When former Minnesota wide receiver Tyler Johnson fell to the Bucs in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, almost every draft analyst considered it a huge win for Tampa Bay. Even Johnson’s detractors felt the receiver was good value in the fifth round, and his supporters were thrilled with what they perceived to be a Round 2-3 caliber addition in the draft.
During Johnson’s rookie season, advocates of his game appeared to be right. The receiver didn’t play much, but made a major impact when he did see the field, catching 12 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson seemed to be gunning for the highlight reel whenever the ball came his way, making several tough catches on the year. His biggest catch of the season came against the Saints in the divisional round, converting a late third-and-long for the Bucs.
Tyler Johnson had just 12 catches for the Bucs this season.
It’s rare to see a rookie flash a full skill set at receiver over just 17 targets, but that’s what Johnson did. Contested catches, body control grabs and terrific route-running/releases are all in his tape. He was also an asset as a blocker when filling in for Chris Godwin, especially in the slot.
Possible I'm forgetting, but I don't believe the #Bucs have run a crack toss all season until this play. Hope we see more of it, as they've struggled running outside. Great crack by Gronk, Marpet ends up blocking two dudes. Baby Godwin (Tyler Johnson) down on the LB is KEY 😍 pic.twitter.com/e0v9g4cjzB
Yes, Tyler Johnson dropped a few balls in a small sample size too, but this article really isn’t about how good Johnson was as a rookie. It’s about how good Johnson can be as a second-year receiver, considering he has no obvious path to playing time.
Loaded Depth Chart Ahead Of Johnson
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Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown return this season, setting the Bucs’ top three receivers for 2021 in stone. Johnson could share the No. 4 receiver role with Scotty Miller, but the speedy Tampa Bay receiver was easily the more impactful player a year ago. Currently slated for the No. 5 receiver spot on game days, Johnson falls to No. 6 on the list if rookie Jaelon Darden is the primary return man as expected. Darden will need to be active each week due to his special teams role, putting Johnson’s game day availability in question.
Bucs WR Tyler Johnson – Photo by: Getty Images
Most expect the Bucs to keep six wide receivers, which would suggest it’s Darden vs. Jaydon Mickens for the return job and Johnson vs. Justin Watson for the other wide receiver spot. Clearly Darden and Johnson are the favorites, but Johnson’s pass-catching superiority to Watson is unlikely to matter much in 2021. Unless the Bucs suffer significant injuries, the obvious caveat to all of this, Johnson needs to have a greater impact on special teams than as a wide receiver this year.
“When you look at him last year, he played some roles on offense more-so than special teams,” special teams coach Keith Armstrong said on Thursday of Johnson. “He was a backup. He was an off-returner on the kickoff return, he was a backup on most other roles. Backup gunner, he was in the box on punt return for maybe two games last year. But his role will definitely have to increase.”
While Johnson will have to learn special teams quickly, Watson has several years of experience in a variety of roles there. The Penn product played 189 snaps and led the Bucs in special teams tackles in 2020. Per Pro Football Focus, Watson is also the highest-graded returning special teamer on the Bucs from a year ago, outside of long snapper Zach Triner. Watson even became the first wide receiver in NFL history to record a sack, snuffing out a fake punt attempt in 2020. If the battle comes down to special teams, Watson is clearly the superior option right now.
Does that mean Johnson could be in danger of not making the final roster? I don’t think so, although calling him a ‘lock’ might be a small stretch. Few players in the NFL stand to see their situation change as much as Johnson, who could go from game day inactive clinging to a roster spot in 2021, to full-time starter in 2022. With Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown set to be free agents, Johnson is Tampa Bay’s top slot receiver under contract for 2022. Johnson could experience a massive leap in year three, but keeping him around until then might require some creativity by the Bucs.
Paths To Playing Time
Tampa Bay has a couple of options in the event that their wide receiver room stays healthy. The one I prefer is that the team keeps seven wide receivers. The Bucs’ final 53-man roster spot probably comes down to a fifth linebacker, a fifth safety, a sixth cornerback or a fourth tight end. Keeping Johnson around is a lot more important than depth at any of those positions. If Watson is the most valuable special teamer, the kick coverage specialist could get a hat on game days as the sixth active receiver while an inactive Johnson bides his time for an opportunity on offense.
Bucs CB Parnell Motley and WR Tyler Johnson – Photo by: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The other option is to keep six receivers and get enough special teams impact from cornerback, safety or linebacker depth that keeping Watson isn’t important. It’s a risky strategy for a special teams group that already lost two of its’ top contributors last year in safety Andrew Adams and cornerback Ryan Smith. But the Bucs are well-positioned to provide replacements, signing safeties Raven Greene and Curtis Riley, and cornerbacks Antonio Hamilton, Nate Brooks, Cameron Kinley, Chris Wilcox and Dee Delaney this offseason. That group will challenge safety Javon Hagan and cornerback Herb Miller for roster spots that will be awarded based on special teams impact.
Of course, there is always the possibility that Johnson explodes in his growth as a special teamer this year, winning a full-time job for himself. That seems unlikely, but he’ll have every opportunity to show the team what he’s capable of through training camp and three preseason games.
On the vast majority of wide receiver rooms across the NFL, Johnson would at least be an exciting No. 3 option looking to break out in 2021. In Tampa Bay, it’s an adventure to fit him on the roster, and even more of an adventure to get him active on game days. Thus is the plight of having the NFL’s best roster and deepest wide receiver room. It’s a tough situation for Johnson in 2021, but if he can weather the storm, his future is still bright.
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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