SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. BRATE BECOMING A FORCE FOR BUCS OFFENSE
When a general manager swings and misses on a draft pick, but ends up making up for the whiff on draft day with an undrafted free agent at the same position that winds up being a gem I call it “a save.”
Such was the case in 2008 when former Tampa Bay general manager Bruce Allen and ex-head coach Jon Gruden reached badly for speed receiver and return specialist Dexter Jackson from Appalachian State with the Bucs’ second-round pick. Jackson, who was known for catching a couple of slant passes for touchdowns when App State walked into Michigan and pulled one of the greatest college football upsets of all time, was an awful selection.
He played scared as a receiver and as a return specialist, and lasted just one season in the NFL. Jackson may go down as being the worst second-round draft pick in Tampa Bay history.
Some say it’s Booker Reese, who was the second-rounder in 1982, but he lasted two years in Tampa Bay and actually had some statistics to show for his efforts, namely a sack and two interceptions in 1983.
Jackson returned 20 punts for 97 yards (4.9 avg.) and returned 14 kickoffs for 327 yards (23.4 avg.) in his lone season with the Bucs before giving way to an undrafted free agent named Clifton Smith, who handled returns for the last three quarters of the season. On November 2, 2008, Smith returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown at Kansas City to key a second-half comeback after Tampa Bay trailed 24-6. The Bucs would go on to win, 30-27, in overtime, and Smith, who also had a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown in the 2008 season, went on to the Pro Bowl during his rookie season.
That’s “a save.”
Bucs TE Cameron Brate – Photo by: Getty Images
Bucs general manager Jason Licht has “a save” of his own in tight end Cameron Brate, who was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Harvard in 2014 – the same year Tampa Bay drafted tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins with the team’s second-round pick. Brate was initially released by the Bucs and signed to the practice squad before being promoted to the active roster late in the season where he caught a 17-yard pass.
Last year, the Bucs released Brate prior to the season on September 15. The Saints stepped in and snatched him up for a week and put him on their practice squad, before Tampa Bay realized the error of its ways and signed him off New Orleans’ practice squad a week later after Seferian-Jenkins was injured – ironically at the Superdome in a win over the Saints.
Brate stepped in for Seferian-Jenkins and started four games, catching 23 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns in 2015. It was Brate who entered training camp as the starter over Seferian-Jenkins despite ASJ’s higher draft status, and has become the team’s go-to receiver at the tight end position after Seferian-Jenkins’ release prior to Tampa Bay’s Week 3 game against Los Angeles. Brate caught a career-high two touchdowns against the Rams while catching five passes for 46 yards in what has been his coming out party.
Brate followed up that game with five catches for 67 yards in a loss to Denver and cooled off a bit until catching a touchdown pass against Oakland. That began a three-game stretch in which the Harvard product has caught a touchdown.
He tied his career high the following week with five catches for 43 yards and a score against Atlanta, and had a career day in Tampa Bay’s 36-10 win over Chicago, catching seven passes for 84 yards and one touchdown against the Naperville, Ill. native’s favorite team while growing up.
“It was good to see he got a little bit of YAC this week,” said veteran Bucs tight end Brandon Myers, who has helped mentor Brate. “If you’re catching balls, if you’re catching passes on third downs for first downs, you’re doing something good. Obviously there’s going to be weeks where you’re not going to catch seven balls, but if he keeps working on the little parts of his game week in and week out, he’s going in the right direction.”
All of Brate’s catches on Sunday went for first downs or a touchdown as the Bears were determined to double cover wide receiver Mike Evans. Brate’s five TD receptions this year are tied for the league lead among tight ends, and he’s tied with Adam Humphries for the second-most catches behind Evans on the team.
The modest Brate is even shocked at his own level of early success. The NFL is a long way from the Ivy League where he starred for Harvard.
“I never would’ve envisioned that a couple years ago, but having done it the last couple years, playing in the NFL, you just have to wait for your opportunity and when it arrives, you just have to be ready,” Brate said.
Bucs TE Cameron Brate – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
Since entering the league Brate has prepared for his moment, especially in the weight room where he has re-sculpted his body and is now a chiseled 250 pounds – up 10 pounds of muscle from when he first walked through the doors of One Buc Place to become a better in-line blocker.
“I didn’t get to see Cam when he first got here, but just talking to people, his work ethic – not only in the weight room, but learning the game and what it takes to be successful – there’s so much that goes in than just the physical stuff and he’s done a great job of that,” Bucs quarterback Ryan Griffin said. “But he’s a meathead definitely; don’t let the Harvard education fool you. He eats weights. That’s all he thinks about. He doesn’t have any other thoughts.”
Brate is not the biggest or the strongest player in the weight room, but no Buccaneer may work harder on his body.
“If you’re ever here, you see him in the training room,” Myers said. “He doesn’t leave. He’s one of the guys you always see with Jameis, putting the time in and it’s good to see. He gets it and some guys don’t. That’s why he’s been successful.”
Brate admits to being intimidated when he first entered the NFL. He knew he didn’t measure up physically and had to do something about it. Armed with a tremendous work ethic, Brate hit the weights and caught passes from Winston any time the young quarterback wanted to throw the ball after practice or during the offseason.
“My rookie year I got kind of too big; it wasn’t good weight,” Brate said. “I kind of put on weight just to say I weighed that much. But really with [strength coach Dave Kennedy] here and some guys I’ve worked with back home, those guys have given me so much knowledge and so many tools to get the most out of my body. It’s those small things you don’t see that make a big difference. It just helps your body from breaking down.”
Brate’s physique is growing as much as his confidence is, and the only thing that is breaking down is opposing defenses trying to stop him.
“He’s just so smart,” said Bucs rookie safety Ryan Smith, who has to cover Brate in practice. “He knows moves to get open, and he studies his defender. He knows who he’s going against, what to do, how to get open. He has great hands and great knowledge; those are the characteristics of a great tight end.”
Eight years after a big kick return from an undrafted free agent led to Tampa Bay’s come-from-behind win, the Bucs return to Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday and Licht’s “save,” a stud undrafted free agent enters the game with nearly as much production as Kansas City’s Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce.
Brate has a career-high 35 catches for 375 yards and five touchdowns. Kelce has 42 catches for 466 yards and three scores, but hasn’t caught more than five touchdowns in any season. Brate already has five.
Bucs TE Cameron Brate – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
“He’s one of the best at the position,” Brate said of Kelce, who he’ll be squaring off against on Sunday. “This offseason, the coaches made a bunch of clips for us of tight ends – Tyler Eifert, Travis Kelce, Rob Gronkowski, Jordan Reed – so hopefully we could pick up some of the things that they do and we did. He’s really impressed me with the way he runs routes and he’s definitely one of the guys I look up to.”
If Brate continues his touchdown streak this Sunday in Kansas City and remains productive down the stretch he could poised for an improbable Pro Bowl berth by season’s end.
“It’s just a matter of time,” Myers said. “If we keep winning ball games he’s going to get recognized.”
Brate is so humble and his success is so new that he remains surprised that any media members want to interview him. With a huge grin on his face, Brate reveals his biggest area of improvement since entering the league in 2014.
“This will sound pretty weak, but I would just say confidence and being able to do it at this level,” Brate said. “I know I can play at this level, but having a game like I had on Sunday … well, I thought I did a pretty good job at making plays and getting open.”
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com