Tight end Kellen Winslow has vital role to fill in Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense

At 6-4, 240, Winslow can be a matchup problem.

At 6-4, 240, Winslow can be a matchup problem.

TAMPA — From the edge of a practice field, the world is a beautiful place.

Receivers almost always run the right routes. They look fast, they look shifty, they look lethal. You can embellish the number of times they reach the end zone, and it's permissible to forget all the moments that fall short.

From this vantage point, there is not a thing wrong with Tampa Bay's collection of receivers.

Unfortunately, this is not a view of the real world. Not even close. Eventually, the preseason will end and the games will count. Which means the Buccaneers have a few more weeks to convince us — and themselves — that this group won't drop the ball.

I look at the guys who will be asked to split wide, and I see problems. The Bucs look at these same receivers and see potential. That doesn't mean someone is right or someone is wrong. It just means the picture is not obviously clear.

What we do know is the Bucs have one big-time receiver in Antonio Bryant. His maturity caught up to his talent last season, and Bryant became one of the elite wideouts in the NFL.

The issue is whether the Bucs have a sidekick for Bryant. A Noble to his Barnes. A third-down Garfunkel. You probably recall the Bucs had a ridiculous drop-off from their No. 1 receiver to No. 2 last season. The difference between Bryant (1,248 yards) and Michael Clayton (484 yards) was 764 yards, the second-largest gap in the league.

By itself, that is not a huge problem. Combine their production, and you have two receivers who averaged better than 850 yards. But what happens if Bryant gets hurt? What happens when defenses focus on Bryant in the fourth quarter of a tight game? What happens if the Bucs defense struggles and the offense needs to score quickly and often?

The Bucs will tell you they believe Clayton is about to be reborn. That a new offensive system and a show of faith will help him become the player he was in 2004. The Bucs will tell you they believe Maurice Stovall has put his injuries behind him and will take a step forward as a productive backup. They will tell you they believe Sammie Stroughter can be a revelation as a No. 3 receiver in the slot position.

Mostly, they will tell you they didn't fret about finding another wideout this offseason.

That's because they have Kellen Winslow at tight end.

"We felt like what we wanted to do at tight end could cross over to the receiver position," general manager Mark Dominik said. "There's kind of a mesh of the two, and we think Kellen and Jerramy (Stevens) will play a big role in the passing game."

It has been a while since the Bucs have had a legitimate pass-catching threat at tight end. Think before Gruden. Before Dungy. Before sanity. The last Bucs tight end to have more than 400 yards receiving was Jackie Harris in 1995.

The other 31 NFL teams have managed to find at least one 400-yard tight end since then. Heck, 30 teams have had at least one since 2001. Not Tampa Bay. Around here, the tight ends have mostly been dead ends.

That should change with Winslow, who can help the Bucs get creative with their formations. Instead of using a three-receiver set, they could employ a two-tight end formation with Winslow either splitting wide or lining up in the slot.

The appeal is that Winslow, at 6-4, 240 pounds, becomes a matchup problem for smaller defensive backs or slower linebackers.

"Usually, when you have a top, Grade A receiver, he is outside. You call man (coverage), you get whoever you want matched up on him," coach Raheem Morris said. "When you are talking about a tight end, you are talking about messing with the core of the defense. Are you going to dedicate and take one of your best players to mirror him and risk the potential that somebody else might get you? There are just so many things that go on inside the core when you try and match up with a player like that."

These days, it's not unusual for offenses to focus on exploiting the tight end matchup. Bo Scaife was Tennessee's second-leading receiver in '08, and the Titans won a division title. Antonio Gates was San Diego's second-leading receiver, and the Chargers won a division title. Dallas Clark was Indianapolis' second-leading receiver, and the Colts earned a wild card.

In other words, the Bucs may be right.

With Winslow on the field, they may not need to get 600-700 yards out of their second wideout. And they may not have to depend on an unproven talent as their third receiver.

As for Winslow, he is content to downplay his role.

"This is the NFL. Everybody has somebody on the team that can do what I can do," Winslow said. "We've got a lot of skilled guys here who can do a lot of things. I'm just a piece of the puzzle. I've been in the league long enough to know what I have to do."

Which is fine, for now. It's still preseason, and the catches still don't count.

But when they do, the Bucs are going to need Winslow.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com

fast facts

Idle target

The Bucs have gone 13 consecutive seasons — the longest streak in the NFL — without a tight end gaining more than 400 receiving yards:

Yr.Tight endYards

'08Jerramy Stevens397

'07Alex Smith385

'06Alex Smith250

'05Alex Smith367

'04Ken Dilger345

'03Ken Dilger244

'02Ken Dilger329

'01Dave Moore285

'00Dave Moore288

'99Dave Moore276

'98Dave Moore255

'97Dave Moore217

'96Jackie Harris349

'95Jackie Harris751

Tight end Kellen Winslow has vital role to fill in Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense 08/09/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 10, 2009 7:33am]

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