It wasn’t that long ago when Cameron Brate was virtually unknown, even among Bucs fans.
Undrafted Ivy Leaguers don’t usually move the needle much and Tampa Bay’s next impact player at tight end was supposed to be Austin Seferian-Jenkins. But the expected never happened. Injuries and off-the-field issues kept Seferian-Jenkins from influencing the offense, so much so that the team sent him packing in September.
Then there was Brate, the primary benefactor of the Seferian-Jenkins failure. The 25-year-old’s slow rise to prominence began last year and that steady ascension’s continued into 2016.
Bucs TE Cameron Brate – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“I think it’s just through experience. Cam has always been a good athlete and you would see it,” Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken said Wednesday. “I think that he’s improved in his attention to detail, he’s improved in his blocking, he’s improved in his route running, and that’s only going to come through experience, playing, and having great practices being stacked together.”
Through nine games, Brate’s already exceeded his 23-catch, 288-yard, three-touchdown production from last year and has himself among the league’s top performers at the position. The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder is tied with three other tight ends for tops in the NFL with five touchdown catches, ranks 13th in receptions (35) and tied for 16th in yards (375).
Why Brate has been able to transition from Harvard football to NFL starter in the span of three years is a combination of factors, he said. It also comes as a bit of a surprise.
“I never really envisioned the amount of success I’ve had at this level when I was college,” Brate said. “I thought maybe I could stick around and do it for a year or two.
“But I think it’s a combination of confidence and experience. Coming from a smaller school you don’t really know how you’ll stack up. Physically I probably wasn’t ready my rookie year. Then last year once Austin [Seferian-Jenkins] went down I got the opportunity to play a little more. My confidence grew, I’d say, a little bit. And just having another offseason under my belt working with Jameis [Winston] and Coach [Dirk] Koetter, I’m more sure of what I’m doing and I know I can play at this level.”
Numbers bear out the improving on-field chemistry between Brate and Winston. The tight end’s received the third-most targets of any Bucs pass catcher (49) and his 71.4 percent catch rate bests that of wideouts Mike Evans (54.6 percent: 59 catches on 108 targets) and Adam Humphries (66 percent: 35 catches on 53 targets).
Last week against Chicago, Brate’s hometown team growing up, he set career-highs in receptions (seven) and yards (84), and also caught his fifth touchdown. The score was his third in as many games and Winston said Brate’s earning everything that’s coming his way.
“The core thing, hard work pays off,” Winston said. “I keep going back to that because Cam Brate is the epitome of that. He comes in every single day working hard. After practice, he’s always staying out there to get some balls. When you work that hard, only something good can happen.”
Much of that hard work’s been concentrated on becoming a more effective blocker, which then allows coaches to leave Brate on the field in more situations.
“I think the past couple weeks we’ve taken more and more steps,” Brate said. “We’re doing more things with the tight end position than we have in the past and that’s always exciting, that’s what you want. You want the coaches to be able to do anything they want to do in the play book. Passing game-wise, I’m happy where I’m at, I’m happy with the way I’ve been used. Running game, we have guys like Luke [Stocker] and Brandon [Myers] who are so good, so those guys are obviously a little ahead of me at this point. But it’s something I’m working on every day and I’m just going to keep waiting for my opportunities.”