It’s a misconception that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don’t use tight ends as often as the rest of the league. You don’t need to go beyond the 2022 NFL Draft to see that’s the case. Tampa Bay drafted not one, but two players at the position – using a fourth-round pick on Cade Otton out of Washington and a sixth-round pick on Minnesota’s Ko Kieft.
That’s some significant capital. Especially when you consider the kinds of players Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht has been able to uncover on day three in the past.
Sure, all anyone has seen in Tampa the last couple years is Rob Gronkowski doing Rob Gronkowski things and thinking that was about it. If (and when) he was hurt, the offense defaulted to a majority of 11 personnel looks, trotting out three wide receivers more often than not.
While that was certainly Tampa Bay’s most popular grouping, it wasn’t by as hefty a margin as you think.
Let’s start by understanding the Buccaneers ran a lot of offensive plays in 2021. In fact, Tampa Bay recorded the seventh-most offensive snaps in the league, totaling 1,179. Naturally, their snap count in various personnel sets will be a little skewed but it also means there were plenty of offensive snaps to go around.
The other thing we need to understand is that in the absence of a true blocking tight end, the Buccaneers utilized offensive linemen like tight ends. Tampa Bay utilized 12 (big) personnel on the fifth-most snaps in the league. It means they added in an extra lineman to act as a blocker and further extension of the offensive line – it just so happened to be an actual offensive lineman. Ordinarily, you’d like to keep opposing defenses guessing by making that player a tight end who could potentially block or catch.
Add in the number of snaps the Buccaneers took in standard 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE) and 13 (1 RB, 3 TE) and all of a sudden, you realize Tampa Bay spends 25.2% of its time on the field utilizing multiple tight ends.
That’s not nothing.
It’s no one’s fault that their tight end usage is commonly misconstrued, though. Gronkowski was targeted only 89 times last season, though that’s also due to him missing five games. Tight end Cam Brate was only targeted 57 times. The now-Buffalo Bill O.J. Howard had just 21 targets. So, it’s not that the Buccaneers don’t use tight ends, they just don’t use them much in the passing game.
Insert both Otton and Kieft from this year’s draft class. Otton is the most ‘complete’ tight end this year’s draft had to offer, according to Buccaneers tight ends coach John Van Dam. Known as more of an in-line blocker, something he did very well at the University of Washington, Van Dam doesn’t see that being Otton’s only utilization.
“Cade has a high ceiling in the passing game,” said Van Dam. “He’s better than people give him credit for as a receiving tight end. I think he’s one of the more dual-threat type tight ends that was available.”
That slots Otton in as a true ‘Y’, something Van Dam says is hard to find these days coming out of college, with most amateur systems utilizing tight ends as more big-bodied receivers.
“It’s like trying to find a pocket passer in college,” Van Dam said. “Those just don’t exist anymore.”
They’ll work with Otton to turn him into an NFL ‘Y’. He will not be Gronkowski’s replacement, as the Buccaneers are still hoping to get him back for 2022, but Otton will serve a similar role. He’ll pair well with both Brate, who is what’s known as an ‘F’ or pass-catching tight end, and Codey McElroy, who is also an ‘F’.
And should the Buccaneers for some reason not get Gronkowski back, the team is comfortable with Otton starting as soon as this season but the thought process in taking him with their first fourth-round pick is that he’s part of the future. He’s a player they can develop in an aging tight end room.
Otton is coming off injury; it’s why Van Dam thinks he dropped to the fourth round. That, and the fact that he didn’t do any pre-draft testing during the NFL Scouting Combine or even in Washington’s pro day. But as the great Tom Moore (the Buccaneers’ 82-year-old offensive analyst) always says: a player’s film is the major indicator of his performance – not some (insert expletive of the day) testing.
Kieft, on the other hand, will be used primarily as a blocker. His toughness and overall demeanor are what won the Buccaneers over.
“He’s an aggressive, tenacious blocker,” said Van Dam. “He comes off the ball and he’s powerful and tries to block through you. He’s an old school tight end, if you want to call it that.”
Not one bad thing was said about Kieft to any of the Buccaneers’ brass while they were checking his references and doing their due diligence on him in the pre-draft circuit. Van Dam was told by his contact at Kieft’s alma mater, Minnesota: “You’re going to love this guy.”
He’s the quintessential ‘run through a wall’ type. And he’s a more than willing participant to do whatever Tampa Bay needs him to do – which could be a lot. They’ll be able to move him around quite a bit, whether it’s in-line, off the ball or in the backfield. Van Dam didn’t go so far as to say he could line up as a fullback – but essentially, he could line up as a fullback. The biggest question about Kieft is his ball skills and if his athleticism will take him far enough to be a factor on special teams, because that’s how Kieft could stick.
Both players fit the Licht model: they’re intelligent, tough and have chips on their shoulders. But they also both fit Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich’s model as an integral part of the Tampa Bay offense, given how much the Buccaneers actually utilize their tight ends.
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