2014 NFL Draft: Tampa Bay Buccaneers Should Consider Sleeper WR With 1st-Round Pick

By Cody Strahm
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were expected to target a wide receiver early in May’s draft before trading Mike Williams to the Buffalo Bills. Now, it’s a virtual certainty.

Starting quarterback Josh McCown currently has Vincent Jackson, whose impressive pedigree includes 7,362 yards and 52 touchdowns, at his disposal. But that’s about it.

Tight end Timothy Wright was effective in 2013 as essentially a slot receiver, but other than him and Jackson, the Buccaneers don’t have another pass catcher with a 500-yard receiving season to their name.

The shallow Tampa Bay receiver corps is arguably only deeper than the Carolina Panthers‘ depleted array of pass catchers — not only in terms of the NFC South, but in arguably the entire NFL. That certainly isn’t an ideal environment for successful quarterback play.

But help is on its way. Said assistance comes in the form of one of the deepest draft classes at wide receiver in recent memory.

Clemson‘s speedy playmaker Sammy Watkins headlines the class and for good reason. Few play faster than impressive timed speed, but Watkins is faster on film than his 4.43 40-yard dash indicates. And his natural pass catching ability exhibits that he’s far from merely an athlete.

Given how glaring of a void receiver is for the Buccaneers, some believe first-year GM Jason Licht could trade up for Watkins, who will likely be taken within the top five. But trading up will be difficult to do. All six squads selecting ahead of Tampa Bay have pressing needs as well. All six would need to be presented with an exceedingly alluring offer to consider moving back.

If the Buccaneers’ attempts to move up for Watkins prove futile, where will Licht turn to bolster the receiver corps? Many pundits believe Texas A&M‘s Mike Evans will be the selection at pick No. 7 overall. Evans, at 6-foot-5, 231-pounds, is considered the second best receiver prospect of the draft.

With imposing size, Evans could equip the Buccaneers with an essentially uncoverable duo considering most defenses don’t possess two big body cornerbacks capable of shutting down Jackson and another huge target. Ideally, more of a deep threat would complement Jackson, but the Chicago Bears have displayed how lethal a tandem like Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery can be.

Jackson, at 31 years old, needs a long-term replacement as Tampa Bay’s No. 1 anyway. Evans, whose most frequent pro comparison is none other than Jackson, could potentially fit the bill.

With all that said, don’t rule out the Buccaneers shocking everyone by selecting another receiver. No, not in the second round, but at pick No. 7 overall.

For one, Evans is far from the concrete second best receiver of the class. His size is an asset, yes, but he struggles to separate against premier cornerbacks and has some stiffness in his body that could impede his ability to run crisp routes at the next level.

In an immensely deep receiver class, there are also several talented pass catchers nipping at Evans’ heels who could emerge as superior prospects when it’s all said and done.

Two names come to mind who would be excellent fits on Tampa Bay’s offense: LSU‘s Odell Beckham Jr. and Oregon State‘s Brandin Cooks.

Considering Jackson’s presence on the perimeter already bestows Tampa Bay with a dominant possession type, the Buccaneers would benefit from a dynamic playmaker. Yes, the aforementioned tandem of Marshall and Jeffery works quite well in Chicago, but that doesn’t mean acquiring two large targets is the best way to build a corps.

Beckham Jr. has the potential to thrive in the slot or on the outside in the NFL. He’s dangerous with the ball in his hands, a smooth route runner who separates from coverage with ease and has a much larger catch radius than his 5-foot-11 frame suggests.

Cooks, on the other hand, has blazing speed — timed at 4.33 in the 40-yard dash. He’ll likely burn defensive backs in the slot and on the perimeter in the pros. Unlike most speedsters, Cooks is additionally tough and can high point the football better than arguably any receiver of his mold.

Drafting Beckham Jr. or Cooks would be considered a huge reach at No. 7 overall, but that won’t matter once the games begin. Then, production will outweigh any pre-draft ranking. Both Beckham Jr. and Cooks bring far more big-play ability to the table than Evans. The Buccaneers should consider making one of the two their first-round pick.

Follow Cody Strahm on Twitter.

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