It’s April 13, and the Bucs lone question mark in their starting lineup for next season is who will play the No. 3 receiver role. If Antonio Brown remains unsigned, that role could easily be shared by Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson, both of whom impressed for the Bucs last season. But Tampa Bay could also look to supplement one of the most important positions on their roster with a draft pick, something they have done in six of Jason Licht’s seven drafts as general manager.
One of the most important aspects of pre-draft analysis for each NFL teams is finding the shared traits, characteristics or production between each GM’s draft picks at certain positions. Last year before the 2020 NFL Draft, I detailed Licht’s established preferences when drafting the wide receiver position through (now) seven years as general manager. You can read the full article here, but the basic consensus is that Licht (and Arians, near as we can tell) prefer bigger receivers early in the draft (at least 6-1, 205-210 range) with speed (at least 4.4s in the 40) and leaping ability/explosiveness (at least 35.5-inch vertical) in any round of the draft.
We never got testing results on Tyler Johnson, but Licht and Arians mentioned that the team’s times on him were a strong re-assurance that he was plenty fast, and the Minnesota product hit the size threshold too at nearly 6-1 1/2, 206 pounds. With the knowledge that in Rounds 1-4 (at least) the Bucs will probably gravitate toward bigger receivers who run in the 4.4s or better and jump at least 35.5 inches, here are some of the top prospects that make sense for the team in that range of the draft:
Bucs Round 1 WR Target: Terrace Marshall, LSU
Draft Criteria: At LSU’s pro day, Marshall checked in at 6-2 1/2, 205 pounds and ran a 4.40 40-yard dash while jumping 39-inches. He hits all the criteria that Licht seems to value when drafting wide receivers.
Scouting Marshall: There is no question that Marshall fits the physical and athletic profile of a Bucs receiver, and I expect Licht will also love the fact that Marshall played inside and outside at LSU. After operating mostly as an outside receiver in 2019, Marshall moved inside to play Justin Jefferson’s position in the 2020 version of the Tigers’ offense. Marshall’s production didn’t change a ton as the No. 1 guy in 2020, largely due to LSU’s drop-off as an offense, but his touchdown numbers have remained unbelievable, scoring 13 times in 2019 and 10 more times this past season.
In terms of size, burst, speed and leaping ability, Marshall is a terrific prospect. He consistently runs away from corners down the field, and he’s explosive enough to beat them off the line of scrimmage too, which helps make up for his lack of nuance as a route runner. Marshall fits a vertical-based offense very well due to his length and ball skills down the field, making him an intriguing option for the Bucs at No. 32.
The struggle with Marshall is that he’s still very raw in the technical aspects of his position, and drops were plentiful this past season. He consistently took his eyes off the ball at the catch point, allowing easy receptions to get away from him. Marshall is also inconsistent in contested catch spots, making some tremendous high-degree-of-difficulty catches over the past two seasons, but also leaving a lot of opportunities on the field in frustrating fashion.
That inconsistency combined with Marshall’s lack of overall physicality (pitiful blocker) might be more concerning to the Bucs than his raw route-running, mediocre play strength or lack of elusiveness after the catch. Marshall is a good prospect, but he’s not ready for a big role in the NFL right away. At 20 years old, it’s easy to get excited about Marshall’s size, speed and flashes of ball skills in an offense like Tampa Bay’s, even if the early returns would be minimal until wide receivers coach Kevin Garver can bring him along.
Projection: Marshall is likely to come off the board somewhere in the 20-50 range of the draft, so if the Bucs covet him, he’ll probably need to be their first round pick. According to Grinding The Mocks, Marshall’s average draft position in mock drafts right now is right around the Bucs pick at No. 32 overall. It will be a surprise if the Bucs draft a wide receiver this early, but if they do, Marshall is the best bet.
Bucs Round 2-3 WR Target: Dyami Brown, North Carolina
Draft Criteria: At UNC’s pro day, Brown measured in 6-0 5/8, 189 pounds, well below the weight and slightly below the height the Bucs typically prefer at the wide receiver position. Brown ran a 4.45 40 and jumped 35.5 inches in the vertical jump, just clearing those two benchmarks.
Scouting Brown: Brown is the 2021 NFL Draft version of D.K. Metcalf, NOT in terms of physical or athletic ability, but simply in terms of the roles they played in college. Both receivers were tethered to the line of scrimmage as the left outside receiver in offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s offense, Metcalf at Ole Miss and Brown at UNC. Brown enters the NFL with many of the same questions Metcalf did thanks to a simplistic collegiate route tree and a ton of nine routes.
The downside with Brown is that he is a good, not great, athlete like Metcalf is, and the junior’s ball skills are maddeningly inconsistent. Not dissimilar to Marshall, Brown has made some jaw-dropping plays on the ball downfield, but has also failed to come up with plenty of contested catches and receptions outside his frame. Can he consistently find and adjust to the ball down the field in the NFL, where the corners have even better ball skills? It’s a major concern I have with Brown’s game.
What I love about Brown is that he’s quick and fast, showing the explosiveness and creativity to work off the line of scrimmage against press, and the speed to run away from corners down the field. How much quality press coverage did he really face? That’s a fair question, as a lot of corners played off coverage on Brown in the five games I studied. Brown is physical and will block, but he doesn’t really have the frame to handle bigger corners at the line of scrimmage or at the top of his route.
The struggle with Brown’s projection to the NFL is that his collegiate role as a vertical threat is best suited for premier athletes with premier size and/or ball skills in the NFL, and that doesn’t really describe the Tar Heels’ product. Ideally, Brown would be a cleaner route runner with less drops and more reliable underneath work, allowing him to showcase the intriguing run-after-catch ability that we saw glimpses of in college. Unfortunately, projecting him to a role like that takes some imagination, perhaps more imagination than most NFL teams will be able to show once Brown is drafted.
Projection: Brown is likely to be a second or third round pick based on most projections I’ve seen. Grinding The Mocks has his stock currently in the 65-75 range of the draft, so if the Bucs want him, they’d likely need to select him in Round 2 if he’s still on the board at 64. Given that Brown comes with his fair share of concerns, doesn’t hit the Bucs size preferences and barely hits the team’s athletic tendencies, my guess is that he wouldn’t be a coveted player on their board at 64.
Bucs Round 3-4 WR Target: Nico Collins, Michigan
Draft Criteria: At Michigan’s pro day, Collins put on an absolute show for scouts after weighing in at 6-4 1/8, 215 pounds. One of the biggest receivers in the draft, Collins ran a 4.45 40 and jumped 37.5 inches, easily clearing the Bucs’ thresholds at the wide receiver position.
Scouting Collins: An outside-only receiver at Michigan, Collins was a good vertical threat for a Wolverines offense that had a very limited vertical passing game. A big, fast pass catcher with impressive ball skills down the field, Collins has some things the NFL loves on the surface, especially when you consider how well he tested at his size. Michigan’s offense was pitiful to watch, but it was clear he knows how to find and adjust to the ball down the field, using his body and size to his advantage.
Nico Collins is a contested-catch WR. But I like him because he's sudden in his releases. Saw it at the Senior Bowl, too. Beats CBs off the line, which allows him to stack & high point downfield.
Unfortunately for Collins, that’s really where his positives end. He’s more of a build-up speed receiver than an explosive “win early” type who challenges corners at the line of scrimmage. Collins showed at the Senior Bowl that his physical advantages against press haven’t diminished despite his decision to opt out of the 2020 season, but when you put on the tape against top secondaries like Alabama in 2019, the Michigan senior is easily erased. I was more impressed by his releases in Mobile than I was on tape, although there are still glimpses in his 2019 performances that give you reason to believe Collins can be a more consistent force at the line of scrimmage.
After watching a few games, Collins’ evaluation really reminds me of Sammie Coates. Receivers typically need to show the ability to separate early in their release or later at the top of their route, and Collins struggles mightily to do either. He’s made some great contested catches in college, but he’s always in combat catch situations because he can’t create space against even average college corners. That’s going to be a problem in the NFL, where creating separation is the most important thing receivers can do.
Despite his frame and athleticism, Collins isn’t really a standout in any way, and might not have a valuable trump card in the NFL. He’s not dangerous after the catch or in space, his production was remarkably average over two years on the field at Michigan and he doesn’t show a dominant trait on the field. On paper, Collins is definitely what the Bucs look for in a receiver, but his tape left me uninspired about his projection to the NFL. Time will tell if the Bucs share my evaluation.
Projection: Grinding The Mocks has Collins projected in the late third round range right now. His stock is fluid enough that the Bucs could possibly wait until Round 4, but there is a chance Collins will be drafted before they are on the clock at 138 overall.
Brown, Marshall and Collins all possess ideal traits that the Bucs value in wide receiver prospects, with the latter two pass catchers checking every physical and athletic box that Licht has gravitated toward in receiver prospects during his career as GM. Marshall’s ceiling is easily the highest, but Brown is the better receiver right now despite being smaller than you’d like for a receiver who wins the way he does. All three wideouts come with questions and are far from finished products, which makes you wonder how quickly they’ll be able to make a transition to the NFL.
The Bucs clearly have a “type” at wide receiver under Licht, but these are really the only three receivers expected to go in the first three rounds of the draft that come close to fitting that type. It’s a draft full of smaller, less vertical receivers, and it will test the Bucs commitment to their pre-draft scouting criteria for the position. Tampa Bay could opt to draft one of the three pass catchers analyzed in this article or avoid the receiver class entirely in the early rounds.
There is a third alternative, as Licht could decide that 2021 is the year he is willing to alter his standards for a smaller receiver like Elijah Moore or Rondale Moore in order to give the offense a little bit of what it lost in Antonio Brown. It’s a good, not great receiver class in my opinion, but the best pass catcher for the Bucs may be found by looking outside of their prototype in the 2021 NFL Draft.
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