When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made the surprising choice to sign troubled wide receiver Antonio Brown over a week ago, many assumed the veteran pass-catcher would step into the role of punt returner as well. But head coach Bruce Arians may be content with fellow receiver Jaydon Mickens in that role, although Brown’s debut with the Bucs remains over a week away following the conclusion of his eight-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. The repercussions of such a decision could have a devastating impact on rookie Tyler Johnson’s playing time.
“He’s a great punt returner and kick returner,” Arians said of Brown. “It’s just going to be one of those things where we can get him out there with a live ball and not a JUGGS machine – get him back to catching them. He’ll give us good depth in that area.”
Brown has four career punt return touchdown and one kickoff return touchdown, despite the Pittsburgh Steelers trying to limit his role in those capacities over the course of his career to preserve his health. I would be shocked if the Bucs don’t utilize Brown’s return abilities on a consistent basis as soon as he’s shaken the rust off in practices – and not as simply a depth/emergency option either.
Arians’ affinity for wide receivers is well known, but it will also be fascinating to see which of the Bucs’ current top six receivers are active when AB joins the active roster following the conclusion of his suspension. Obviously Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller, the team’s leading receiver with 22 receptions for 365 yards and two touchdowns, are safe, and the way rookie Tyler Johnson has played, you’d assume the Bucs would want him suited up on Sundays.
But if Tampa Bay does decide to keep the rookie active, that would make Justin Watson and Mickens the potential odd men out, and Watson is one of the team’s most valuable special teamers, as well as being a solid backup wide out with the versatility to play every receiver spot. His role on offense has been usurped by Johnson, but he still seems more valuable to the team than Mickens, who has been just okay as a punt returner and has only 27 offensive snaps and two receptions on the season.
The Bucs have had seven wide receivers active in one game this season: Week 6 against the Green Bay Packers. Cyril Grayson has served as the team’s seventh wide receiver in recent weeks, although he was inactive against Las Vegas this past Sunday. Grayson figures to descend to the practice squad when Brown is active. If Grayson moves down and Mickens remains active on game days, it could be to the detriment of Johnson, who doesn’t offer the same special teams prowess as Watson (Johnson has zero special teams snaps this season), despite being a clearly superior receiver.
The disclaimer, of course, is that if Brown wins the punt returner job from Mickens in the next week, that would put the diminutive return man on the cutting block, opening up the sixth receiver spot for Johnson once again.
Johnson has seven catches for 72 yards and two scores in five games of action, and has been consistently able to create separation when studying the coaches’ tape. He’s also impressed as a blocker, but if Chris Godwin returns to action next Sunday against the Saints, that role should be covered. It could be a simple case of Johnson being stuck behind the best receiving corps in the league when Brown is added to the lineup, and not anything the young rookie is doing to deserve a spot on the bench.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft