Martin Fennelly: Receivers could be Bucs’ early salvation

Bucs Ryan Fitzpatrick, here taking a snap in practice, has at his disposal an improved receiving corps. (LUIS SANTANA | Times)
Bucs Ryan Fitzpatrick, here taking a snap in practice, has at his disposal an improved receiving corps. (LUIS SANTANA | Times)
Published July 28 2018
Updated July 29 2018

TAMPA — Ryan Fitzpatrick, the safe out who'll start the season at quarterback for the Bucs, worked after training camp practice Friday morning. There was chemistry to build, timing to get down. And everywhere Fitzpatrick threw, there was a chance something good would happen.

The Bucs receivers made sure of it.

Look anywhere and there it is: talent. Enough talent to realize this is the best thing the Bucs have going for them. Enough to think this might be the way out of this alive over the season's first three games, without Jameis Winston, with Fitzpatrick.

Bucs receivers, from wide out to slot to tight end to even running back, might be the key to a holding action to start this season. They might be the safety valve.

"I feel we have one of the deepest and one of the best receiver groups, honestly, in the league," Mike Evans said. "I'll put us up against anybody. When we've played our best, you've seen it."

There is Evans, who had his fourth 1,000-yard season last year and who signed a five-year, $82 million contract extension in March. The ultimate X, big body, winner of one-on-one balls. There is DeSean Jackson, disappointing or no last season, with still enough speed to take the top off the defense.

There is crafty slot receiver Adam Humphries, 61 catches last season, second on the team to Evans. There is Chris Godwin, who contributed as a rookie with 34 catches, including that TD to beat New Orleans in the finale of that lost season. There is the tight-end tandem of Cameron Brate, who has a big new deal, and O.J. Howard, who came on inexorably as a rookie — 12 TDs between them.

We haven't even mentioned running backs who can catch, and that might include rookie Ronald Jones. The biggest problem for these Bucs might be not having enough footballs for all these guys.

"I don't know if that's a bad thing," said Godwin, who averaged 15.4 yards per catch as a rookie. "You're never hurt by having too many guys who can make plays."

"We believe that we can be a force for this team, a real spark," said Humphries, who has been proving people wrong since his days at Clemson.

They push each other. They learn from each other.

"I think the big thing is we all kind of complement each other," said Brate, who last season had 48 catches and six touchdowns. "Each guy brings something different to the table. Mike is just like the perfect X. Big body, he'll go vertical down the field, will go up and get the ball. DeSean will take the top off the defense, make big plays. Adam, super quick in the slot. Chris Godwin does a little bit of everything. He'll block and make plays. And me and O.J. complement each other pretty well."
Teammates know a strength when they see one. Ask Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.

"D.J., he's about 40 years old, and he's the fastest guy on the team," McCoy said. "Mike is a monster, one of those aliens who was produced and managed to get drafted into the NFL."

Fitzpatrick raves about Godwin: "Even early on, when he wasn't making catches, he was so impressive, in the run game, everywhere. He was a veteran presence as a rookie. … At one point, he's going to strive to be that No. 1 guy."

But nothing is perfect. The problem with being a receiver is you can't throw the ball to yourself. Someone has to throw it to you.

And you can always get better. Evans had only five touchdowns last season. He is great one against one, but there weren't as many jump balls last season. That needs to change. And Jackson, for all his missed connections with Winston last season, needs to produce and make a difference, finally, or what is the point of him being here?

"I want more everything," Evans said. "I want more catches, more deep balls, all that. We're receivers. We're very dependent. But we can't get down when things aren't going our way."

"We have to step up," Godwin said.

It could save the Bucs from utter disaster.

You know, if someone throws it to them.

Follow @mjfennelly.

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