The NFL's cognoscenti is gathered in Indianapolis this week for the annual Scouting Combine, enjoying 40-degree weather, St. Elmo's shrimp cocktail and underwear Olympics. The official draw is the field of 337 prospects who will make up the bulk of the selections in April's 2020 NFL Draft. However, the start of free agency is even closer, and thus there are sure to be plenty of conversations in Indy about which players are heading to new NFL homes and which ones are staying put.
The NFL's 2020 calendar year begins on Wednesday, March 18, with free agency kicking off at 4:00 p.m. ET. Whether or not the Tampa Bay Buccaneers intend to be high-end shoppers remains to be seen, but their own list of 19 potential unrestricted free agents means there are many important decisions to be made.
Three weeks remain before free agency, which means time is winding down for the Buccaneers and their 31 fellow NFL teams to deal with their own free agent lists and identify potential targets on other rosters. As free agency approaches we're taking a position-by-position look at what the Bucs have, who they could lose and who they could look at from other teams on the open market. Our 2020 Free Agency Primers continues this week with the wide receiver position.
January 15: Offensive Line
January 22: Safety
January 29: Running Back
February 5: Cornerback
February 12: Tight End
February 19: Inside Linebacker
February 26: Wide Receiver
March 4: Defensive Line
March 11: Quarterback
March 18: Outside Linebacker
2019 Output: Lots.
Chris Godwin and Mike Evans ranked third and eighth, respectively in receiving yards. Godwin led the way with his first 1,000-yard season, finishing with 1,333, and Evans' 1,157 yards gave him six 1,000-yard campaigns in as many years in the NFL. The two combined for 17 touchdowns and six games with 150-plus yards. Both players had a realistic shot at reaching 1,500 yards on the season before a hamstring injury felled Evans in Week 14 and the same ailment clipped the last two games of Godwin's campaign. Evans finished fourth among qualifying receivers with 17.3 yards per catch and Godwin had an elite average of 6.71 yards gained after the catch.
No team in the NFL had a more productive starting duo than Godwin and Evans. Moreover, when both went down with their injuries, third receiver Breshad Perriman stepped up with front-line production down the stretch and finished with 645 yards and six touchdowns of his own. He was among the league's most productive pass-catchers over the last six weeks of the season, finishing with three straight 100-yard outings.
Those three combined for 84.8% of all the receptions made by Buccaneers wideouts in 2019, so there wasn't a lot of room for contributions from the team's youngest wideouts. Still, rookie Scotty Miller did show off the top-end speed that made him a sixth-round draft pick, making some big plays in the season's second half and finishing with 13 catches and 15.4 yards per grab. Second-year man Justin Watson logged a couple starts after the injuries to Godwin and Evans (and Miller, eventually) and 15 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns.
Under Contract for 2020: Fortunately, almost everyone listed above is still under contract for the coming year, though Godwin is entering the last season of his original rookie deal and has to be considered a priority for an extension or a new contract. Meanwhile, Evans still has four years left on his second NFL deal.
Miller and Watson are still recent draft picks working on their original four-year contracts. Tampa Bay's roster is actually deep in signed receivers heading into 2020 because the rash of late-season injuries forced the team to make a number of additions in December. Spencer Schnell, Cyril Grayson and Jaydon Mickens are all under contract. Grayson was the only one of those three to record a catch for the Bucs but he's also an interesting story as a former track star now trying to make it in professional football.
Buccaneers' Pending Free Agents: Conversely, this is a short list, though what happens with it could affect the team's priorities in free agency and the draft.
The only receiver on the Bucs' long list of potential unrestricted free agents is Perriman, who took a one-year deal with Tampa Bay last spring after Cleveland traded for Odell Beckham. Looking for a potentially bigger role after he had a productive run with the Browns in the second half of 2018, he found one in Tampa as the primary third receiver behind Godwin and Evans. The over-the-top production of those two meant a slow first half for Perriman in terms of targets but, as noted, he came on very strong down the stretch before and after the two starters pulled their hamstrings.
And, of course, that's the rub. In the absence of Godwin and Evans, Perriman may have done enough to convince WR-needy teams that he can thrive as a starter. That could make him popular in free agency and make it more difficult for the Buccaneers to bring him back if they so desire. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay clearly has additional priorities on their own list of pending free agents, including NFL sack leader Shaq Barrett and perhaps quarterback Jameis Winston.
Tampa Bay does have one wideout on its short list of exclusive rights free agents in Bryant Mitchell, who put up big numbers in the Canadian Football League before arriving in Tampa. Mitchell looked good early in training camp last summer but then suffered an Achilles tendon injury and landed on injured reserve for the entire 2019 season. Any pending exclusive right free agent who receivers the necessary qualifying offer from his club can only negotiate with that club and thus is practically guaranteed to stay.
Potentially Available Free Agents: There's a good chance that the top of this list will change by March 18, but for now the two prized receivers are Dallas' Amari Cooper and Cincinnati's A.J. Green. Green is the more accomplished of the two but has only played nine games the last two years due to injuries while Cooper is coming off his best season yet with the Cowboys. Green is 31 but was still playing at a high level in 2018 before his injuries and would be a huge addition to any team if healthy. Many expect their current teams to find a way to lock both of these receivers down before the start of free agency.
Emmanuel Sanders, who was traded from Denver to San Francisco at midseason, is more likely to be available. He hasn't had a 1,000-yard season since 2017 but remains consistent and reliable and would make for a good third option on most teams, at least. The Buccaneers actually made a run at Sanders in free agency in 2014 but lost him to the lure of playing with Peyton Manning in Denver. The Jets' Robby Anderson isn't as sure of a bet as Sanders but is very fast and has true home-run ability. Obviously, the Buccaneers like to throw deep under Bruce Arians and Anderson can locate and haul in such throws, but he's less versatile than a player like Sanders.
Considering that they already have one receiver with a large contract in Evans and potentially another one on the way in Godwin, the Buccaneers might look for more of a value signing if they shop in the receiver aisle. A few players who might be on the rise include Kansas City's Demarcus Robinson, Cleveland's Rashard Higgins and San Francisco's Kendrick Bourne. Robinson has big-play potential and room to grow and might be the type of signing - like Barrett on the other side of the ball - who can thrive with a bigger role in a new place. Higgins found his opportunities restricted in 2019 but had been a productive rotational player the previous two years. He's a good route-runner with sure hands and he's still just 25. Signing Bourne would be a little more complicated as he's due to be a restricted free agent.
Even though the Buccaneers may be looking for another option as a third receiver, that doesn't necessarily mean they need him to be a slot receiver, because Godwin proved to be outstanding in that role in 2019. He played 49% of his snaps out of the slot and produced 657 yards and four touchdowns on those plays. Still, there are a number of potentially available receivers who have excelled or could excel in the slot, including Detroit's Danny Amendola, Dallas' Randall Cobb, Philadelphia's Nelson Agholor and perhaps New England's Phillip Dorsett. Amendola had a very productive year as the third receiver along with the Lions' starting duo of Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones. Cobb, who will turn 30 in his next training camp, showed he had something left in the tank with 828 yards and 15.1 yards per catch for the Cowboys.
Devin Funchess is a big-bodied red zone threat who lost his first season in Indianapolis to a shoulder injury. He appeared to be close to returning to the field late in the season and might be worth the risk. Demaryius Thomas, most recently with the Jets, is 32 but could possibly remain productive in a reserve role.
Bucs' Interest Level: Moderate.
Ideally, the Buccaneers would probably like to have Perriman back, and if that were to happen it's unlikely they would continue to be big players on the receiver market. The team does have a couple young players who they can develop on their roster, too.
If Perriman moves on, it would seem like there is room for another proven pass-catcher in the Bucs' receiver room and they might look for a short-term addition very much in the vein of their addition of Perriman last year. As noted above, the Buccaneers could add a player who primarily operate on the outside because they can always put Godwin in the slot in three-receiver sets.
One more factor to consider is that this year's draft class is reportedly very, very deep in well-regarded receiver prospects. There should be intriguing options at that position well until at least the third round, if not later, and the third round is where the Buccaneers found Godwin just a few years ago. Jason Licht's Bucs have not been shy about drafting wideouts; he's taken seven of them ov