Who Has Edge In Battle To Be Buccaneers' WR3?

Photo: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made the biggest splash of the offseason when they signed Tom Brady in free agency, closing the book on the Jameis Winston chapters and ushering in a new era. 

Brady comes to Tampa Bay as the most accomplished quarterback of all time. He’s currently second to only Drew Brees in all-time career passing yards and passing touchdowns, but his win total of 219 is by far the most of any quarterback in league history—no other quarterback even has 200. He also has the most Super Bowl rings with six

All those records and yet this upcoming season, at age 42, people are saying Brady could have one of his most efficient and dominant seasons yet. That is due to the offensive arsenal around him in Tampa Bay.

Brady will be surrounded by wide receivers like Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, both of whom are considered top 10 at their positions. He’ll also have an embarrassment of riches at the tight end position with players like Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.

Right off the bat, that’s five passing options who could all be the best or second-best options on certain other teams in the league. But there’s another passing option that will carry a lot of weight in a Bruce Arians/Byron Leftwich offense that has yet to be sorted out

The battle for the Buccaneers’ third (and even fourth) wide receiver on the depth chart will be a key one. Knowing that Brady’s experience and football IQ are as good as it gets, Arians and Leftwich are going to try to make their offense as versatile as possible to set up mismatch potential each and every week no matter the defense they’re facing. Having the aforementioned players in the lineup every week is a favorable position almost no other team has, but the Buccaneers won’t be stopping there.

“I’d like to see us use some more four wide receiver sets if those guys show up because sometimes, if you have a very good fourth wide receiver, there are very few fourth good corners and nickels and dimes to come get ’em,” Arians said this offseason. “That was an area that I think we couldn’t do much last year, I think we can get better at utilizing our personnel groups.”

During the 2019 season, Arians talked plenty about the efforts of Godwin, Evans, and the tight ends, but he also brought up the importance—and sometimes lack of production—from that third wide receiver on the depth chart. For most of the season, that was Breshad Perriman. At first, it was Arians expressing some frustration with Perriman’s consistency. But when injuries to Godwin and Evans forced him to step up even more, Perriman did. The other two options throughout the season were sophomore wide receiver Justin Watson and the rookie wide receiver Scotty Miller.

With Perriman now gone, even with the addition of Gronkowski, someone will have to step up to the plate for that important WR3 role. As of right now, it’s shaping up to be one or more of Watson, Miller, and potentially the fifth-round pick from the 2020 NFL Draft, Tyler Johnson

Let’s take a deeper look into what each of these three players could bring to the table, and which is on the fast track for that crucial roster spot.

Justin Watson

Despite being a fifth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, there was plenty of promise for Watson. The former Penn wide receiver came into the NFL after an illustrious Ivy League career. As a four-year player, he was a three-time All-Ivy League selection, a two-time Ivy League champion, and has the school career records for receptions (286), receiving yards (3,777), receiving touchdowns (33), and all-purpose yards (4,107).

In his first season, though, it was a crowded wide receiver room in Tampa. Watson had a chance to make his mark as a reserve player. Godwin was a backup on the outside for DeSean Jackson, Adam Humphries carried his own skill set in the slot, and at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Watson was (body type-wise) the player who would make the most sense to be a red zone guy if Evans were to go down. Watson didn’t get much action that season, as they really didn’t need him, but was active for 12 games and played heavy on special teams.

Even with the emerging Godwin now in the starting lineup, losing Humphries and Jackson in the 2019 offseason meant there was a chance for Watson to really increase his role in the offense. The team brought in Perriman to give them a speed element and drafted Miller on Day 3 of the 2019 NFL Draft, but many thought Watson would have had the spot.

That didn’t exactly happen.

Arians and Leftwich clearly valued the speed of Perriman at their WR3 more than the familiarity of Watson. (Remember when Winston said Watson reminded him of Evans? That was funny.) In the end, Watson, despite being active for 16 games, finished the year with just 15 receptions on 26 targets for 159 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns. He, once again, was used more on special teams, as he logged the fourth-most special teams snaps on the team with 280.

Watson is a good blocker, but his lack of speed and quickness limits what he can be as a WR3 in either role the Buccaneers wish to use it for: deep speed down the field or short speed in the slot. 

Scotty Miller

Miller brings a totally different skill set than a player like Watson.

The first way in which that is obvious is size. Watson has about five or six inches of height and about 30 pounds on Miller. But where Miller lacks what Watson brings in size, he brings much more to the table in the asset of speed and quickness.

Miller was a track star in high school who broke his school’s record in the 100-meter dash with a time of 10.66. At his Pro Day during the pre-draft process, he reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.36 with a 4.02 short shuttle time and 6.97 three-cone time. That short shuttle and 40-yard dash are in the 90th percentile for wide receivers in the league.

Unlike Watson, Miller can potentially check that deep speed option for the Buccaneers.

Miller was active for just 10 games in 2019, and yet he out-produced Watson in nearly every category when it came to output per target. Miller saw the same amount of targets Watson did despite playing in six fewer games. With those targets, Miller accumulated 200 receiving yards and a 15.4 yards-per-reception average, both of which bested Watson’s numbers in the same categories.

Many would look at Miller and immediately peg him as Brady’s next Wes Welker or Julian Edelman; a player who can be a quick-hit option from the slot. But Miller, at this point, is not precise enough of a route runner to have that same sort of impact. Instead, when it comes to those mismatch opportunities, Miller can be a guy who can really put stress on a defense’s third or fourth best coverage player due to his long speed.

The play above was a great example of that. 

In that play, Miller was the player off the line of scrimmage in the stack alignment behind Godwin to the right of the line. The alignment there was important because it was the entire set of the mismatch.

Saints rookie defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson had a fantastic season in 2019. He was billed as a versatile player pre-draft, and he very much lived up to that in his first year. The Saints liked to use Gardner-Johnson in the strong safety role as a box presence and also a slot defender. Presenting a rare combination of both strength, size, and athleticism, Gardner-Johnson could match up against bigger wide receivers teams tried to move inside or tight ends who were flexed off the line of scrimmage (like Travis Kelce, George Kittle, etc.).

When matched up against the likes of Evans or Godwin at the line of scrimmage, Gardner-Johnson could get his hands on them in press and stick with them for most of the play using subtle physicality and matching speed. But when lined up against Miller, even the talented Gardner-Johnson was exposed as a mismatch.

Due to Miller being lined up behind the line of scrimmage, Gardner-Johnson could not get his hands on Miller as he started his route. Though Gardner-Johnson has 4.48 speed, he doesn’t have Miller’s 4.36 speed (most slot defenders don’t). Without giving Gardner-Johnson the chance to get his hands on Miller, the speedy Buccaneers receiver was able to blow by him.

This is what being a mismatch is. The Buccaneers have enough talent at the top to be competitive in the passing game every week. But each week defenses will have different ways they like to defend slot/WR3/WR4 players. Sometimes their guys are built for bigger bodies. If that’s the case, that’s where Miller can really thrive as a WR3 in Tampa.

Tyler Johnson

Johnson was quite the polarizing player throughout the draft process. Though he had back-to-back 1,000-yard and double-digit touchdown seasons in 2018 and 2019 at Minnesota, many looked at his unorthodox style and said it couldn’t be replicated at the next level.

Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians isn’t one of them.

"Oh man, I can't tell you how long I was waiting to see that," Arians said of the Johnson draft selection. "I was just shaking waiting on that one because I actually sat here and watched that game here in Tampa with my son. I said, 'I've got to get this guy.' We really wanted him, and we had a high grade [on him]. Guys were coming and going, and it was like, 'Phew, we finally got him.' I was really, really excited."

Johnson isn’t the same sort of athlete Miller is with deep speed and vertical explosiveness, but what Johnson lacks in those categories versus Miller he appears to make up for it with contested-catch ability and overall savviness for the position.

Something I believe is underappreciated when it comes to Johnson’s game is he attempts to set up his defenders consistently. Johnson isn’t the most explosive wide receiver, but you can still gain separation from defenders if you can fool them. Johnson likes to keep his feet moving and fool defenders in front of him with his head and body control.

Sometimes, as shown above, it works. Not every receiver is that natural with it.

Johnson also seems to understand the defensive flow well. When he’s matched up in man coverage or when defenders can get physical with him, it’s hard for him to break free—though he does have great contested catch ability, so targeting him could still work. But defenses can’t play man coverage all the time.

When they play zone or just off coverage against Johnson, he seems to know how to attack space and find the soft spots. The play above is an example of that. It seems super unusual to watch, as the route was rounded and somewhat unfamiliar, but that didn’t mean it was the wrong path. It was and it worked because Johnson knew how to attack the coverage he was seeing.

My final point here with Johnson is that even though he isn’t the speedster Miller is, when you get the ball in his hands, he can still make things happen in open space. He’s very calm when it comes to plays after the catch. Sometimes receivers have a tendency to panic and just run in a straight line as fast as they can or straight into contact. Johnson is collected as a ball carrier, confident in his ability to make defenders miss and, as shown above, can kick it into a decently high gear when he gets to open grass.

When you’re talking about an offense that has Evans, Godwin, Gronkowski, Howard, and Brate, you’re looking at a lot of checked boxes already; the speed with size, the height mismatch, the reliability, the spectacular play potential, and the breakaway speed. So when it comes to that third and even fourth wide receiver spot, it likely has to be a specialization role; something that can change week-to-week to give them the best mismatch potential.

As of right now, knowing how Arians and Leftwich like to push the ball and get vertical, I believe Miller has the inside track to seeing more snaps as the WR3 in the Buccaneers’ offense. However, don’t be surprised if Johnson gets plenty of looks as the next man in (barring his speed not getting swallowed up in the league). I think Watson is on the outside looking in, but could still see the gameday roster as a constant special teams contributor with reserve ability in the offense.