Why Chris Godwin Was NFL's Best WR In 2019

Photo: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin wasn’t drafted until the third round.

Alright, now that we got that out of the way, let’s get into why we’re talking about Godwin here today. We’re asking the question: was Godwin’s 2019 season a sign of future stardom, or was it his peak?

It’s funny that we have to continue mentioning the fact that Godwin was drafted at pick No. 84 in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, but the reason we keep bringing it up is that every year, as Godwin ascends higher and higher amongst the ranks of NFL wide receivers, that statement gets more and more hard to believe.

2019 was Godwin’s first season as a true starter. In it, he recorded 1,333 receiving yards and nine receiving touchdowns off 86 catches. This also while not even playing a full 16-game season—a hamstring injury forced him to only play in 14 games.

How did that stack up against the rest of the league? I’m glad you asked.

Even with just 14 games played, there were only two wide receivers who accumulated more receiving yards than Godwin in 2019: Michael Thomas and Julio Jones (both of whom played in more games). When it came to yards per game, only Thomas had a higher number than Godwin. In receiving touchdowns, Godwin’s nine were tied for fourth-most in the league.

You want more? If you say so.

In terms of reliability and catch percentage, Godwin’s 71.1 percent was ninth when sampling players who had more than 100 targets. But if you take out running backs, Godwin’s percentage moves up to sixth—if you also take away tight ends (so just wide receivers), his catch percentage ranked third. In fact, of all the players in the NFL who saw more than 110 targets during the season, guess how many had the least amount of drops: Godwin (1).

An even better way to bring context to just how good and how reliable Godwin was is by mentioning that of all the receivers who had a higher raw catch percentage than Godwin, not a single one averaged more yards-per-catch (15.5) or yards per route run (11.0); no player in the NFL had as high of a catch percentage as Godwin did for as far down the field as he was running his routes and catching his passes (the farther down field, the more difficult the catch).

Still hungry? You animal, you.

Three key areas of production that I believe separate good receivers from great ones and great ones from the elite are: reliability when catching through contact, yards after the catch and yards after contact.

In terms of catching through contact, according to Pro Football Focus, Godwin's 66.7 contested catch percentage was second-best in the league for all receivers who had at least 15 targets with such criteria. The only receiver with a higher catch percentage in that category was Michael Thomas, who was just one percent higher at 67.7—basically a wash. For yards after catch, Godwin was second in the NFL among wide receivers with 577, once again behind only Thomas, who had 583. But some context on that one is that Godwin was just six yards short of Thomas for tops in the league while seeing 64 fewer targets and catching 63 fewer passes. Oh, and as for the last category, Godwin's 317 yards after contact were the most in the NFL, this time above Thomas, once again on 64 less targets.

By the way, did I mention that Godwin did all this while splitting attention with another top-10 receiver in Mike Evans?

In layman’s terms, Chris Godwin was the best receiver in the NFL in 2019. 

Pretty solid stuff, right? So why wasn’t Godwin starting sooner?

As a rookie in 2017, Godwin was relatively low on a stacked, specialized depth chart. Evans was the solidified No. 1 receiver as a big body who could play in a true “X” receiver role. Next to him was the team’s prized free-agent acquisition, DeSean Jackson, who, in theory, was brought in to bring a speed and deep threat element to the offense no one else could. Adam Humphries was the No. 3 man in the slot, and his rapport with quarterback Jameis Winston meant he likely wasn’t going anywhere as the team’s leading quick-hit player. That left Godwin, who was still developing his talent, not able to stack up in any of the three receiver categories the Bucs outlined.

The Bucs brought back that same receiver group for the 2018 season, hoping that a second year together would yield more efficient results—I say efficient because the Bucs offense moved the ball well as a top-10 team in yards the year before, but it didn’t make them a top-10 scoring team. The group became the No. 3 team in the league in total yards, but once again didn’t have the scoring to match.

As the year began, the receiver rotation was pretty status quo, but as the year went on, Godwin’s presence became harder and harder to ignore. Eventually, he started taking snaps from Humphries. Then, as Jackson battled injuries, he took snaps as the WR2 opposite Evans. By the end of the season, Godwin’s work ethic, versatility, and production could not be denied, no matter who was healthy on the depth chart—he was the second-best receiver on the team, and everyone knew it. Godwin recorded 100 yards receiving in three of the final eight games of the season, including his best performance, a six-catch, 114-yard game with two receiving touchdowns in the team’s final game of the year against the Atlanta Falcons.

Going into the offseason, everyone knew that whatever previously held Godwin back no longer mattered moving forward.

In 2019, the Bucs made a big shakeup with their offense. Head coach Dirk Koetter was replaced by Bruce Arians. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken was replaced by Byron Leftwich. And Jackson and Humphries were replaced by Godwin. Though the receiver group wasn’t as deep as it was before, it was more talented because of the size of the role Godwin had in it.

To start talking about just how good Godwin is, you have to go beyond the obvious. To have consistent success in the NFL—especially for as many ways as Godwin succeeds—you have to check the boxes of size, speed, quickness, body control, and fundamentals. What makes Godwin great is that he has those necessary traits, and then a handful of traits that make him unstoppable.

The first can be seen above, and it highlights Godwin’s toughness.

At this point in his career, Godwin can line up anywhere. From his time as the fourth wide receiver on the depth chart behind Evans, Jackson, and Humphries, Godwin had to learn the routes asked of a slot player, an outside field stretcher, and a player who would see a lot of man coverage. Godwin wasn’t a streamlined player because the Bucs wanted him to be able to come in as a sub or a spot starter for any of their three roles. You can see how comfortable that early experience has made him.

Routes over the middle seem to have the biggest payout, and Godwin is fearless over the middle. Potential contact does not cause him to wince or alligator-arm passes, and actual contact rarely dislodges the ball from his hands once they arrive. On top of that, he always seems to pop right up.

Godwin is also really smart over the middle. He isn’t the quickest or fastest wide receiver—though he is certainly enough of both—so creating separation from man coverage is tough for him. But when it comes to finding soft spots in zone coverage, few are better than Godwin. 

The play above is a great example. Look how tight that zone was, yet Godwin knew all he had to do was find a spot wide enough for his body to get through and that would be enough. You can also see how Godwin came back from behind one of the defenders to find the spot, and then got back in front of them horizontally to meet the ball before the defender could. 

Toughness and intelligence over the middle are second nature to Godwin, and that is why he continues to be so reliable and productive in such a tight spot on the field.

In 2019, Godwin also showed a great understanding of doing the little things to come down with a catch. Take the play above, for example. With that ball behind him a bit, Godwin had the body control to slow down his momentum to get to where the ball was arriving. But he also knew that doing so would mean the defender was going to be able to meet him at that catch point. So Godwin used his body to box out the defender, took the contract well, and still came down with the catch.

This sounds like an obvious thing to do, but it’s not, and pulling it off is even harder than processing it in the second he had to make the adjustment.

This play is another example, and perhaps the best one of the year where you just go “how did he do that?” Godwin’s catch concentration is all-pro. That ball should have never had a chance, yet when you get it within arm’s reach of Godwin, he can make special things happen.

That play had many traits you just have to tip your hat to. The adjustment to the ball, the hand-eye coordination to make contact and redirect it to your body, and the strength to take the contact yet grip the ball tight enough to not lose control. You might find a handful of wide receivers who have a high level of one of those traits individually. But to be able to put all that together? Very few can do that.

Finally, I wanted to highlight what putting it all together looks like. The speed, the quickness, the intelligence, the toughness, the body control, the sure hands; mix all that together and you have a play like the one above.

As stated before, going over the middle is so dangerous. The possibility for you to get hit could come from multiple levels and multiple directions. Godwin doesn’t blink at any of it, and because of it, he brings to his offensive one of the most valuable traits/stats a wide receiver can: yards after the catch.

Accumulating air yards is the job requirement, but the whole idea of having playmakers at your wide receiver positions is that they can make plays beyond just that. You’ll hear every coach in the NFL say they want “dynamic” guys on offense; plays like the one above are what they mean.

Yards after the catch are second nature to Godwin, and it’s really important to make sure that is pointed out because that is not always the case, even with players you would deem dynamic in their abilities. There are plenty of receivers who have the speed, the quickness, or the tackle-breaking ability to rack up yards after the catch. But some of those players consistently search for the sidelines or willingly go down on first contact.

That has never been Godwin. You can see in his tape that when Godwin catches the ball, his natural body movement tells you that he’s looking for more. That’s a mindset you just can’t teach.

The play above is the last play I’m going to show. I could go on for hours, just from Godwin’s 2019 tape, but I wanted to leave this one for last because it is my favorite play of his from last season.

The reason it’s my favorite is because it encapsulates exactly why Godwin is a different breed, and why I have confidence in saying he was the best receiver in the league last year.

Godwin was yet again attacking the middle of the field against heavy zone coverage. But even for as tight as that coverage might have been, Godwin found exactly where the soft spot and throwing lane would be. As the ball arrived, there were four defenders around him, two of which were setting up for a free shot right at him, and one of which actually made contact. But it didn’t matter. Godwin hauled it in, bounced off the tackle, and immediately took off running. Did he have the speed to out-run that last defender? No, but he almost broke his tackle, too, and gained plenty of yards iin the process.

The game of football is a mental game just as it is physical. When people go down the boxes to check for a wide receiver, they commonly fill-in the physical gifts (which do need to be checked), but so many forget about checking the mental boxes, too. Godwin has the physical gifts, but he’s also intelligent, balanced, nuanced, precise, tough, anticipatory, relentless, focused, determined, and confident.

Some players—some really good players—check a number of physical boxes. Some check a lot of the mental boxes. Each can forge their own path through either. But it’s rare you get a player who can check all those boxes on each list.

It’s rare you get a Chris Godwin.

So, getting back to the second paragraph of the article, the answer to the question “was Godwin’s 2019 season a sign of future stardom, or was it his peak” is a bit more layered than just a simple this or that. 2019 was a sign of future stardom for Godwin, but the reason for that is because he doesn’t have to wait to be a star, he already is; he was. And for as good a season as 2019 was, I wouldn’t bet on that being Godwin’s peak. 

He’s really only just begun.

Written By:

Trevor Sikkema

Senior NFL Writer

Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-Host of the Locked On NFL Draft Podcast.