by Douglas O’Connor
follow me on Twitter @Ren_Daxt
The beginning of the 2016 season was filled with question marks. Will Jameis Winston progress as an NFL quarterback? Can new coordinator Mike Smith make an impact on the defense? How big of role a will the draft picks play? Will the Bucs make the playoffs? I could go on, and on, and on. One question no one had was, what are the Buccaneers going to do at tight end?
The Bucs had youth, Cameron Brate, talent, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, experience, Brandon Myers, and leadership, Luke Stocker. If everything had gone as planned the Buccaneers would of been set at tight end for years to come.
Fast forward to the present and tight end has gone from a position of strength to a position of need. Brate was a welcomed surprise. Racking up 57 catches for 660 yards and 8 touchdowns, but ASJ was just as big of a disappointment. Getting arrested for DUI two weeks into the season was the last straw for the Buccaneer front office and cut the troubled tight end before the home opener. Myers is now a free agent and I don’t expect the Bucs to attempt to bring him back, and Stocker, primarily used as a blocker, is the only other of the four under contract.
The Bucs run a ton of two tight end sets and adding a player(s) that can get open and block on the NFL level will be the off season goal for GM Jason Licht and his staff. The question is who, and where will they look for them?
What The Bucs Have: As of time of posting the Buccaneers have five tight ends on the roster. Three on the 53 man and two future contract players.
Cameron Brate we all know about. Ivy league UDFA that made the team during the 2014 training camp and quickly built a chemistry with quarterback Jameis Winston while filling in for oft injured ASJ. The early season decision to cut bait with ASJ in 2016 landed Brate squarely in the starting role and he responded with a Pro Bowl type season. Cameron is part of the solution and I don’t see any free agency targets that make sense that will oust him from his starting role. However there are two players in the draft, if the Bucs go tight end early, that could challenge Brate during training camp.
Luke Stocker is an excellent blocker and is used more as a fullback than a traditional tight end. Stocker contributes next to nothing in the passing game logging only 47 catches during his six years with the Bucs and struggles to get any separation in his routes. Licht has tried to replace Luke by drafting a true fullback, Joey Iosefa, in 2015 and a hybrid TE/FB, Danny Vitale in 2016. Neither one panned out and Luke has been able to keep his job. I expect Stocker to make the 53 man roster next year but to lose his starting job. The Buccaneers have already signed Quayvon Hicks, a fullback from Georgia, that blocked for Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb in college and their is a free agent that I like that would make Luke Stocker obsolete.
Alan Cross proved to be a better blocker than 6th round draft pick Danny Vitale so he made the team. A UDFA out of Memphis was serviceable when he was in the game for the Bucs but isn’t going to be drafted on anyone’s fantasy team anytime soon. Cross should make the team in 2017 mostly because of low price tag.
Future contract players Tevin Westbrook and Kivon Cartwright are both big, athletic, and raw. The Buccaneers like Westbrook whom they have kept on the practice squad for two years now. I think this is a make or break year for Tevin if he doesn’t make the 53 man roster this year his days at One Buc maybe over. Cartwright a former Colorado State Ram will be hard pressed to stay with the organization. Westbrook already has two years in Koetter’s offense and the 2017 draft is the deepest for tight ends anyone can remember. The deck is stacked against Kivon but Jason Licht did sign him for a reason.
Free Agents: Martellus Bennett is the clear number one tight end in free agency this off season but his age and price tag will probably be to high for the Buccaneers. I like a four year veteran whose path has mirrored the Bucs own Cameron Brate.
Jack Doyle was UDFA out of the University of Western Kentucky that was picked up by the Indianapolis Colts after he was let go by the Titans. Playing mostly as a blocking tight end for his first three years. Doyle finally got his shot with the departure of Coby Fleener in 2016 and he responded with 59 catches for 584 yards and 5 touchdowns. Playing the run blocking tight end is key in Doyle’s evaluation. Look at it this way. Jack Doyle played three years as Luke Stocker, then when given the chance he put up numbers comparable to Cameron Brate. He actually had more receptions and yards than the Colts number one tight end Dwayne Allen with just one less touchdown. Picking up a veteran run blocker that has shown the ability to get open in the red zone and is only 26. That’s the type of player I would like to see the Buccaneers make a play for.
The 2017 NFL Draft: This years tight end pool might be the deepest ever. I’ve seen as many as twenty prospects receiving draftable grades, with three coming from the University of Oregon. I’m only going to write about a few here, the clear number one guy, a small school draft board riser and a late round project.
O.J. Howard, University of Alabama: Solid, solid run blocker and most think underutilized as a pass catcher in the Crimson Tide’s offense. Recently won the best player award at the Senior Bowl and will be the first tight end taken off the board. Projected to be drafted around where the Bucs pick at 19. With the draft being deep at other need positions for the Buccaneers will the lure of the best player on the board be to much for Jason Licht to pass up at 19?
Gerald Everett, South Alabama: Starting his college career at UAB, then transferring to the Jaguars after Birmingham killed their football program. Everett is gaining buzz and climbing up big boards. Scouts believe that he can be a serious receiving threat in the NFL. I’ve even read that Everett won’t last past the second round.
Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas: Lost behind Hunter Henry last season, Sprinkle put up solid numbers in 2016 and is a an above average receiver and blocker. He could be around in the 6th or 7th round making him a value pick for Jason Licht.
What I Think Will Happen: Without Cameron Brate the Bucs tight end situation might be the worst in the league. Especially with players that can get down the seam for an explosive plays. Jason Licht will address it in free agency and the draft. Don’t expect a top tier free agent because the Bucs already have a Pro Bowl caliber starter. The draft could go a number of ways. I wouldn’t be surprised if Licht took Howard at 19 but what if WR Corey Davis is still available? Best guess, the Buccaneers will take a tight end by their third pick in this years draft.
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Thank You for reading and as always Go Bucs!