What we learned about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' pass-catchers, Tom Brady at minicamp

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers convened for their first mandatory minicamp under new head coach Todd Bowles on Thursday. It was the first time all veterans and newcomers took the field together this offseason before a six-week break that will precede training camp.

And while quarterback Tom Brady may have launched a clothing line, signed a lucrative TV deal, starred in two movies and went through a 40-day retirement this offseason, he didn't show any signs of rust. The ball placement was there, the trademark footwork was excellent, and he was in good physical condition. At one point, Brady wasn't happy with the pace of practice and shouted, "Come on, guys. We don't have all day!"

“We’ve got practice scheduled for two hours, and we get out in an hour and 30 minutes. ... It speaks volumes," left tackle Donovan Smith said of Brady pushing the tempo. "It ain’t gonna do anything but make us better.”

Brady was solid, even with some players on offense missing, despite being picked off twice during the three days of practice -- first on a pass over the middle that went into the hands of safety Mike Edwards and then on a route Jamel Dean jumped on to intercept a pass intended for Tyler Johnson.

“He picked up where he left off at," Bowles said of Brady. "He got to see things on the first day. The second day he was sharp as a tack, and [Thursday] he was sharp. So you can’t say enough good things about him -- his work ethic and what he brings to the team.”

With wide receiver Chris Godwin recovering from knee surgery, the Bucs will be counting on newcomer Russell Gage, who came over from the Atlanta Falcons in free agency, to step into the No. 2 receiver role behind Mike Evans. While Gage did catch passes from Brady when he was warming up, he did not partake in any team periods.

“He has to have a big year,” Brady said of Gage. “That is a very important role for an offense that throws the ball as much as we do. ... Russ, when he is out there, there is a lot of work that needs to go into the next six weeks to be ready. We’re challenged right out of the box this year. We’ve got really good teams [on our schedule].”

With Gage sitting out, Jaelon Darden and Johnson got a lot of looks, along with Cyril Grayson and Breshad Perriman. Johnson’s inability to create consistent separation when pressed into action was a problem last season, something the Bucs are hoping Gage can help with.

As for Darden, the chemistry isn’t quite there with Brady -- there were timing issues with the deep ball early on in minicamp, and that was also an issue last season -- but it improved over the three days of minicamp, with Darden making a leaping grab behind the defense on Day 2 during 7-on-7s that drew plenty of “Oooohs!” He made another leaping grab shortly after in the two-minute drill.

Grayson had a nice catch-and-run off a Brady pass on Day 2 in 7-on-7s as well. Grayson’s edge over the others -- and this is rare for a converted track star who didn’t play a down of college football at LSU -- is being very physical, as opposed to Johnson, who got pushed around last year.

As for Godwin, he has begun running, but it’s too early to tell where he’ll be six weeks from now when players report to training camp. Scotty Miller also was on the field but did not take part in camp. The coaching staff feels Miller disappeared last season because his foot injury lingered much longer than people realized.

When asked if there was an under-the-radar player who stood out, Bowles noted wide receiver Deven Thompkins, an undrafted free agent out of Utah State. At 5-foot-8 and 167 pounds, he’s undersized but made an impression with his speed. He recorded a 4.35-second 40-yard dash.

“I would love to see what Thompkins does in training camp,” Bowles said. “He’s quick, he’s fast, he’s explosive off of the ball, and he’s made some good catches. So, we want to see how he continues to learn and how he does in training camp and preseason. I’ll be looking at him.”

As for Brady's security blanket, free-agent tight end Rob Gronkowski, the quarterback said he won't pressure him into returning, saying it's “totally up to him." The two have gotten together for some throwing sessions this offseason. There are also members of the coaching staff and front office who are optimistic he will return.

Right now, they have very little experience at tight end outside of Cameron Brate. Codey McElroy has just one career catch, and he is joined by rookies Cade Otton, who's recovering from ankle surgery, and Ko Kieft.

Kieft was able to grab a few passes in minicamp, and for as much as his blocking prowess has been praised, he showed he's got some consistent hands, although he's not running by anybody with a 4.98-second time in the 40-yard dash.