FAB 3. Godwin Ascending Up Bucs’ Depth Chart
Tampa Bay’s 2015 draft class was an undisputed hit.
Quarterback Jameis Winston, the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, still has work to do in order to deliver the Bucs to the playoffs, but has already made the Pro Bowl and was the first quarterback in NFL history to begin his career with back-to-back 4,000-yard passing seasons.
Left tackle Donovan Smith, the team’s second-rounder that year, is regarded as being in the top half of left tackles in the league and hasn’t missed a start in his three years in the league. Guard Ali Marpet, another second-round pick in 2015, has Pro Bowl-caliber ability and may be the team’s most consistent offensive lineman.
Fourth-round pick Kwon Alexander became Tampa Bay’s starting middle linebacker and was the Bucs’ leading tackler in 2016 and became a Pro Bowler last year and finished four tackles behind Lavonte David for the team lead despite missing four games due to injury.
That draft class is one of the main reasons why Jason Licht is still the general manager of the Buccaneers despite the team only having one winning season out of the four he has presided over for the franchise. After a disappointing 2016 draft class, early returns suggest that his 2017 crop of draft picks could be of the same caliber as that of 2015, producing four potential high-level starters.
In order for that to happen, Kendell Beckwith must join existing starters in free safety Justin Evans and tight end O.J. Howard and emerge as the starting strongside linebacker again. Once healthy from a fractured ankle, which came in an offseason car accident, that seems likely given his performance last year at the position and also at middle linebacker where he filled in for the injured Alexander.
Additionally, wide receiver Chris Godwin, who was the first of two third-round picks by Tampa Bay in 2017, needs to ascend up the depth chart and get more playing time, which seems all but certain.
“He’s a starter,” Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. “That’s how I see it. He’s earned the right to be a starter. Now whether it works out that way or not, I don’t know. But he’s earned the right and finished the year that way. Whatever we’ve asked him to do he’s done it well, and he’s only going to continue to get better. Why? Because he’s big, he’s fast, he’s physical and he’s smart. And it’s important to him. He takes care of his body and does it exactly the way you want.”
How Godwin finished his rookie year was by scoring the game-winning touchdown to upset the NFC South champion New Orleans Saints in the season finale. Godwin’s 39-yard touchdown catch with nine seconds left to lift the Bucs to a stunning 31-24 victory.
I spoke with Godwin, who recalled that touchdown, which was his first in the NFL. That score was a long-time coming, and of course the timing was perfect.
“Yeah, it took forever to there, but I don’t think it could have come at a better moment,” Godwin said. “If I got tackled at the 1-yard line – game over. I had to get in. I had to score. That’s part of the situational football that we talk about all the time. You don’t have any timeouts and you have to score or get out of bounds. From where I caught it, I felt like I was going to be able to make it.”
Not only did Godwin get his first NFL touchdown, he also produced his first 100-yard game against the Saints, finishing with career highs with seven catches and 111 yards in his second of two starts during his rookie campaign. Godwin got those hard-earned yards playing on a severely sprained ankle, which happened the week before at Carolina when he had three catches for 98 yards, including a 70-yard catch-and-run that was Tampa Bay’s longest play of the year.
“That’s pretty much all it was,” Godwin said of his big play at Carolina. “Jameis [Winston] gave me a good ball and I was able to catch it in stride. At that point it was breaking one tackle and trying to outrun the defense. The guy took a great angle and was able to catch me from behind. I stumbled a couple of times, and it would have been great to get in the end zone, but anytime you get a big play like that it’s a spark for your team.”
During the NFL Owners Meeting, I asked head coach Dirk Koetter what he learned about Godwin during his rookie season.
“That he is extremely tough,” Koetter said. “Chris was playing through a lot of nagging injuries and the fact that he hung in there – he can play every position. He’s a student of the game and knows all the assignments of all the spots. He’ll do the dirty work. Chris is capable of being a number one if you need him to be, but he can also be your two or your three. He doesn’t have an ego. Everyone has an ego, but his ego doesn’t show up. He’ll do what you ask him to do and he’ll do it to the best of his ability, and he’ll play through discomfort.”
After the season was over, Godwin smiled when talking about playing through his painful ankle injury.
“It was challenging dealing with it over the past week or so before the game,” Godwin said. “But I’m the kind of guy that if I feel like I can perform and help my team, I’m going to go. I never want to be a detriment to our team, so if I couldn’t go I wouldn’t have been out there. But I felt like I could push through, and God willing, I was able to do that.”
Godwin finished his rookie season as the team’s fifth-leading receiver with 34 catches for 525 yards and one touchdown. His 15.4-yard average was the highest on the team among players that had at least 30 catches, and was higher than Mike Evans (14.1 avg.) and DeSean Jackson (13.4 avg.), who is Tampa Bay’s noted deep threat.
Bucs wide receivers coach Skyler Fulton said the fact that his rookie year ended with an exclamation mark with his dramatic touchdown catch on the season’s final play will do nothing but help him.
“It gives him confidence,” Fulton said. “I still put on that tape where he got tackled at the 1-yard line in Carolina and I give him a hard time that Bobo [Wilson] got a touchdown before he did. Ultimately, it just gives you confidence. You go out there and make those plays on an NFL stage in a pressure situation at the point of the season we were in to catch the touchdown against New Orleans to win the game – it’s just another step in the maturity and confidence. Now when we get into a similar scenario that’s nothing to him. He’s done it before and he knows he can do it.”
Godwin has big plans for the 2018 season – including catching more than one touchdown.
“I just want to improve on the things I’ve done this year and score more to help my team,” Godwin said. “I want to be a better overall player. I want to have a better understanding of where I fit in the system so I can take my game to the next level. Now I’m more comfortable playing at this level, whether it’s the speed of the game or the playbook.”
When asked if he’s ready to push Jackson for the starting role at wide receiver opposite Evans, Godwin stayed humble.
“That’s for the coaches to decide,” Godwin said. “All I can do is come in and give the best effort I can and be the best version of myself every day. I feel like I have done a pretty good job of growing all throughout the season with each game and each mistake I’ve made that I’ve learned from. I think I can be a real good contributor to this team and the coaches can trust me.”
Godwin said he was spending the offseason studying some of the league’s great receivers to pick up some tricks of the trade.
“I would definitely say Larry Fitzgerald and Julio Jones – I really respect their game,” Godwin said. “I try to learn what I can from their games and apply it to mine. I love watching their film.”
The next step in Godwin’s evolution is to not just to get more playing time in 2018 – likely at the expense of Jackson outside or Adam Humphries inside – but to receive more targets from Winston. Naturally, Evans led the way with 135 targets, followed by Jackson with 91, Humphries with 83 and tight end Cameron Brate with 77. Godwin was targeted 56 times during his rookie season.
The fact that Godwin emerged as a viable receiving threat mid-year in a 15-10 win over the New York Jets where he was targeted 10 times by backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and caught five passes for 68 yards was not lost on the injured Winston, who was watching from the sidelines. Godwin was only targeted twice the following week in a win at Miami, but he caught both clutch passes for 38 yards in the fourth quarter to pick up a pair of crucial first downs.
When Winston returned to the lineup he began to build on his chemistry with Godwin targeting him six times in a 24-21 loss to Detroit where the rookie receiver hauled in five catches for 68 yards. Winston threw six passes Godwin’s way at Carolina and Godwin had a career-high 12 targets in his big day against New Orleans in Week 17, with that last target being the biggest catch of all – the game-winning 39-yard touchdown.
“It would have been a tough play for the DB to make, trying to tackle me before the end zone based on my momentum,” Godwin said. “It was awesome. It was a great throw by Jameis. The line did a great job. The whole drive was a picture of our season. We were down, but continued to fight to the very end. It was a long drive. It was tough, but we were able to finish.”
That’s Godwin – he’s tough, he’s a finisher, and a likely starter opposite Evans this season.
“Is Chris good enough? No question,” Fulton said. “He’s going to continue to ascend as a wide receiver. That’s why we picked him in the third round. That’s why he played a ton in the second half of the season. As Chris continues to do things right and play hard, he’s going to continue to ascend.”
Will he ascend on top of the depth chart ahead of Jackson and Humphries in his second year in Tampa Bay? We’ll find out in September.