TAMPA — The most riveting roster-spot battle of this sweltering Bucs training camp exists a bit beneath the depth chart’s surface.
Scroll down a few names — past Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Russell Gage and Julio Jones — and you’ll find it: a logjam of sleek, if not small, pass-catchers and punt returners vying for one of the remaining receiver jobs. Considering the Bucs generally carried six receivers on the active roster last season, the math is pretty straightforward.
At least 10 receivers vying for a pair of final-roster spots, and perhaps two practice-squad openings. Those who survive likely will have to double on special teams.
“It’s going to be tough (trimming the roster),” coach Todd Bowles said Wednesday. “It’s a lot of talent at that position, not just the four that we have, but all the other guys too. But we’ve got to see how it shakes out.”
With the preseason opener — and first round of roster cuts — approaching, we’ve taken a crack at handicapping the competition, sorting the candidates into one of three categories based on their chances of making the team or practice squad: solid, so-so and slim.
Called out by Bruce Arians last year for arriving at camp out of shape, Johnson clearly embraced that criticism and has mostly shined so far. No less an authority than Evans said Johnson — who had 36 catches in 2021 — arrived in camp in “tip-top” shape. “I think he’s learned the offense a little more,” Bowles said, “so he’s playing a lot freer than he was the last two years.”
Anyone who earns Tom Brady’s trust has an inside track, and Perriman — sidelined after pulling up on a route at last Monday’s practice — did that down the 2021 stretch. With the receiving corps in tatters physically, Perriman had 11 catches in a five-game span, including a walk-off 58-yard catch-and-run touchdown from Brady in a 33-27 overtime win against the Bills.
Like Perriman, this former LSU sprinter earned Brady’s trust — and then some — last season. Grayson had a go-ahead, 50-yard touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter in the Halloween-night loss at New Orleans, and the winning 33-yard scoring reception in a 28-24 road win against the Jets on Jan. 2. The practice squad awaits should he miss out on a roster spot (and clear waivers).
The team’s fourth-round draft pick in 2021 barely created a blip in extensive punt-return duty last season (19 returns, 7.5-yard average), but many have raved about his offseason progression. “His approach all offseason has been outstanding,” Bowles said. “He works hard, he keeps his head down, and he plays ball.”
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Impeded (or sidelined) by turf toe most of last season, Miller looks far more like the 5-foot-9 dynamo of 2020, when he made one of the greatest catches in franchise lore. But he has the same drawback as many on this list: He’s a vertical speedster in an offense that calls on its slot receivers to be more versatile and rugged (see Godwin). If the Bucs let Miller go, someone else might snag him.
One of the feel-good stories emanating from this camp, Thompkins has the requisite NFL speed, but not the size (listed at 5-foot-8, 155 pounds). This undrafted rookie from Utah State has shown astounding leaping chops while elevating for some high throws — or at least high for him. One can just sense coaches muttering, “Man, if only he were 2 or 3 inches taller.’”
At 5-9, Sterns is only slightly taller than Thompkins, but has turned some heads so far. Moreover, the video-game numbers he posted last season at Western Kentucky (150 catches, 1,902 yards, 17 TDs) can’t be ignored. It’s worth noting Brady has flourished with diminutive receivers throughout his career, which bodes favorably for a several guys on this list. If Sterns is waived, we see someone else picking him up in short order.
Kameron Brown: For some guys, such as this rookie from Coastal Carolina, there just aren’t enough reps in the day.
Vyncint Smith: This fifth-year journeyman with 23 career NFL catches just hasn’t shown much consistency in practice.
Kaylon Geiger: This rookie from Texas Tech has had some shining practice moments, but likely will fall victim to the numbers game.
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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