To this point, Zay Flowers has made a career of juking convention, zigging where most college receivers of his caliber zag, executing his own preconceived route to a pro career.
It began with his college choice, when the Fort Lauderdale native spurned offers from Kentucky, South Carolina and Nebraska to sign with Boston College. When surefire name, image, likeness opportunities loomed elsewhere after prosperous sophomore and junior seasons with the Eagles, Flowers opted to remain in Chestnut Hill.
“I wanted to do something different, wanted to go somewhere different where nobody really had momentum and came out,” Flowers told reporters at the NFL combine in March. “That was a big reason coming to Boston College, was creating my own story.”
He kept crafting it after the Eagles’ 3-9 season, choosing to play in the East-West Shrine Game while most other prominent classmates attended the Senior Bowl, which remains entrenched atop the college all-star hierarchy.
“I wanted to do something different,” he said.
Question now is, will the Bucs choose similar misdirection? Despite glaring needs at offensive tackle and edge rusher, will they use the No. 19 overall pick to replenish an aging receiving corps that won’t frighten anyone with its median 40-yard-dash time?
During a highly diplomatic pre-draft news conference in which he left all options open, Bucs general manager Jason Licht acknowledged a need for speed.
“We have a lot of areas that we could improve, upgrade, or add depth to,” Licht said. “I would say we do need to get faster and we do need to get more physical.”
If they opt for fleetness right away, Flowers — a 5-foot-9 dynamo who ran the 40 in 4.42 seconds at the combine — could be their guy.
“He easily could have transferred to a top-10 program last year,” longtime ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper wrote in a recent analysis of Flowers. “But he chose to stick it out at Boston College — and got better.”
Hampered by instability at quarterback and the worst run game in the Football Bowl Subdivision (63.2 yards per game), Flowers still finished with 78 catches for 1,077 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2022. He scored seven of his touchdowns while lined up in the slot, the other five out wide, complementing his route precision with a physicality belying his 182-pound frame.
Flowers forced 25 missed tackles last season, third-most in country for a wideout, according to Kiper.
“I think he’s dynamic. He’s so explosive and he’s so strong for his size,” said former Bucs general manager Mark Dominik, now a draft analyst for SiriusXM.
“There’s a lot of Tyreek Hill, he kind of pops. He’s a really good route runner. Again, he catches away from his body, he can go and adjust. He’s not afraid to give up his body; I think he has sideline awareness. But I also think he’s really good in terms of what he can do with the ball in his hands; he has vision.”
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All of which suggests Flowers represents the type of sleek component the Bucs offense has lacked since Antonio Brown’s abrupt departure 15 months ago. Other would-be heirs to that role either have been waived (Jaelon Darden), signed elsewhere (Scotty Miller, Falcons) or remain unproven (Deven Thompkins).
And sooner or later, Licht and Co. will have to replenish the unit.
Mike Evans, who turns 30 in August, is entering the last year of his contract. Chris Godwin’s 27-year-old body bears the bruises and surgical scars of someone who has spent a career making blocks on the perimeter and difficult catches. Russell Gage, also 27, was underwhelming in his first season in Tampa Bay (51 catches, 426 yards) in 2022.
Flowers, who acknowledges he molds his game after Brown, could reinvigorate the unit.
If the Bucs opt for that route at the draft’s outset. In a recent mock draft for The Athletic, longtime college football writer Bruce Feldman projected Tampa Bay to select Flowers, who finished his career as Boston College’s career leader in receptions (200), receiving yards (3,056) and receiving TDs (29).
“Pre-snap, I just see where the defender is and how I can attack them,” said Flowers, the 11th of 14 kids who lost his mom at age 5. “Try to eat up the toes, be deceptive with my eyes, jump in blind spots, and all gas after that.”
Times staff writer Rick Stroud contributed to this report.
Possible first-round targets
A look at some of the NFL draft’s top receivers, should the Bucs choose to address that position with the No. 19 overall pick:
Jordan Addison, Southern California (5-11, 173)
2021 Biletnikoff Award winner (at Pitt) has 159 catches over last two seasons
Zay Flowers, Boston College (5-9, 182)
78 catches, 1,077 yards, 12 touchdowns for 3-9 Eagles team in 2022
Jalin Hyatt, Tennessee (6-0, 196)
Ranked fifth nationally in receiving yards (1,267), second in touchdown catches (15) in 2022
Quentin Johnston, TCU (6-3, 208)
Built from the Mike Evans mold; 60 catches for 1,069 yards in 2022
Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State (6-1, 196)
Limited to three games by hamstring injury last year; 95 catches in 2021
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