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NFL draft steal: Bucs WR Chris Godwin stays hot as huge payday awaits in 2022

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Each week during the 2021 season, we'll examine our NFL draft steal of the week — a younger player whose NFL success has surpassed where he was drafted. We'll try to look back at the why and how of where they were selected and what we thought of that prospect prior to the draft.

Penn State WR Chris Godwin

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
6-foot-1, 201 pounds
2017 NFL draft: Round 3, No. 84 overall

Entering Week 13, Godwin stood only 11 catches shy of former Buccaneers receiver Mark Carrier to overtake the No. 3 spot on the franchise's all-time receptions list. Given that Godwin had only caught that many passes or more in a game once, back in 2019, it figured to take him multiple weeks to reach that spot.

Scratch that. After Godwin caught five passes on the Bucs' opening drive against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, it was clear he was in for a big day. So big, in fact, that Godwin broke a more impressive mark: most receptions by a Buccaneers player in a game with 15, breaking the previous mark of 13, held by former Bucs running backs Earnest Graham and James Wilder. 

“I really had no idea [about the record] until we walked off the field,” Godwin said, via the Tampa Bay Times. “And I thought it was around, like, 10 or so. I think some of those little quick hitters you kind of forget about, getting bounced around out there like a little pinball.”

Chris Godwin is having one of his best NFL seasons, right before he's set to hit free agency in 2022. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
Chris Godwin is having one of his best NFL seasons, right before he's set to hit free agency in 2022. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

Although Godwin didn't catch any of Tom Brady's four TD passes in the win at Atlanta, Godwin's 143 yards also pushed him up the 2021 leaderboard, ranking fifth in receptions (82) and seventh in receiving yards (949).

In his fifth year in the NFL, he's established himself one of the league's best slot receivers and become a favorite target of Brady, despite the Bucs' wealth of options. That group, however, has thinned in recent weeks with injuries to Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown, who also is currently serving a suspension. As the Bucs try to repeat as Super Bowl champs, Godwin's role alongside Mike Evans has become all the more important. 

It's rather shocking now to see how far Godwin fell in the 2017 NFL draft, especially considering some of the wide receivers drafted. Let's take a look back at how Godwin was viewed prior to that draft — and explore why he slid to the back end of the top 100.

Why did Chris Godwin slip in the draft?

Starring for the Nittany Lions in 2015 and 2016, Godwin strung together two big statistical seasons (a combined 128 catches, 2,083 yards, 16 TDs) with Christian Hackenberg and Trace McSorley as his quarterbacks. Godwin's TD output rose from five in 2015 to 11 in 2016, and he capped his career with a brilliant Rose Bowl performance (nine catches for a career-high 187 yards and two TDs).

Godwin declared for the 2017 NFL draft just prior to turning 21 years old and was considered a riser in that class. He only helped his cause with a good NFL scouting combine performance — 19 bench-press reps, a 4.42-second 40-yard dash, 4.00 short shuttle and a 10-foot-6 broad jump. Although he weighed in slightly less than expected at 201 pounds, it was nonetheless a big week for Godwin.

Yet by the time the April draft rolled around, Godwin was somehow overlooked.

Exiting the combine, the top three receivers appeared to be — in some order — Western Michigan's Corey Davis, Clemson's Mike Williams and, following his blazing 40-yard dash, Washington's John Ross. Godwin appeared to be a candidate worthy of belonging in that class' second tier, but he wouldn't be taken until Round 3 as the 11th wideout off the board.

Former Penn State WR Chris Godwin saved his best for last, turning in a career-best day against USC in the Rose Bowl in his final college game. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Former Penn State WR Chris Godwin saved his best for last, turning in a career-best day against USC in the Rose Bowl in his final college game. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The three receivers taken in the 13 selections immediately before him — Western Kentucky's Taywan Taylor (Titans), Alabama's ArDarius Stewart (Jets) and Louisiana Tech's Carlos Henderson (Broncos) — are all out of the NFL. Their combined output in the league? Fifty nine catches, 779 yards and two TDs, mostly courtesy of Taylor.

Godwin surpassed those totals by Week 7 of the 2018 season, in his 22nd NFL game. He also ranks fourth in receptions and second in receiving yards and touchdowns in the entire 2017 draft class.

In this particular case, it's hard to pinpoint exactly why he fell. There was no massive knock against him, even with questions about his true play speed, occasional college drops and slightly unrefined route-running skills. Godwin also was primarily an outside receiver, having played little in the slot in college.

Those concerns turned out to be mostly unfounded, and the teams that passed on him clearly overlooked Godwin's terrific upside. 

How we viewed Godwin as a prospect

The first time we thought Godwin was assured of a Day 2 landing spot (or better) was in the Rose Bowl, when he roasted USC's Adorée Jackson for two TDs, and Godwin backed that up with a strong week at the combine — he was one of our "Winners" at that event.

That answered questions for us on whether Godwin could run fast enough to thrive at this level. We ended up placing him at No. 67 overall in our pre-draft rankings, just one slot behind Cooper Kupp (the subject of a previous "Draft Steal" writeup this season).

Our brief skinny on Godwin then:

Stock on fire since big Rose Bowl. Fluid, well-built athlete with athleticism but suffers from concentration lapses.

Although Godwin had some drops and fumbles early in his NFL career, he's done a good job of mostly mitigating those concerns since.

Future forecast

It's hard to believe, but Godwin won't turn 26 years old until a few weeks after the Super Bowl. He's already appeared in 70 NFL games over his four-plus seasons, has made a Pro Bowl and has been Brady's second-most targeted receiver (189) behind Evans (202) since the start of 2020. In fact, Godwin has 20 more receptions (147) than Evans over that span, despite playing four fewer games.

That's why Godwin should be one of the showcase free agents in the 2022 class after playing this season on the franchise tag. He's had a more productive career to this point and is more than two years younger than draft classmate Kenny Golladay, who earned a four-year, $72 million deal ($40 million guaranteed) from the New York Giants.

It would be a shock if Godwin's eventual contract numbers don't surpass those, especially with the NFL's salary cap rising to pre-pandemic levels. He could end up being too pricy for the Bucs to keep after the two sides failed to come to an extension this past summer.

Can he be a No. 1 for another team — perhaps with less skill-position talent around him and for a quarterback not on Brady's level? Just as with the pre-draft concerns, Godwin appears to have shown plenty through parts of five seasons to project as a strong investment wherever he lands.

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