The 2016 season was the culmination of three years of searching for a starting tight end. In the end, not only did Cameron Brate, an undrafted free agent from Harvard, seize the Bucs’ top spot, he established himself as one of the most dangerous tight ends in the league.
Brate joined Tampa Bay in 2014, the same year the Bucs drafted Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the second round of the draft. Seferian-Jenkins was deigned a “Dunkaneer” with the expectation of becoming a big target over the middle and in the red zone.
Instead, two years of mediocrity and a DUI arrest later the Bucs cut Seferian-Jenkins, who is now a New York Jet. Fortunately for the Bucs, the same year they drafted Seferian-Jenkins, they signed Cameron Brate.
Brate ground his way to the top of the tight end depth chart, appearing in five games his rookie season and starting sporadically in 2015. He broke out this season, recording 57 receptions for 660 yards and a league-leading eight touchdowns. He rendered ASJ a mere footnote in Bucs history.
Brate should be a Buccaneer through 2018. He is an exclusive rights free agent this year which makes him a restricted free agent next. This is only part of the reason the Bucs need not consider using their first round pick on a tight end.
Mocking Alabama TE OJ Howard or Miami TE David Njoku to the Bucs has become a popular trend over the past month. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller argues Brate is “a fine player” but no Njoku. Pewter Report’s Scott Reynolds envisions a situation where Brate and Howard share the field, posing a double-sized threat to the middle of the field.
It’s not impossible that Jason Licht will agree with Miller or Reynolds’ assessments. Nevertheless it remains both unlikely and unwise the Bucs will use their first round pick on Howard or Njoku.
Licht has proven himself willing to move on from high profile players but he’s also demonstrated his consideration for team needs with his draft picks. There is no need to spend a first round pick on another tight end when Jameis Winston has an obvious rapport with Brate.
In the case of Howard, it’s entirely possible he will be gone by the time the Bucs pick at 19. He’s insanely athletic and a surprisingly decent pass protector. He’s an instant starter for some NFL teams.
The Bucs won’t pigeonhole their draft analysis of tight ends to just first round prospects. This is a decent draft for the position and quality players could be found on day 2. One name they ought to consider with a mid-round pick is Michigan TE Jake Butt.
The unfortunately named Butt might have been a late first, early second-round pick if not for his devastating ACL tear in the Orange Bowl (he should have skipped the game!). Butt is not as athletic as Howard or Njoku, but like Brate he just plain catches the ball. His knee injury will no doubt push him down the draft but that will only make him a Day 2 or 3 value.
Playmakers aside, the Bucs do need to address their tight end depth. They still have blocking specialist Luke Stocker under contract and Alan Cross often served as lead blocker last season. However, Stocker has never caught more than 16 catches in a season and Cross is still very raw. When those two are on the field, opposing defenses are going to be watching for them to block, not catch.
What the Bucs really need is a balanced tight end, a player whose presence won’t telegraph the offense’s intentions. Brandon Myers played that role for the past three years, but his impact diminished each season and he is not under contract in 2017.
To address this need, Roy Cummings had a interesting idea for the Bucs to sign free agent TE Jack Doyle. He shared the field with Dwayne Allen but still notched 584 yards and five scores for the Colts last season. He may not be a starter, but with Brate he doesn’t need to be.