ALEX SMITH (Starter)
STATISTICS: 32 receptions, 385 yards, 3 touchdowns.
ANALYSIS: He became firmly entrenched as the starter in 2007, missing only two starts when his injured ankle demanded it. The seam route became his bread and butter, and he exploited the seams of defenses several times for big games. As wide receivers started dropping like flies, there was expectation that Smith would be used more in the offense to supplement the work of Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard. But that never quite came to pass. He had two memorable performances. He caught two touchdowns passes — for six yards — against Indianapolis. He also caught six passes for 79 yards against San Francisco. Smith is a sizeable target with reliable hands and above-average speed who has improved his blocking. Three years later, you could make the case that he's the second-best player to come out of that 2005 draft class, after LB Barrett Ruud. But the Bucs could still use him a lot more.
OUTLOOK FOR 2008: Smith is reasonably priced at $653,000 in 2008, but this will also be his contract year. The emergence of Stevens late in the season adds an interesting dynamic to Smith's use and contract status in 2008. Should the Bucs re-sign Stevens, they'll surely have to up the ante to their starter when they sit down to negotiate with Smith. The Stanford product has great talent, experience, the starting job and a quarterback that trusts him. A career year in 2008 isn't out of the question.
JERRAMY STEVENS (Backup)
STATISTICS: 18 receptions, 189 yards, 4 touchdowns.
ANALYSIS: Stevens caught those touchdown passes in the final five games of the season, including one missed due to a league suspension. He admitted late in the season that his off-the-field issues — he was convicted in September of DUI in Arizona and sentenced to 12 days in jail — may have played a role in his own confidence and the team's confidence in his reliability. But once his situation became settled, Stevens' use in the offense shot up. The perception of his poor hands appeared, at least in 2007, to be nothing more than hyperbole. Given a chance to use his big body over the middle, he took it. He made two huge touchdown catches against New Orleans and San Francisco and he quickly gained a rapport with backup Luke McCown.
OUTLOOK FOR 2008: Stevens is an unrestricted free agent. The Bucs will likely make the 6-foot-7 tight end a priority because they're trying to add playmakers in the passing game, and Stevens can be one, especially in the red zone where few defenders can match up with him. Free agents in Jon Gruden's system appear to warm to the offense in their second or third years (or maybe it's Gruden warming up to them finally). Either way, a full offseason in Tampa Bay, with no off-field distractions, may be what Stevens needs to have a more productive 2008.
ANTHONY BECHT (Backup)
STATISTICS: 5 receptions, 20 yards, 2 touchdowns.
ANALYSIS: It took Becht nearly 12 games to catch a pass. Why so long? That's anyone guess. Players can be as quickly found as forgotten in Jon Gruden's offense, which is probably why Becht is opting out of his contract to test free agency.
OUTLOOK FOR 2008: Becht came to Tampa Bay three years ago because he liked the offense and wanted to be used in a system that would highlight his receiving abilities. In three seasons Becht caught 16, 18 and 5 passes. His best season in New York with the Jets was 40 receptions, and he cleared 25 catches three times. If I wanted to catch the football, I'd leave too.
KEITH HEINRICH (Backup, finished on practice squad)
STATISTICS: None. Played four games, was inactive for five and spent the rest on the practice squad.
ANALYSIS: The Bucs signed him off the practice squad for depth after the injury to Alex Smith. He did nothing more than contribute on special teams.
OUTLOOK FOR 2008: He's familiar with the system and won't cost anything more than the league minimum. But the Bucs can certainly find better in free agency or the draft.
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.