved it in a game, the goal this week is to give them more reps with the other quarterbacks and continue their progression."

Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.

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