Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin was at the team’s first OTA practice on Tuesday – for a few minutes. Then, Tampa Bay’s $20 million receiver went back inside for more treatment on his surgically-repaired knee.
Godwin was at the team’s facility to continue his rehab from the torn ACL and MCL that he suffered in Week 15 against New Orleans. Because that injury happened so late in the season – on Dec. 19 – Godwin may not be ready by the start of training camp.
And there is no guarantee that he will be available for the beginning of the regular season on Sept. 11 in Dallas, either.
Bucs WR Chris Godwin – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“When he’s ready to go, he’s ready to go,” Bucs head coach Todd Bowles said on Tuesday. “We don’t put a timetable on it.”
When asked if Godwin had reached any milestones in his comeback rehab so far, Bowles said: “No – he’ll reach the milestone when he gets back on the field.”
So, who will play the ever-important slot receiver role in the Bucs offense if Godwin isn’t ready to go?
Johnson’s Effectiveness Dipped In 2021
Last year, it was Tyler Johnson, who was in his second season with the Bucs. After a promising rookie season in which he caught 12 passes for 149 yards (14.1 avg.) and two touchdowns, the former fourth-round pick’s effectiveness decreased despite more production. Johnson caught 36 passes for 360 yards, but only averaged 10 yards per catch and didn’t score a touchdown.
Johnson lined up wide on 245 plays and played 162 snaps in the slot last year, according to Pro Football Focus. When Godwin was lost for the season to a knee injury against New Orleans, Johnson essentially took over as the slot receiver.
He played 27 snaps in the slot and 24 wide against the Saints. The next week at Carolina, he logged 13 reps inside and 11 outside. In New York the following week, Johnson had 26 slot snaps and just 11 outside. It was nearly the same in the season finale against the Panthers, with 24 plays in the slot and 11 out wide. That trend continued in the playoffs, where Johnson was the primary slot receiver with 47 plays inside and just 22 outside.
The problem is that Johnson’s ineffectiveness continued in the postseason. He caught a combined five passes for 45 yards (9.0 avg.) against the Eagles and Rams before exiting the final playoff game late with an injury.
Gage Can Play Inside And Outside
Lacking Godwin’s speed and ability to separate, Johnson struggled in getting open and getting yards after the catch when he did. That was one of the reasons why Tampa Bay signed Atlanta’s Russell Gage in free agency. Gage signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Bucs where he’s expected to play both inside and outside receiver.
Bucs WR Tyler Johnson – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Gage lined up wide for 339 snaps and in the slot for 266 snaps last year for Atlanta. Yet, on the Falcons’ passing plays it was closer to 50-50. Gage played 202 reps in the slot and was out wide on 203 plays.
Gage is coming off back-to-back 700-yard seasons with the Falcons. He caught 66 passes for 770 yards (11.7 avg.) and four touchdowns last year in 14 games (nine starts). Since 2018, Gage has caught 48 passes for 484 yards (10.1 avg.) and two touchdowns against the Bucs. He had 11 catches for 130 yards in Atlanta’s 30-17 loss at home to Tampa Bay last year.
“I think he is the perfect slot for our system, being at that receiver position,” Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. said. “Playing against him, he’s tough in there, so I think we’re going to utilize him just fine in that area. He’s smart, he has good routes, he is shifty – I like his game a lot.”
With 4.42 speed, Gage is faster than Johnson. So, there is a possibility of more big plays from the slot with him playing inside. Gage was not at Tuesday’s OTA. So, we didn’t get a chance to see where the Bucs plan on lining up him. But playing slot receiver will certainly be on his plate when he does show up.
Godwin is such an effective blocker in the Bucs’ interior run game. The reason why Johnson played in the slot last year down the stretch was due to his size. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Johnson was the most logical replacement from a size standpoint. But despite his size, he didn’t provide the punch in the ground game the Bucs were looking for.
Gage Brings Toughness Despite Lack Of Ideal Size
Gage is smaller at 6-foot, 184 pounds, but is very strong and aggressive for his size. He was primarily a gunner on special teams at LSU, where he only had 26 receptions for 347 yards (13.3 avg.) and four touchdowns in his career. And 21 of those catches came as a senior. Gage also showed his toughness, with 28 carries for 232 yards (8.3 avg.) and one touchdown in 2017.
This was Gage’s scouting assessment on NFL.com when he entered the 2018 NFL Draft.
New Bucs WR Russell Gage and S Antoine Winfield, Jr. – Photo by: USA Today
While Gage may lack the elite size or production of a draftable wide receiver, he does possess the athletic ability and competitive nature to be considered as a diamond in the rough on Day 3. Gage has the speed, toughness, and instincts on both punt and kick coverage to create some buzz in the buildings from special teams coaches during the run-up process to the draft. Gage’s special teams talent could land him on the roster, but he has some raw natural ability as a slot receiver that may bear fruit at some point.
Plus athlete with loose hips, light feet, and a plus burst. Energetic, highly competitive, and fearless. Loves to play the game and cherishes his role as a special teams ace. Kick cover specialist with a gunner background on punt team. Finished his career with 17 special teams tackles. Ornery open field runner on jet sweeps Hurdled tackler against Alabama, Auburn, and Florida. Has a second gear in his engine. Plays with heart.
When Godwin is healthy enough to take the field, he’ll resume his role as Tampa Bay’s slot receiver. But until then, Gage is expected to fill that role and be a fast and ferocious replacement inside. When Godwin does return to the lineup, Gage will move outside to the Z receiver (flanker) role previously occupied by Antonio Brown.