It’s not a huge thing because it’s still early August, but this week’s practices at Bucs training camp have been much like the unfortunate end of Tampa Bay’s season in January, with way too many top receivers on the sidelines.
As the Bucs wrapped up two days of joint practices with the Dolphins on Thursday, they did so while spotting Miami five of their best receivers. Chris Godwin is still limited as he returns from knee surgery, Julio Jones had a veteran maintenance day, and three more — Mike Evans, Russell Gage and Breshad Perriman — were held out with minor hamstring injuries.
And the Bucs receivers were still making plays against Miami cornerbacks.
Saturday night’s preseason opener in Tampa against the Dolphins, though short on offensive star power, will serve as a showcase for the deep group of receivers competing for the fifth and sixth (and maybe seventh) jobs on the 53-man roster. And quite possibly, some of the talented players not good enough to stick in Tampa will draw waiver claims — if not pre-emptive trades — from other NFL teams looking to upgrade their receivers depth.
Here’s a closer look at the options:
Tyler Johnson: The third-year pro has started camp well after a lackluster 2021 season. He has gotten a lot of reps and made catches all over the field, drawing steady praise from coaches. It’s reasonable to think he has the inside track on the No. 5 receiver job entering preseason games based on his camp reps and how he has responded to the opportunity so far.
Jaelon Darden: He’s the incumbent for the still-wide-open return jobs, and has shown growth as a receiver from last year, understanding the offense better so he can be used in more ways. So there’s real upside, and he’s on his rookie contract for two more years after this season, with the Bucs needing inexpensive long-term depth where they can find it with salary-cap constraints ahead in 2023.
Video: Nice move by Jaelon Darden to get past Dolphins’ Noah Igbinoghene for a deep touchdown. pic.twitter.com/vynPuYZS5R
— Greg Auman (@gregauman) August 10, 2022
Scotty Miller: For some, it’s hard to imagine Miller not making the cut; he’s a fan favorite who had perhaps the single most memorable play of the 2020 postseason with his touchdown catch just before halftime in Green Bay. But he’s very much on the bubble entering the preseason games, and in the final year of his rookie contract, you wonder whether he could be acquired for a late-round pick or even a pick swap if a team lost a receiver to injury and wanted to upgrade its depth and speed threat.
He has been healthy, which is more than he could say for much of last season, when he was limited by a turf toe injury. But he isn’t listed on the depth chart as an option for returns and has played limited special teams, with two splash plays that led to turnovers as a gunner last season, and he knows he needs a strong month to stick around.
“You just have to go out there and grind and do the best you can and be your best self — just keep improving every day,” Miller said this week. “That’s really my mindset. I try not to think about down the road and what’s going to happen. I just try to be the best player I can be, and I know it’s going to work out at some point.”
Deven Thompkins: Todd Bowles praised the undrafted rookie in OTAs and minicamps, and he hasn’t disappointed in training camp as perhaps the closest challenger to Darden for return jobs and a playmaker on offense. Take one rep from one-on-one drills Thursday: Going against 2020 first-round pick Noah Igbinoghene, Thompkins made such a fake at the line of scrimmage that the Dolphins cornerback had to pull his facemask, drawing a flag. After getting his helmet turned right, Thompkins made the catch for a touchdown anyway, earning a pat on the helmet from Igbinoghene.
Here’s video of Bucs rookie Deven Thompkins with catch on Dolphins corner Noah Igbinoghene. Flag was for hand to face on Miami. pic.twitter.com/63z9IyAMBl
— Greg Auman (@gregauman) August 11, 2022
Cyril Grayson: The former college sprinter is a tough one to predict. Is he the guy who spent almost all of last year on the practice squad, or the guy who caught a game-winning touchdown against the Jets, a 62-yarder against the Panthers, another long touchdown against the Saints? Just when it seemed he was having a quiet start to training camp, he makes a move like he did Thursday in the back of the end zone, shaking off Dolphins corner Trill Williams to get open for an easy score in a one-on-one drill.
One more video: Cyril Grayson with a move in back of end zone for a touchdown in one-on-one against Dolphins. pic.twitter.com/ZCvGWAzfRG
— Greg Auman (@gregauman) August 11, 2022
Jerreth Sterns: Another undrafted rookie and an undersized playmaker like Darden and Thompkins, Sterns has turned heads in training camp after missing much of OTAs and minicamp due to injury. He can elevate to make catches and hold his own on contested throws in tight coverage, but he needs breakout performances in games if he is to get more than a practice-squad job.
With so many receivers sidelined Saturday, there will also be a chance in the second half for the backups truly on the outside looking in — veteran Vyncint Smith and undrafted rookies Kaylon Geiger and Kam Brown — to make a splash with a big touchdown in an effort to earn themselves playing time earlier in the remaining two playoff games.
First opportunity for Luke Goedeke
Second-round pick Luke Goedeke, an offensive lineman from Central Michigan, has worked exclusively with the second-team offensive line in the first two weeks of training camp, but with no clear-cut winner in the battle for the starting left guard spot, he has a window to get in the mix there with a strong debut Saturday.
Goedeke showed off a mean streak Thursday, shoving back and forth with a Dolphins defensive lineman, then triggering perhaps the biggest skirmish of the two days with more contact after a whistle midway through practice. Veteran Aaron Stinnie, perhaps the favorite for the job by default entering the preseason games, was back with the first team Thursday, but he’ll need a solid showing Saturday to keep that practice role. Nick Leverett, who doubles as the backup center, will likely get work at both positions against the Dolphins.
Miss one cut, make another
As a high first-round pick, Bucs linebacker Devin White has never had to worry about whether he’d make final cuts, but he was asked for his advice to young players preparing for their first NFL preseason snaps Saturday against Miami.
“The No. 1 thing is the film you put on will be seen worldwide, by all 32 teams,” White said. “So just be mindful that when you’re stepping on that field, you’re putting on an interview. You might not make the current team you’re on, but somebody else might see something and like it, so put your best foot forward. Read your keys and play fundamental football, and the rest is history for you.”
Last year saw several players cut by the Bucs go on to have success with other teams. Cornerback Antonio Hamilton had 38 tackles for the Chiefs, corner Herb Miller played in nine games for the Browns and linebacker Joe Jones nine games with the Titans, and outside linebacker La’Darius Hamilton played six games with the Packers.
(Photo of Jaelon Darden: Kim Klement / USA Today)
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