TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went into the offseason in January looking for a viable third receiver to complement their top two pass-catching targets, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.
One month into the regular season, that search continues. In a way, though, it has sort of come full circle.
One day after deciding free-agent find Kevin Ogletree wasn’t the answer, the Bucs on Wednesday re-signed Tiquan Underwood, who caught 28 passes for 425 yards and two touchdowns in the third-receiver role last year.
Underwood hardly has a lock on the job, though. His re-signing came only a day after the Bucs promoted first-year receiving prospect Chris Owusu from their practice squad, and Owusu is not Underwood’s only challenger.
With a bye week to further examine their options, the Bucs are also considering using Eric Page, Russell Shephard and Jeff Demps as a third receiver.
In other words, the job is wide open.
“Right now we need all our guys to bring their A game so that we can add something to Vincent and Mike,” coach Greg Schiano said. “We just have to figure out who and what package gives us the best chance to move the ball,”
The Bucs felt certain Ogletree would help them move the ball. They signed him to a two-year, $2.6 million contract in March, but he wound up catching only eight passes for 70 yards and a touchdown in four games.
That’s less than a third of the catches made so far by Jackson (17) and Williams (15) combined, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the Bucs have renewed their search for a third receiver.
Or is it that the Bucs are simply looking for a faster receiver? Underwood, Owusu, Page and Demps, who moonlights as an Olympic sprinter, all have elite-level speed and the Bucs definitely have a need for speed.
As expected, their running game has become the focal point of opposing defenses, which are regularly crowding the line of scrimmage with eight defenders focused largely on stopping running back Doug Martin.
And that is exactly what they have done. The Bucs are averaging only 100 yards per game (20th in the league) and 3.6 yards per carry (22nd). They believe, though, those results will improve with a more vertical passing attack.
The combination sure worked last year. During a season in which Jackson led the league with 19.2 yards per catch and Williams was ninth at 15.8 yards, the Bucs ran for 114 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry.
But Tampa Bay is out to do more than just loosen up its running attack. The offense thrives on the opportunity to hit on big plays in the passing game, too, and that is the biggest reason for shaking up the receiving corps.
“Intermediate routes are OK, but we have to throw the ball effectively down the field,’’ Schiano said. “When you’re throwing the ball down the field you have a chance to score and there’s a chance for (a big) play.
“Even if you throw deep and get a (defensive pass interference penalty), it’s still a big chunk. There’s no doubt we haven’t done that as well as we’d like or as well as we have in the past, but that is something we are focused on.”
Underwood’s focus is on making the most of yet another NFL opportunity. He’s been bouncing around the league for five years now and is eager to finally make his mark and stick with a team.
“There are a lot of guys out there that wish they had the opportunity we have, a lot of guys waiting at home for a phone call, and I was one of them,” Underwood said. “So, I’m grateful for another chance.
“When they told me they were brining me back it was pure joy. But I’ve got some work to do because working out and watching football is obviously not the same as playing. So, I have to get myself back into football shape.’’
Underwood has a little more than a week to do that and is confident he can find his form in that time. His new quarterback, meanwhile, is confident either Underwood or Owusu will give him a valuable third option to throw to.
“Both of those guys are really talented,’’ rookie quarterback Mike Glennon said. “Tiquan has obviously been around the league for a while and has made a lot of plays and so it’s great to have him back.
“And Chris, we saw in practice (during training camp) what he was capable of doing. Before he hurt (his ankle in a preseason game) he was doing a lot of special things so to have both of those guys back will help us.’’