Four days ago, the Bucs were dead and buried. The NFC South was completely up for grabs, and the conference belonged to Green Bay or Los Angeles. There were rumblings that the Bucs would use 2023 as a reboot season, preparing themselves to go after a top quarterback in 2024.

And in three days, all of that changed.

On Sunday, Tom Brady announced he was coming out of his 41-day retirement to re-join the Bucs. A string of moves quickly followed. Center Ryan Jensen was retained on a three-year, $39 million contract. Then cornerback Carlton Davis III was re-signed as well. Given Chris Godwin’s franchise tag the week before, that meant the Bucs had retained all three of their top free agents for 2022.

Bucs GM Jason Licht

Bucs GM Jason Licht – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Yes, the loss of two starters followed. Right guard Alex Cappa and safety Jordan Whitehead were given modest deals elsewhere, but the Bucs didn’t value them at their price points. Tampa Bay did value a few other pieces, signing wide receiver Russell Gage away from Atlanta. The price tag was considerable – three years, $30 million for Gage. But in making the move, Tampa Bay secured one of the better No. 3 wide receivers on the market.

And the Bucs weren’t done. An hour later, general manager Jason Licht stole stud right guard Shaq Mason from the Patriots. The price? Just a fifth-round pick! Mason has been one of the best guards in the NFL for seven straight years. Now he reunites with Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, upgrading the spot where Cappa once stood. And he’s cheaper.

Suddenly, the Bucs are very much alive in a surging NFC. The additions of Gage and Mason filled two significant holes that the team needed to address. Give Licht and the Bucs front office a ton of credit. They went into Tuesday knowing that simply running it back wasn’t good enough. So they upgraded two of the biggest holes on the team right away. And one of those additions will be catching passes from Brady next season.

WR Russell Gage • 6-0, 190 • 4.42 40-yard dash/39-inch vertical

It’s not surprising the Bucs were interested in Gage. Not only has he torched Tampa Bay over the past couple of seasons, he also fits all their metric preferences. When the Bucs scout wide receivers, they prioritize three things: height (6-foot+), vertical jump (explosiveness) and speed. At the NFL Scouting Combine a five years ago, Gage checked all three boxes. And he’s spent the past few years on tape, proving he belongs.

Over his first three seasons in Atlanta, Gage played the majority of his snaps in the slot. Given the cerebral nature of that position, and the technique needed to execute at a high level, it was a little surprising. Gage had barely contributed offensively in college, catching only 26 passes in his LSU career. And 21 of them came in his senior season. It’s incredible he was drafted at all, let alone as a sixth-round pick. But when teams scouted him, they saw speed, athleticism, character, work ethic and physicality. Gage’s work on special teams made him a coveted Day 3 pick.

Now, his special teams days might be behind him. Gage is the extremely rare player to blossom in the NFL after doing nothing in college. Ironically, the knock on Gage was once his rawness. But he’s quickly become one of the more nuanced route runners and reliable targets in the NFL. Mental mistakes are rare, he knows how to get open and he rarely drops the ball. Per PFF, Gage had just five drops on 102 targets last year.

While Gage emerged in the slot, he had to take on a bigger role in 2021. Despite an anemic offense and no other wide receivers of note on the field, Gage impressed as an outside receiver. He reeled in 66 catches for 770 yards and four touchdowns. The LSU product’s best game came against the Bucs in Atlanta, catching 10 balls for 130 yards.

Where Gage Wins

I know Sean Murphy-Bunting is happy to see Gage on his sideline, rather than the opponent’s.

Gage has made his money as a good short-intermediate separation creator. His routes are crisp and he knows how to create space for throwing windows. Atlanta didn’t ask him to win vertically very often, but he did it when called upon. There is no reason to believe he’s incapable of downfield success in Tampa Bay.

Because the Falcons offense was not very vertical last season, Gage didn’t make a lot of splash plays. He was a strong possession receiver underneath, but the big play opportunities were few and far between. On the season, Gage received just 13 targets of 20 yards or more in the air. But he made those plays count, catching six of the passes for 173 yards and two scores. In addition, four of the five balls were contested catches.

That might be the area of Gage’s game that has seen the most growth. In 2019, Gage caught just 30 percent of his contested opportunities. That percentage jumped to 45 percent in 2020, followed by an outstanding 58 percent in 2021, per PFF. The more opportunities Gage has received, the better he’s performed. He’s also a strong blocker, often praised as a selfless, high I.Q. player.

Questions About Gage’s Game

New Bucs WR Russell Gage and CB Sean Murphy-Bunting

New Bucs WR Russell Gage and CB Sean Murphy-Bunting – Photo by: USA Today

One area where Gage has been totally unimpressive is after the catch. He does not provide much in the way of tackle-breaking or elusiveness. He’s an athlete with speed, but getting him manufactured touches won’t be a big part of the Bucs’ plan. Per PFF, the 26-year old has never averaged more than four yards after the catch per reception.

If there’s a concern with Gage, it’s how he’ll fit as the team’s ‘Z’ receiver if he needs to play that role heavily. I would imagine that Chris Godwin will move all over the offense, so Gage won’t man just one spot. But if he’s playing mostly on the outside, it will be a scheme and role adjustment for the fifth-year receiver.

I still expect the Bucs to draft another vertical threat at wide receiver. They need more size and speed on the outside, and they know Tyler Johnson is not that guy. Scotty Miller brought the splash plays for awhile, but lost playing time to basically everyone last season. The Bucs won’t go into next season with a job handed to either of those guys. Expect more competition at wide receiver eventually. But for now, Gage is a great start to rounding out the Bucs’ starting offense for 2022.

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About the Author: Jon Ledyard

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
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Alldaway 2.0
Alldaway 2.0
2 months ago

I too anticipate that the Bucs will still draft a WR. But they do not have to do so in the first two rounds now. Which is huge as they can go focus on trenches DL/OL or nab another DB.
Having Gage on board also means players like Scotty and Johnson are better fits as #4/5 WRs which is fine for spot duty. Draft a WR, and compete with Scotty, Johnson, Darden, and Grayson. Keep the best three.

Last edited 2 months ago by Alldaway 2.0
drdneast
drdneast
Reply to  Alldaway 2.0
2 months ago

I concur with you about drafting in the trenches for the first two rounds but I’d like to see the Bucs get a RB or safety in the third round. And please, Licht, draft a RB who has shown a propensity to be able to catch the ball. I liked RoJo and though he improved his hands but why would you draft a RB with a high second round pick who rarely caught the ball in college.

Captain Sly
Captain Sly
2 months ago

“Strike Fools Gold” Ledyard. Stop with the nonsense he can only play the slot position which is Chris Godwin’s, he’s much smaller and has unreliable hands. $20 mil GTD is an insurance policy against Godwin’s recovery but a bad investment. Unless we’re talking about moving Godwin into Antonio Brown’s role this signing makes no sense. Not Negative just my opinion

Captain Sly
Captain Sly
Reply to  Captain Sly
2 months ago

Let me just add this before signing off. Someone may ask “well who else could we have signed”? Let’s See; Jarvis Landry, Allen Robinson, Ju Ju Smith Schuster, Emanuel Sanders, Will Fuller, AJ Green etc. Just Saying

drdneast
drdneast
Reply to  Captain Sly
2 months ago

As usual, your opinion stinks and is based on nothing but your personal feeling, not fact. You can bet Brady gave this his personal approval.

Theerealdiehl
Theerealdiehl
Reply to  Captain Sly
2 months ago

He’s an upgrade over every receiver below Godwin and Evans on this roster, so not terrible. We probably did over pay, but at least we didn’t sign Christian Kirk for 50 million or whatever the Jags did lol

Captain Sly
Captain Sly
Reply to  Theerealdiehl
2 months ago

Gage being an upgrade is debatable if we’re only talking about the Y Slot WR & Tyler Johnson. If we’re talking about him playing the Z wide/AB position he’s not an upgrade and it’s not debatable at All. Perriman bigger faster stronger and for that matter Cyril Grayson cheaper are better options. IMO

Eddie
Eddie
Reply to  Captain Sly
2 months ago

I have high hope for both Perriman and Grayson this season. Lets hope both have put in the physical work this off season

Spitfire
Spitfire
Reply to  Captain Sly
2 months ago

That kills your argument right there, I think the resigning of Perriman makes less sense than Gage. Perriman made one good play last year and still has the worst hands on the team. Gage makes it where him and Godwin can swap whenever needed. Finding a guy that has good routes, can block and grab congested catches is what Godwin does so well. Non of our guys get that great of YAC which is frustrating but as long as they catch it the ball keeps moving. Drafting another receiver to play outside will be good but Gage is versatile enough… Read more »

Eddie
Eddie
Reply to  Captain Sly
2 months ago

Agree this is an overpaid insurance policy. at 4.5 speed, lets hope he is Antonio Brown the second with his route running

surferdudes
surferdudes
2 months ago

Except for signing back Davis, free agency has been about the offense. I thought the Bucs might use their first pick on a guard, or receiver. With these signings now I have to say we’re going to draft defense. That could change still, but right now we need to at least replace Suh, JPP, and maybe O Conner. Be interesting to see the new mock drafts now that we got Gage, and Mason.

drdneast
drdneast
2 months ago

Scotty Miller lost playing time last year because of a turf toe injury. Once he got better near the end of the season his playing time increased as did his catches. As a matter of fact, if you watched the Bucs game against the Rams, he was the reason Evans got one on one coverage aginst Jalen Ramsey as Troy Aikmen noted, the Rams rolled coverage to Scotty Miller. You sportswriters crack me up. You guys are like Jon Gruden in the fact he never saw a QB he didn’t think was better than the one he had. The grass… Read more »

Captain Sly
Captain Sly
Reply to  drdneast
2 months ago

Correct on Defense! While we are handing $20 mil to slow slot receivers we just lost Jordan Whitehead to Jets for even less $$$. SMH

Theerealdiehl
Theerealdiehl
Reply to  drdneast
2 months ago

No, he lost playing time because he couldn’t beat press coverage and can’t block bigger CBs in addition to being injured.

fredster
fredster
2 months ago

Good signing. Anyone that thinks Miller or Johnson is better needs to go back and watch tape last year. Johnson is slow and doesn’t separate period. Miller can get open but only go routes typically. He isn’t good in traffic and he’s too small a target. Neither was productive at all. Not saying they don’t have value here as depth or gadget guys but saying Gage is same skill set or some production is stupid. I’d also draft a WR. Injuries at WR and crazy AB really cost the Bucs playoff hopes last year.

Eddie
Eddie
Reply to  fredster
2 months ago

I just re-watched the Buc and Rams game last night, Miller did fine in that game. Johnson was bad however.

Theerealdiehl
Theerealdiehl
2 months ago

Jon, I couldn’t agree more. Great signing and should be productive here. Just scheme fit wise, he seems like a slot receiver and even though he has played on the outside, I have my doubts he will be a consistent threat there. Additionally, he Godwin continues to play the “power slot” then not sure how Gage fits. He is an upgrade over what we have lower down on the roster (Johnson, Scotty Miller, and co.). We should still draft a true size/speed guy to get reps if not start on the outside. Watson would be perfect. Then Gage could fill… Read more »

SenileSenior
SenileSenior
2 months ago

I guess they were more sure of Russell Gage than JuJu Smith-Schuster. He was the one I have been tracking. I like the info about Gage’s improvement in contested catches. That is significant in today’s NFL. Licht and staff continue to surprise me with who they land each year.
____________
Go Bucs!!!

Danny
Danny
2 months ago

Thank you Jon for writing this…and providing the videos. I don’t know why all the criticism on these comments below. You did your homework, and I agree this was a great signing, and yes, I think it’s a fair price for a 26 year old, that has no mileage on him, who in a short period of time on not a great football team showed he can perform at a high level. Not only will he be our “best” WR3 option, but can certainly play up to a WR2 if/when an injury occurs. Matt Ryan can throw the rock around,… Read more »