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Tyler Johnson has some catching, and catching up, to do for Bucs

The rookie receiver from Minnesota missed training camp with a hamstring injury but now could provide a boost with Chris Godwin sidelined for two games.
Bucs wide receiver Tyler Johnson, left, talks with tight end Jaydon Mickens during training camp in August in Tampa.
Bucs wide receiver Tyler Johnson, left, talks with tight end Jaydon Mickens during training camp in August in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 2, 2020|Updated Oct. 3, 2020

TAMPA — He played 21 snaps at three receiver positions, had one target and no receptions.

He dropped the only pass thrown his direction by Tom Brady in Sunday’s 28-10 Bucs win at Denver, a play that ultimately would have been erased by a penalty anyway.

It was a statistical flatline for rookie Tyler Johnson. But at least his NFL career finally had a pulse, and that’s a good starting point for the Bucs.

When Johnson went to the sideline after he failed to make the catch against the Broncos, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich smiled widely and began to rattle off names of some receivers who had dropped the first pass of their career.

“(Leftwich) was happy, but I really wasn’t happy that I did that,” Johnson said. “But yeah, I got back to the sideline, and he was pumped. He was just excited for me. That really built a lot of confidence for me, just to be able to hear my offensive coordinator that excited for me and my future.”

Until Sunday, the start to Johnson’s rookie season hasn’t been much to shout about.

Already behind from the cancellation of offseason workouts and minicamps due to the coronavirus, he suffered a hamstring pull at the start of training camp and basically missed all of it.

The fifth-round draft pick from Minnesota had hoped to make an immediate impact like his Gophers teammate safety Antoine Winfield, a Bucs second-round pick who Thursday was named the NFL’s defensive rookie of the month for September.

Instead, Johnson had the solitary routine of treatment, meetings, watching practice, more meetings and back to his hotel room to become intimately familiar with the playbook.

“I wouldn’t say it was lonely, though,” Johnson said. "Guys in the receiving room were definitely there with me. You know, whether it was the word of the day or them just checking up on me, it was always a way for me to feel connected.

“I feel like in the receiving room, we definitely have a lot of great guys that make you feel at home. So, yeah, they kept me going, they kept me pushing, and I’m blessed to be finally healthy again.”

Injuries to the receiving corps have put Johnson in the position of getting more playing time Sunday against the Chargers at Raymond James Stadium.

Pro Bowl receiver Chris Godwin is out with a hamstring injury. Scotty Miller is nursing a hip injury, so who knows how long he can go against the Chargers. Justin Watson will try to play despite missing the Broncos game with a shoulder injury.

Johnson would seem to be in position to play the No. 4 receiver role again versus the Chargers.

“I don’t know if any rookie is where they need to be right now, really, across the league,” Leftwich said. "It’s just been such a different year. I think (Johnson is) better from a health standpoint. That was first and foremost. Unfortunately for the kid, he hurt himself badly early in the year. He had no training camp.

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“Coming off no (organized team activities in the offseason), no summer, to have no training camp, I like where he’s at. He’s functional to be out in a game. Now he’s just got to learn how to insert himself in the offense and make the plays that come his way. But I think he’s doing a heck of a job going to work, trying to learn. But he’s still a rookie; we understand that.”

Johnson is credited for helping turn around a Minnesota program under coach P.J. Fleck, a former Bucs receivers coach. He had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, and 25 of his 32 touchdown receptions came in 2018-19.

Bucs coach Bruce Arians watched his 12-catch, 204-yard performance in the Outback Bowl against Auburn on Jan. 1 and was sold. Then came the injury.

In addition to spending time with Bucs trainers to repair his hamstring injury, Johnson made it a routine to go to Brady’s TB12 Performance and Recovery in Tampa.

“I learned quickly that if I plan on being here in this league for a long time, the most important thing is taking care of my body,” Johnson said. “I learned that … within the first week of being out here. I’m definitely staying hydrated way more. I’m taking better care of my body.”

Gaining Brady’s trust on the field may take more than that. Receivers have to build a rapport with the quarterback in order to force their way onto the field the way Miller did during offseason workouts with Brady at Berkeley Prep in Tampa.

“Basically, coming out there every day trying to make an impression, not only to him, but pretty much everybody, you want to go out there and prove you deserve to be out here,” Johnson said. “So, just going out there, doing your best every day no matter what it is, whether you’re blocking or running a route, you want to do it at 110 percent.”

But Brady is very particular about receivers running precise routes, and Johnson has had to become more detail-oriented.

“With that, I would definitely say it’s getting out of my breaks and then reducing,” Johnson said. "(Brady) is big on that. Big on not letting the corner undercut it and making a big play on it. He has definitely been overemphasizing that, and it’s something I’ve been focusing more on in practice.''

Johnson knows he needs to just stack up solid performances in games — and now that the first dropped pass is behind him, catch the ball.

“It was amazing just to get out there and get my feet wet,” Johnson said. “I’m definitely blessed. But I’m moving forward from it, though. I feel like that right there was able to give me a little bit of confidence, get the feeling underway, and I’m definitely excited about what’s ahead.”

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay

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