By Cole Hoopingarner (with Contributions from Joe Zollo and Chris Tyler)
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After going 9-7 and barely missing the playoffs in 2016 due to losing a tiebreaker with Detroit, Tampa Bay inexplicably slid backwards in 2017. The Bucs posted a miserable 5-11 record. As you might expect, a 5-11 record doesn’t really translate well to fantasy. Quarterback Jameis Winston fumbled 15 times in 13 games, negating some otherwise productive figures (more on that later). Running back Doug Martin’s redemption tour never hit the road and he was cut this offseason. Peyton Barber quietly filled in well enough for Martin at the end of the year to earn a new, one-year deal this offseason. Wide receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson didn’t live up to their potential or expectations, but Chris Godwin turned heads at the end of the season. Tight end Cameron Brate surprised many by posting TE10 numbers even with rookie O.J. Howard’s ominous presence. It was another season to forget in Tampa. Some trivia for you: only the Cleveland Browns have a longer playoff drought than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
|(Projected Starting Lineup)|
|RB1||(R) Ronald Jones||N/A||N/A|
|K||Chandler Catanzaro (w/ NYJ)||105.00||K15|
Rookies and Undrafted Free Agents to Watch: WR Justin Watson
Before last season, Jameis Winston’s critics pointed to his absurdly high turnover rate as the primary reason why he wasn’t living up to real game and fantasy expectations. Those same critics doubled down on Winston after his 2017 campaign, and it’s easy to see why. As noted earlier, Winston fumbled the ball 15 times in 13 games last year. That’s nearly three times more than his rookie season total (6) and 1.5 times more than his second year in the league (10). He played 16 games in those seasons too. Winston’s fumble rate is absolutely horrid. Some of that certainly falls on poor protection by the offensive line, but a lot of it reflects what Jameis lovers and haters have said since his 2014 season at FSU: he doesn’t know when to just give up on a play.
What most of those critics will ignore (fight me if you think there’s not a real bias against Winston) is that if the former Heisman trophy winner hadn’t missed three games, he was on pace to match his highest career touchdown total and lowest career interception total (28 TDs and 13 INTs). Also, he was steadily on the path to post his highest yardage total (4,312). Finally, his completion percentage has improved 9.5% from 2015 and 5% from 2016. If you project his numbers (turnovers included) over a full 16 game season, Winston would have finished as QB16.
What’s all this mean for fantasy owners? Quite simply, Winston has yet to put it all together. Also, he faces possible suspension by the league after an alleged incident with an Uber driver. Since he hasn’t been suspended yet, we’ll assume that he will play a full season. He’s a lock for 4,000 yards and 25+ touchdowns. With an improved offensive line, the dropping of dead weight Doug Martin, the addition of Ronald Jones, and the continued development of Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard, Winston’s surrounding cast has gotten better. He has no choice but to improve by protecting the football and taking Ls on individual plays to protect the team Ws. I believe Winston will put it together this year. Look for 4,200 yards, 30 TDs, 12 INTS, and 6 fumbles from the Bucs’ signal caller this year. Those are QB10 numbers, folks.
Head Coach Dirk Koetter has always preached a “run-first” mentality in Tampa, and in his three total years with the Bucs (one as OC, two as HC), he’s tried to stick to that:
Tampa Bay Rushing Play Percentage Since 2015 (League Ranking in Parentheses)
2015 as OC: 44.69% (9th)
2016 as HC: 42.50% (9th)
2017 as HC: 37.68% (30th)
The decrease from 2015 to 2016 was marginal. That drop from 2016 to 2017, though? Significant. And it was due largely to the Bucs’ wretched defense. Tampa Bay allowed nearly 24 points per game last season. That made it hard for Koetter to commit to the running game. This year should be different. The Bucs made several splash defensive signings this offseason. As the defense improves, the running game should get more action.
The Doug Martin experiment is over in Tampa Bay, and the Bucs will begin 2018 with a new, four-headed running back committee. All four backs figure to be involved in their own unique way. Peyton Barber currently leads the competition for starting running back. In the last five weeks of 2017, Barber averaged 16 carries for 67 yards and added 12 catches for 83 yards. Not too shabby, but really only useful for fantasy purposes in very deep leagues. Barber will get his fair share of work, but with three other backs spelling him, he’s worth a bench spot on your roster and nothing more.
The Bucs drafted Ronald Jones, Jr. from USC with their second pick in the draft. This kid has been compared to Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson. Jones will slash and dash and pop off big plays in open space. He’s elusive, and like Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook, he makes cuts at the last second, leaving defenders with just their athleticism to stop him. Unfortunately for those defenders, Jones is probably more athletic than most of them. He’s also going to play a big role in the passing game. Koetter will want to keep his backs fresh and healthy, but Jones has the talent and ability that may force the head coach to keep him on the field more as the season progresses. By the end of the season, Jones will likely be a top 25 back. I think a lot of that will come from top 15 production from the middle to the end of the season. Draft, stash, and be ready to cash in.
Joining Barber and Jones in the crowded backfield are Charles Sims and Jacquizz Rodgers. Sims is a great blocker and will see some action in the passing game, but likely only on third downs. Rodgers will be used situationally as needed. Neither Sims nor Rodgers are worth spots on your fantasy team.
Through his first seven games of 2017, Mike Evans caught 39 passes for 519 yards and four touchdowns. That’s a decent clip. Those stats projected over a 16 game season: 89 catches for 1,186 yards and nine touchdowns. Unfortunately, the wheels fell off in Week 9. He committed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty (aka he fought a New Orleans Saint) and was suspended in Week 10. In his final seven games, Evans’ production regressed, and he ended the season the worst stats of career, hauling in 71 catches for 1001 yards and just five touchdowns.
Statistics and suspensions be damned, though. Let’s be real: Mike Evans is a cheat code. His size and agility make him nearly impossible to cover and even harder to beat in 50/50 battles. With consistency at QB, a competent running game, and weapons at WR and TE other defenses must respect, he should bounce back big in 2018. He’s easily a top 10 WR with top 5 potential. Draft him as your number one WR with confidence.
In a headline-grabbing move last season, the Bucs signed wide receiver DeSean Jackson to a three year, $35 million contract. Expectations soared about Jackson opening up the Bucs’ offense with his NFL-best speed and deep ball potential. Unfortunately those expectations weren’t met. It’s not that Jackson didn’t catch many passes; his 50 receptions were just 5 fewer than his career average. It’s that he didn’t catch many long passes. He averaged 13.7 yards per catch, the lowest of his career, for a total of 668 yards. Jackson didn’t make the impact behind the defense that he was supposed to.
But whose fault was that? According to Dirk Koetter, not Jackson’s. Check out this quote from Koetter about Jackson’s performance from this article by ESPN’s Jenna Laine: “We did not get the production out of DeSean. And when I say ‘production out of DeSean,’ when you go back and look at the tape, we have a tape of just plays where we didn’t hit DeSean,” Koetter said. “DeSean was where he was supposed to be. He was either behind the defense, in between the corner and the safety, or he was in position to make explosive plays and we didn’t get the ball to him. So that’s on myself; it’s on Jameis to do better.”
Sounds like Jackson still has more than enough gas in the tank and muscles in the legs to get behind and in between defenders. He just needs his coach and quarterback to support him. Jackson and Winston have both publicly stated their intentions to work together this offseason to establish a chemistry and they have shown evidence of that on social media. If it all comes together, Jackson could put up WR2 numbers. Drafting him late and stashing him on your bench is a risk worth taking.
Behind Evans and Jackson waits Chris Godwin, the second-year man who caught fire in the last quarter of the season. In the last four weeks, Godwin caught 16 passes for 295 yards and a touchdown. That touchdown was a game-winner against New Orleans in Week 17. Godwin’s strong finish has many Bucs fans excited about his second year, and they should be. When Winston finds someone he trusts, he’ll continue to go back to him. Without Godwin, the Bucs wouldn’t have beaten the Saints in Week 17, and you can bet Winston will remember that. I’m not big on sleepers and I think the Bucs’ offense is a bit too crowded to count on Godwin as a weekly fantasy starter this year. But don’t be shocked if he puts up WR35 or better numbers. He could be a great bye week fill-in and is definitely worth a spot on your roster in dynasty leagues.
Last but not least we have Adam Humphries. I like Humphries, but with Evans, Jackson, and the emerging Godwin, he’s unfortunately not rosterable in fantasy.
Now this is a committee I can deal with. The Bucs’ tight ends provide incredible value for owners who value depth at RB and WR over getting a top 3 player at the position. We’ll start with Cameron Brate, who seemingly can’t get any respect from fantasy owners. Despite the presence of O.J. Howard, who outsnapped Brate 608-586, Brate still managed to finish as TE10. He’s one of Winston’s favorite targets, especially in the red zone. He tallied 6 touchdowns last year. And the Bucs signed him to a 6 year, $41 million contract this offseason. Brate isn’t going anywhere and there’s a good chance he’ll be available in your drafts in the 13th round this year. Take him. He’s a sure bet for top 15 numbers and that type of consistency is extremely valuable.
O.J. Howard had a very solid rookie season, finishing as TE18. Six of his 26 catches went for touchdowns. That’s nearly 25%! He’s sure to be more involved in the passing game this year, and his ability to block means he’s likely to be forgotten at points in the passing game. Look for the Bucs to design more plays where they set up like Howard’s going to block, then release him downfield for large gains. Howard should easily vault into the top 15 at his position, meaning you can own either one of the Bucs’ tight ends and feel confident.
Rookie to Watch
With the loss of Doug Martin, the Bucs needed a new lead back. The Muscle Hamster was a traditional one cut back with average receiving skills. The Bucs offense needed a more versatile option and Ronald Jones provides that with his pass-catching prowess. At USC, he carried the ball 591 times for 3,619 yards and 39 touchdowns. – Chris Tyler
Ronald Jones was Tampa Bay’s 2nd round pick at number 38 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. With the departure of Doug Martin and inconsistency of Jacquizz Rodgers, Jones could become RB1 by the beginning of the season. He has the speed, being a former district champion in track, but scouts worry about his size and if he can hold up. The comparison is Jamaal Charles… I will take my chances on this guy as low RB3, high RB4. – Joe Zollo
2018 Loose Ends
Much like the Cleveland Browns, Tampa has many mouths to feed. They will run a committee in the backfield, have two very capable tight ends, and wide receivers that all can contribute. They need their defense to perform so the offense doesn’t feel pressured playing from behind every game. If that happens, and Jameis stops turning the ball over, the Bucs’ offense may finally reach its full potential.
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|5||** BYE WEEK **|