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.

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.

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

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

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

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.

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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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Captain Sly
14 days ago

Tyler Johnson spells insurance for Jason Licht! In the Chris Godwin negotiations ✅ Injuries ✅ or AB legal issues ✅ Tyler Johnson checks all the boxes & has a role on this team. In terms of the depth chart I put him 4th ahead of Miller simply because of the other intangibles like his blocking, route running ability and his sure handiness he’s Godwin 2.0. The player who has to worry is Scotty Miller. Miller’s a one trick pony relying solely on his track speed to get open and that’s okay in certain situations but that won’t win you playing… Read more »

drdneast
Reply to  Captain Sly
14 days ago

Wow Capt. Sly, you couldn’t be more wrong is so many ways at the same time.

fredster
Reply to  Captain Sly
13 days ago

Dude Your smoking crack if you think Miller isn’t more important then Johnson. Miller being one of fastest guys in NFL. Defenses have to worry about him every snap getting Behind them. Opens shit up for everything else. If Miller is a “one trick pony”then unproven and slow Johnson is too. Johnson would be nothing more than a Possession WR.

Last edited 13 days ago by fredster
toofamiliar17
Reply to  fredster
13 days ago

I really don’t think it has to be one or the other, although I agree with Fred and drd that Sly is absurdly underrating Miller’s role and value. For one, his only plus plus trait may be his speed, but that opens a lot up for him being that he’s also a decent route runner. He literally led the team in receiving before AB got here and took away so many of his snaps. He was on track to almost finish with 1,000 yards after 7 games. Pretty silly to call that guy a one trick pony. But even if… Read more »

drdneast
14 days ago

The Bucs have an embarrassment of riches in both the WR and TE rooms. Teams usually keep the best 53 before they go with a set number of position players. Besides, that is what practice squads are designed for.

gcolerick
Reply to  drdneast
13 days ago

No way Johnson would make it to the practice squad. He’s talented enough to be the number three WR on a lot of teams and maybe even number two on a few. He’d get snatched up so fast your head would spin. Keep him on the roster as insurance or trade bait….guy is way to talented to try to sneak him to the practice squad.

toofamiliar17
Reply to  drdneast
13 days ago

Yea, he’d never clear waivers, not even close. Actually, I’d be shocked if he made it past the Jags, who are first in the waiver order right now. You can make a strong case that he’d be the best WR on that roster, at worst likely their #3. Anyways, in reply to drd, yes, teams try to keep their best players, but generally speaking, once you get down to the bottom of the roster, the ability to play special teams DOES matter. Special teams jobs are positions too, and they need to be capably filled by players who can excel… Read more »

bucballer
13 days ago

I believe Tyler Johnson is clearly the better WR over Justin Watson. While Watson is clearly a better Special Teams player he does not have the potential at WR that TJ does. JW is Ryan Smith all over again. He really isn’t talented enough to get reps at his position but we keep him around for his abilities on STeams. With this years draft picks excelling on STeams, JWatt may not make this years team. I can see one of our Draft Picks replacing him on this years team.

plopes808
13 days ago

Scooter > Johnson > Darden > Watson

toofamiliar17
13 days ago

I get that Watson is a great special teamer, and it only helps his case that we lost some high volume special teams contributors to free agency. BUT, we drafted multiple players, and have signed multiple more, with the goal being for those moves specifically for them to be able to excel in that area of the game. Arians has already pointed out that despite his S/T prowess, he “couldn’t” even get him dressed for some games last season. I appreciate what the guy does in that area of the game, but with some of our recent moves, I have… Read more »

Naplesfan
13 days ago

Well, the fact is that injuries DO happen in the receiver room every year. In fact, every single one of our starting wide receivers missed either entire games or fairly large numbers of offensive snaps due to injury last season. As it turned out Johnson did not get very many of those snaps as a backup, but he certainly made hay with the ones he got. Now that Johnson has a year in the league behind him and in the memory banks, he is better suited to play more snaps this season. We don’t want to see the injuries but… Read more »

Horse
13 days ago

One thing I do know, injuries will happen and we can expect surprises from the ones who step forward. Go Bucs!