The tight end room has been a talented one for the Buccaneers in recent years.
From 2017-2019, Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard led the way, while Antony Auclair, Tanner Hudson and Codey McElroy were among those who provided valuable depth.
The position group reached another level in 2020, though, when Rob Gronkowski came out of retirement to join Tom Brady in Tampa Bay. Since then, Gronkowski and Brate have been the top two on the depth chart, with Howard—when healthy—sliding into a depth role.
Now, the tight end position might look very different for the Bucs heading into 2022. Howard signed with Buffalo as a free agent last month and while it’s still reasonable to expect a Gronkowski return, he recently said he hasn’t decided whether or not he’s coming back for another year.
So, as our draft profile series continues today, we’ll set our sights on Coastal Carolina tight end Isaiah Likely.
ISAIAH LIKELY’S COLLEGIATE CAREER
Originally a two-star recruit out of Everett High School in Massachusetts, Likely chose to attend Coastal Carolina over Bethune-Cookman, Bryant, Central Connecticut State, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Sacred Heart and Southern Miss. As a freshman in 2018, he made an immediate impact, catching 12 passes for 106 yards and five touchdowns—tying for the team high—in 12 games. He followed up with more production as a sophomore in 2019, catching 32 passes for 431 yards and a team-high five touchdowns. That landed him on the All-Sun Belt Third Team, and his career only took off further from there.
In his junior season, Likely caught 30 passes for 601 yards and another five touchdowns while averaging 20 yards per catch as the Chanticleers went 11-1. After that year, he was selected to the All-Sun Belt First Team, as well as Pro Football Focus’ All-America Second Team. And in his final act at Coastal Carolina, Likely racked up the numbers and accolades he needed to get an invite to the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine. He caught 59 passes for 912 yards and 12 touchdowns, earning All-Sun Belt First Team honors, a Third-Team All-American nod from PFF and a place on the Football Writers Association of America’s All-America Second Team while the Chanticleers finished 11-2. And to top it all off, he was a semifinalist for the John Mackey Award.
Isaiah Likely's 1,513 receiving yards since 2020 are the most by a Tight End in college football— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) February 2, 2022
via @ESPNCFB pic.twitter.com/YADrEcJK7x
Likely finished his collegiate career with a big week at the Senior Bowl, doing enough in practice to potentially—in the eyes of some—elevate himself to the TE1 conversation in the 2022 NFL Draft Class.
PRO DAY AND SCOUTING COMBINE
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Likely didn’t participate in all of the drills. He did, however, record the best vertical (36”) of all participating tight ends. But that’s unfortunately where the positives effectively end, as he was less impressive in the 20-yard shuttle, running it in 4.57 seconds, before recording an underwhelming 4.80-second 40-yard dash time at Coastal Carolina’s Pro Day in March. Some believe his showing at Pro Day as a whole will cause him to fall down draft boards, but his supporters simply need to point to his film for proof that he shouldn’t drop too much. His measurables really don’t do him any favors, but his tape does.
WHAT LIKELY CAN DO FOR THE BUCS IN 2022
What Likely can do—and what he would be asked to do—for the Bucs in 2022 largely depends on Rob Gronkowski. If the future Hall of Fame tight end returns for another season, he and Brate would still man the top two tight end spots and Likely would get a chance to develop as a rookie. The 6-foot-4, 245-pounder was a big play machine at Coastal Carolina and a capable blocker as well, so it’s not as if he wouldn’t see the field at all in 2022, but he would get some valuable time in the league before being thrown head first into a major role.
If Gronkowski does decide to retire, things get a little more interesting. Would Tampa Bay rather sign a tight end that can slot in atop the depth chart with Brate, or would leadership trust Likely enough to contribute right away? As an “F” tight end, he very well could be a tough matchup for many teams. Given his ability to create separation, make contested catches and produce home run plays (he had five touchdown catches of 50-plus yards in his college career), Likely projects well at the professional level.
It certainly helps that Likely is versatile, as the Chanticleers moved him around plenty during his career. He can go from the “Y” position to the slot, and he’s even lined up as an H-back as well. The type of weapon he already is—and will continue to develop into—is definitely intriguing for a team that looks for big plays down the field as much as the Bucs do.
And as much raw ability as Likely has, he looks to be the type of player that will only get better with time. NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein notes in his draft profile that Likely’s “body type lacks desired definition” and points to the idea of there being an adjustment period at the NFL level because of it:
“He lacks a prototypical tight end frame and is an inconsistent blocker, but he runs well and filled up his career stat sheet with big plays. It could take Likely a year or two to find his footing against stronger, faster coverage, but he has the tools to uncover against NFL coverage as an “F” tight end.”
Whatever downside Likely has largely appears fixable, and given the uncertainty surrounding the Bucs’ tight end room in 2022, there are only going to be more questions down the line. So, if the team can get Gronkowski back for another year and give Likely a chance to find himself at the NFL level in 2022, the Coastal Carolina standout may very well be the type of player that serves as the future of Tampa Bay’s tight end room in the next few years.
After the Senior Bowl, Likely looked like he could be up in the TE1 conversation. The pre-draft process—namely his Pro Day—might temper that talk a bit, but he’s still an intriguing prospect worth monitoring on day two, especially for Tampa Bay. The Draft Network’s analysts gave him a consensus grade of 79.08 out of 100, which translates to a third-round value. He’s snuck into the second round in some mock drafts, so he’s sure to be a day two pick one way or the other. If he falls to day three, the value would seem to be off the charts for a player with his big-play ability.
ON THE CLOCK...
It’s time for you to make the decision, Bucs Nation. Tell us what you think of Isaiah Likely as a potential draft target for Tampa Bay by voting in our poll and discussing your thoughts in the comments down below.
The Buccaneers should target Isaiah Likely at the NFL Draft...
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As projected (Late Day 2)
Early (2nd Round)
Late (Day 3)
Never. He shouldn’t be on their board.