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Roundtable: Bold Predictions

Posted Feb 15, 2018

Buccaneers.com contributors Carmen Vitali, Casey Phillips and Scott Smith go out on a limb with some prognostications regarding Tampa Bay players in 2018

Mike Evans, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' star wide receiver, caught 71 passes for 1,001 yards and five touchdowns in 2017. That made him just the third player in NFL history to open his career with four consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons, as he joined an exclusive club previously only consisting of Randy Moss and A.J. Green.

Evans has yet to turn 25 and he already has 4,579 receiving yards and 32 touchdowns in his NFL career. That's outstanding production by any measure. Still, it's also true that his 1,001 yards last year were the fewest of any of his four seasons, and his five touchdowns were less than half of the 12 he had in 2016. Evans and the Buccaneers will certainly head into the 2018 campaign expecting something more like his 2016 production (1,321 yards, 12 touchdowns), and hopefully even more.

We could easily predict, say, an 80-1,200-10 line for Evans. That would most likely make him one of the five most productive receivers in the NFL, but it would not exactly be a bold prediction. That would mark only the second-best receptions total, third-best yardage total and third-best touchdown total of his career. A bold prediction for Evans? Try 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns.

It is that sort of prognostication for which I've once again gathered Team Reporter Casey Phillips and Buccaneers.com Contributor Carmen Vitali. This has been something of a "Roundtable Week" here on Buccaneers.com, and we've already kicked around two topics: Which Buccaneer players will "make the leap" in 2018, and what positions will the team target in unrestricted free agency. Now we finish up the week with a little fun.

Each of us is going to make one Bold Prediction about a Buccaneer player in 2018. We'll push the envelope a little bit but still remain realistic. Perhaps it is not likely that any of these predictions will be realized, but it is possible.

Casey went first on Tuesday and Carmen had the honors on Wednesday so this time I'm starting us off. And I'm going right to the most important position on the team.

Scott Smith: Jameis Winston will rank in the top five in the NFL in passer rating.

When the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl at the end of the 2002 season, they had Brad "The Bull" Johnson starting at quarterback. Johnson finished the '02 regular season with a passer rating of 92.9, thanks in large part to his excellent TD-INT ratio of 22-6. Johnson's rating ranked first in the NFC and third in the NFL that year.

Last season, Buccaneers starter Jameis Winston had a passer rating of 92.2. That's just a hair below what Johnson accomplished during the Super Bowl run and it's the fifth-best single-season mark in franchise history. In terms of Winston's young career, it represents an encouraging progression from an 84.2 rating as a rookie in 2015 to 86.1 in Year Two and now above 90 in Year Three.

But the NFL has changed since 2002. Winston's 92.2 passer rating would have ranked fifth in the league that year, just a bit behind Johnson and Kansas City's Trent Green (92.6). However, in 2017, Winston's 92.2 placed him just 15th in the NFL. Five quarterbacks finished above 100, another five at 95 or better. Winston's passing yards weren't a problem – his 7.93 yards per attempt ranked fourth in the league and were miles ahead of what Johnson did in 2002 – but the QBs at the top of the chart in 2017 all had TD-INT ratios like the one Johnson had and big yardage totals.

Passer rating is calculated using four statistics: yards per attempt, touchdown percentage, interception percentage and completion percentage. The formula is complicated and while the final numbers it produces are fairly intuitive – a 100 passer rating is very good – it's a little ragged getting there. The four categories count equally and are simply added together; a quarterback can score a maximum of roughly 39.6 in each category, with an overall ceiling of 158.3. Once you get to certain levels in each category (about 78% completion rate, 12.5 yards per attempt, 12.0% TD rate, 0.0% INT rate), you can't score any higher.

Returning to my prediction, I'm obviously forecasting another significant leap forward for Winston in his rating in order for him to get into the top five in the NFL. Over the past 10 seasons, the mean passer rating for the quarterback finishing fifth in the rankings has been almost exactly 100. So let's say Winston needs to improve from 92.2 to 100.0 next year for him to have a shot at cracking at the top five. There's one way that can happen: The TD-INT ratio has to improve.

As noted above, Winston is already there in yards per attempt. His completion rate of 63.8 ranked 12th in the NFL but was actually better than two quarterbacks who did crack the top five, Carson Wentz and Jared Goff. But Winston's TD-INT ratio was 19-11, and that held back his rating. Had Winston instead had a TD-INT ratio of 25-8, his passer rating would have been 99.6. That's just about there.

And I think he can do that. His overall TD numbers would probably need to be higher because he missed time in 2017 and hopefully he'll play all 16 games in 2018 like he did in his first two NFL campaigns. But that ratio, a little over three touchdowns for every interception, would make a big difference in his final passer rating.

I think he can do it because I saw how he played down the stretch in 2017 after returning from his shoulder injury. Over his first four games after returning, Winston had a passer rating of 114.5, buoyed by an 8-2 TD-INT ratio. He threw three interceptions in the season-capping win over New Orleans, likely because he as (admittedly) trying very hard to get the ball to Evans in service of that 1,000-yard campaign. Even with that, however, Winston's overall passer rating after his return was 99.2. That's almost there!

Cracking the top five in passer rating in a league that boasts the likes of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, etc. won't be easy for Winston. But that's why we call these bold predictions.

Sorry I went a little long there, Casey and Carmen. Your turn!

Reactions…

Casey Phillips: My reaction is holy cow I hope this happens because I think it would mean the Bucs winning the division and being in the playoffs. There’s my bold prediction about your bold prediction. I would be more inclined to agree with you if you said he would reach that goal within the next three years. But I definitely think it’s still very feasible. He knows he has to get the turnovers down and he is the kind of player who will study and work like crazy on what he knows he needs to improve. An offseason working on that and building more chemistry with his weapons, plus hopefully an improved run game could be exactly what he needs to make a top five finish happen.

Carmen Vitali: Should we just refer to you as Professor Smith from here on out? That was more of a dissertation than a single contribution to a roundtable discussion. But hey – you’re not wrong. Although it could be considered bold to put Jameis in the conversation with Brady, Rodgers, Brees and Wilson at the age of 24 – I don’t think it’s at all out of the realm of possibility, especially if the Bucs address some needs on the offensive line and beef up their pass protection/run-blocking. With more time in the pocket, Winston’s interception numbers could see a dramatic decline and improve that crucial TD-INT ratio you mentioned. If the run-blocking improves, that improves play-action as well, and would lead to a more balanced offense where Winston isn’t compelled to make as many chancy throws. It’s still a tall order, though. I’m not sure if it could happen this coming year, but should Winston continue on his current trajectory, he’ll get in that conversation in the next few years for sure.

**

Casey Phillips: The Bucs will have two players with double digit sacks.

We said bold right? Since Scott went more War & Peace…I’ll go more Dr. Seuss and keep it short. My prediction starts with the Bucs adding to the pass rush this offseason, whether in free agency, the draft, or both. And I’m not talking about adding just any defensive linemen, but a dynamic edge rusher. If you add someone like that to a line already featuring Gerald McCoy, I think the pass rush looks entirely different.

McCoy has come incredibly close to multiple double-digit sack years, even while being the entire focal point of the opposing offensive line and being constantly double-teamed. The more threats the offensive line has to worry about, the less that will be an option. So my prediction is Gerald McCoy and player X combine for 20 sacks in 2018.

Reactions…

Scott Smith: That IS bold. Very bold. Okay, that was the assignment here, so I can't complain, but I think that's an even taller order than mine for Winston or Carmen's plea for linebacker Pro Bowl recognition below. The Bucs haven't even had one double-digit sack artist in a season since 2005, let alone two in the same year. It's been 18 years since the Bucs had two players get 10 or more sacks in the same season (Warren Sapp and Marcus Jones in 2000). In NFL terms, however, it's not that crazy. Three teams had a pair of 10-sack players last year (Jaguars, Chargers and Panthers). So it can be done. I hope you're right that the Bucs can do it, because that would change everything.

Carmen Vitali: Hey, if the Jags can do it so can we, right?

**

Carmen Vitali: The Bucs will have two Pro Bowl linebackers: Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David

Alright, so if Scott was War and Peace, Casey was Dr. Seuss, I’m going to be somewhere in the middle. And in the spirit of the middle – I’m again looking at the middle of the defense for my prediction. I’m mad this even needs to be a ‘bold’ prediction, to be totally honest with you. Basically, I’m just mad Lavonte David has only made the Pro Bowl once. For the record, so is Bucs’ defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who praised the linebacker on more than one occasion during the 2017 season. Some call it a bromance – I just call him right.

The unfortunate reality is that players who operate in a 4-3 system, like David, often don’t get the sack numbers, and therefore the notoriety of those in a 3-4. McCoy even offered a suggestion for how to remedy this: Make two separate categories for linebackers that play in each. This would force voters and fans alike to look outside sack totals when measuring what makes a good linebacker and make it less of a pass-rush popularity contest when it came to Pro Bowl selections.

David is in his seventh season and is still producing year-in and year-out. What he was lacking in sacks in 2017, he made up for in forced fumbles AND fumble recoveries. He had five of each and led the league in recoveries, in addition to registering a team-leading 101 combined tackles, eight for loss – and that was with missing three games due to injury. For frame of reference on who did make the 2018 Pro Bowl, Panthers’ Luke Kuechly had 125 combined tackles, 1.5 sacks and three interceptions with just one forced fumble over the course of 15 games. You have to think if David doesn’t miss those three games, his totals could be right on par with arguably the best linebacker in the league. David’s lone Pro Bowl appearance came in 2015. He was a monster disrupter that season, recording three sacks, 13 passes defensed and three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, in addition to 147 combined tackles.

Alexander finally got some of the recognition he deserved – getting into the Pro Bowl as an alternate this year. Granted, it’s the Pro Bowl, but Alexander led the NFC in tackles and forced a fumble in the game itself. So I’d say he belonged. This past season, he had 97 combined tackles (seven of them for loss) and tied for the team lead in interceptions with three, in addition to breaking up four passes. Oh, and he did all that in 12 games. Another reason this is such a bold prediction is because Alexander missed the Pro Bowl entirely after the 2016 season where he had 145 (you read that correctly) combined tackles, three sacks, seven passes defensed and one interception that he returned for a touchdown. I repeat: he didn’t make it that year.

With the Bucs more than likely bringing in pass-rush help on the line and getting Noah Spence back at defensive end, coupled with their 4-3 scheme, quarterback pressure from the middle level of the defense may not be as much of an emphasis. Hopefully, voters learn to look outside sack numbers and these two get the recognition they deserve after the 2018 season.

Reactions…

Casey Phillips: Carmen you totally have my vote. But those guys have had my vote for a while which unfortunately doesn’t help them at all. But I do think that Kwon getting there has brought more attention to the group as a whole. And hopefully with an increased pass rush this season those guys will be able to make more of the stat stuffing plays that fans look for in Pro Bowl voting.

Scott Smith: You're right, Carmen, that it's irritating that this is a bold prediction. Lavonte should probably have three Pro Bowls on his resume by now (2013, 2015 and 2017). I mean, he was named a first team AP All-Pro in 2013, which is a more exclusive honor than the Pro Bowl, but somehow didn't end up in Hawaii. I may not be an actual professor, but I'm smart enough to know that doesn't add up.