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One Buc Mailbag: Expert Opinions

Posted Jul 17, 2014

The mailbag returns with a guest contributor for the first question, followed by discussions of the defensive line rotation and the prevailing opinion about the Buccaneers among NFL analysts

  • Mike Evans will be a coveted rookie in fantasy drafts, particularly in dynasty leagues, according to our guest expert
  • Though the Bucs D-Line depth chart still needs to be sorted out, there are some definite rotational options for game day
  • The sheer amount of change enacted by the Bucs since the end of 2013 makes them a difficult team to project this fall
Each week, Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith will dip into the inbox to answer questions from  Buccaneer fans…and this week he recruited help from Buccaneers.com contributor Andrew Norton, a fantasy football guru.  In addition to Norton's analysis of Mike Evans' likely fantasy returns over the next few years, this week's fan-submitted topics included the possible in-game rotations on the defensive line and a perceived lack of respect for the Bucs' chances in 2014.

Fans can submit questions for upcoming mailbags via Twitter to @ScottSBucs (#BucsMailbag), through a message on the Buccaneers Official Facebook Page or via email at tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.  The One Buc Mailbag runs every Thursday and is not necessarily meant to reflect the opinions of the team's management or coaching staff.

I saw you take a fantasy football question a couple weeks back so I thought I'd give it a try and see if you answered, since its specifically about the Bucs. Its kind of complicated because the league I'm in is set up a little differently, but it's fun. Basically, we have a separate two-round draft of rookies each year before the regular draft (all leftover rookies are then available in the regular draft). It’s a keeper league and you can keep up to four players. The twist is, you can only protect a guy once and then he goes back into the draft the following year…unless its one of those players from the rookie draft. You can protect those guys up to two years if you want to. That makes that draft pretty important. The draft order for rookies is based on last year's standings and I'm picking fourth. Got that? My question is about Mike Evans. Running backs usually go first in these drafts because its so helpful to hit on one of those guys and keep them for two extra years. However, I don't think it's a real strong year for rookie RBs and I'm thinking about taking Evans. Do you think he could maybe surpass VJax as the top target, this year or in the next couple years?
- Alan Barnes, via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com

It's been a month and a half since that mailbag with the Doug Martin fantasy question in it, so I think it's safe to go back to the fantasy football well again, Alan.  And we're getting pretty close to the time when fantasy football talk really heats up, as NFL training camps open and fantasy leagues start scheduling their drafts.

Actually, I'm willing to bet that there are plenty of Buc fans out there who also enjoy reading (and, if possible, participating in) discussions about fantasy football.  And, in fact, we're going to test that theory in August with a new fantasy football-only mailbag, to be handled by Buccaneers.com contributor Andrew Norton.  If you've already checked out Andrew's article today about the best single-game fantasy football performances in Buccaneer history, you know that he's very thorough when it comes to digging up fantasy information, and I can tell you that he's just as thorough about fantasy strategy.  It's kind of his thing.

So, as a preview to that coming fantasy football mailbag, I'm going to kick back, put my feet up on my desk, sip a cup of coffee and let Andrew handle your question, Alan.  Andrew, take it away!

Andrew Norton: Fun fact: Scott hates coffee. Anyways, thank you very much Scott. I’m definitely looking forward to taking some Mailbag questions and getting some fantasy trophies in the hands of our readers at the end of the year!

Fantasy draft season is always my favorite time of year. I’m certainly a nerd when it comes to these kinds of things and have participated in nearly any kind of league you can imagine. So you can imagine my excitement to read about how Alan’s leagues starts their fantasy football draft with a completely different fantasy rookie draft, in some sort of two-draft hybrid Inception-draft. A league within a league. I like it.

On to your first question: “Got that?” Yes. I do. Rookie draft, keeper league, emphasis placed on rookies because that is the best way to form a ‘dynasty,’ if you will.

Before we get to your real question about Evans vs. Jackson over the next couple years, I think there is a bigger question that you might need to ask yourself. Will Mike Evans even be available to draft at #4?

I agree with your assessment that a running back would be the position to take early in this draft. I would imagine that one of the top three picks in your draft go to Bishop Sankey, who could see a good amount of work as a potential #1 in Tennessee. But after him, RB gets a little sparse and I don’t see San Fran’s Carlos Hyde, Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill or Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman (my #2-4 ranked rookie RBs) going in the top half of the first round.

So there is one player to likely be taken in the top three. The next likely top three pick would be Sammy Watkins, who you often see right next to Evans in any rookie rankings. Being the fourth overall selection in the NFL Draft could have his name higher on some draft boards, so Sankey at #1, Watkins at #2 is a possibility.

Personally, I like Evans’s situation in Tampa better than Watkins’s. A while back, I dug pretty deep into my defense of ranking Evans highly in my first Fantasy Corner article of the year.

Evans comes into the league as his team’s #2 receiver, but that comes with the advantage of working with Vincent Jackson (1,224 yards, 7 TDs, 164 points in 2013), who will often draw the opponent’s top cornerback and possibly more safety help over the top.

Alternately, your pro for Watkins is that he is instantly the #1 receiver in Buffalo, and as a result, he’ll likely see more opportunities than Evans in his rookie season. But he will also face much more pressure with a much less proven supporting cast of Robert Woods (587 yds, 3 TDs, 80 pts), Marquise Goodwin (283 yds, 3 TDs, 45 pts) and T.J. Graham (361 yds, 2 TDs, 47 pts).

Of course, that is neither here nor there. You want Evans either way!

So, maybe Sankey goes top three. Perhaps someone drafting early likes Watkins better than Evans. You still have one individual picking before you. There is a chance they could take a flyer on Odell Beckham Jr. or Brandin Cooks, or perhaps they want to gamble on Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater. But my point is this: I think you’ll need to have some luck on your side to see Mike Evans drop to #4 to begin with.

However… should Evans fall to #4 and you draft him, you inquire what you can expect from him over the next three years? It’s important to remember that the fantasy impact in a rookie season for a receiver is generally nothing to write home about. In the last five years, only 15 rookie WRs have posted 100+-point seasons.

In his first season, I’d expect to see all of his numbers lower than Jackson's. I would anticipate Jackson duplicating some of his best seasons: 75 receptions, 1,300+ yards, 8-10 TDs. I’d put good odds on Evans breaking the 100-fantasy-point mark. Perhaps 60 receptions, 850 yards, 5-7 scores.

From there, it is nothing but up. I don’t see Vincent Jackson’s stats going anywhere anytime soon, but in Evans’s second and third year, he will likely breach the 1,000-yard mark right alongside Jackson. With his red-zone ability and spectacular college yards per reception number and so much potential this season, I can easily see us talking about him as a top-40 overall pick in the years to come.

Scott Smith: See, I told you he was thorough.

And, it's true.  I lied about the coffee thing.  My next cup of coffee will be the first one I've ever had.  Despise it – even the smell of it.  But I was trying to create a visual image of me kicking back while Andrew did all the work, and "sipping on a Diet Coke" just didn't do it for me.

My reactions to Andrew's answers: That's a pretty aggressive prediction for Evans' first year.  I'm not saying it's wrong and I sure hope it's right, and not solely for fantasy football reasons.  I just think you would have to consider that to be around the ceiling for Evans in his rookie year.  I also think it's possible that Evans' numbers surpass Jackson's in the next couple years, with Evans trending up and Jackson possibly sliding back some.  We should remember that 2015 and 2016 will be the fourth and fifth years of the five-year contract Jackson signed with the Bucs in 2012.

Finally, if these guys are drafting running backs with the idea that they'll have them for three years, that makes guys like Hyde or Freeman more attractive.  They may not be stepping into obvious starting situations, but they could have the job by 2015 or 2016. If I were in that very unique league that Alan describes, I'd be pretty tempted to take one of those backs really high.  The good thing about it is that, with the top rookies split out into a separate draft, you can take a flyer like that without messing up the regular portion of your draft.

Anyway, thanks, Andrew.  This should give Buc fans a good idea of what they can get if they choose to participate in our upcoming Fantasy Mailbag.

I recognize your name, Mason.  I think you've been in one of these mailbags before.  Checking…yep, and it was only two weeks ago, with the topic of how the Bucs' offense with Jeff Tedford will differ from the Bears' offense under Lovie Smith.  Well, it's a light day for questions, it seems, so I guess you've made it again.

I guess we have to start by naming the starting four before we can say who will be rotating in with them.  While I think that's open a little bit to competition in camp, I think most people expect the first four to get the chance at starting are (from right end to left end) Michael Johnson, Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald and Adrian Clayborn.

The Bucs hope to generate pressure on the quarterback with just its front four as often as possible

Like any defense with a Cover Two core philosophy (which doesn't mean the team will be in a base Cover Two every snap, or even 50% of the time), it will work best if the front four can put a serious amount of pressure on the quarterback by themselves.  That's the way it was during the Warren Sapp/Simeon Rice glory days, which could be returning with the central pairing of McCoy and Johnson.  As such, it would certainly help to be as deep in front-line pass-rushers as possible, so that frequent rotation can keep them all fresh.

That said, I would be a little bit surprised if either McCoy or Johnson are rotated out with great frequency.  I used to be involved in gathering the playtime information after each game during those aforementioned glory years, and I can tell you that on many occasions Sapp played 90% or more of the game's snaps.  When you're that good, coaches are loathe to have you off the field for long.

McDonald comes from a situation in Seattle where he was one of those who rotated in; he did play a lot of snaps for a reserve – 531, or about 51.1% of Seattle's defensive snaps – but that would probably go up a bit in Tampa if he's a starter.  Perhaps it would be best if it doesn't go up too precipitously, though.  It might be that McDonald was so effective in Seattle (5.5 sacks) in part because his playtime totals kept his legs fresh.  As for Clayborn, there could be an adjustment period for him moving to the left side, so he might get rotated out a big more to see what some of the reserves can bring to the table.  Also, Clayborn would seem like a good choice to take some snaps at right end when Johnson needs to be spelled, since he's so familiar with the position.

Who will rotate in?  Well, at defensive tackle, second-year man Akeem Spence was a starter for all of last year and obviously has talent so he would seem like a top candidate on the inside, especially on first and second downs.  In obvious passing situations, Smith and Leslie Frazier are probably going to want as many top-notch pass-rushers as possible on the field, so I wouldn't be surprised to see a couple of the defensive ends kick inside in those situations.  I think William Gholston is a top candidate for that type of role, given his size and the fact that he played wherever they needed him on the line at Michigan State.  Da'Quan Bowers seems like he could handle such a role, too.

In a way, you're asking me to predict which players make the roster on the D-Line, too, because we need to know that before we can say who might rotate in.  I'm not ready to do that yet; I think the final shape of the defensive line depth chart is still very much to be determined during camp and the preseason games.  So let's look at it this way: Let's say the Bucs will keep seven defensive linemen active among their 46 players on game day.  It probably wouldn't be more than that.  So, putting aside who and how many of the 13 linemen going to camp make the 53-man roster, let's just look at a possible game-day seven.

That could be the four starters I mention at the top and, for the sake of this exercise, Gholston, Bowers and Spence.  (We could just as easily swap any of those out for, say, Steven Means or Chaz Sutton or Ronald Talley, but we'll go with those three for now.)  So, Gholston and Bowers can rotate in at left end or defensive tackle.  If McCoy needs a break, McDonald can slide over to under tackle and Spence can take over at nose tackle.  McDonald could be spelled by Spence or even Gholston and Bowers, especially on third downs.  Johnson could get a break from Bowers, or Clayborn could move over to the right end and either Gholston or Bowers could play left end.

I wouldn't call that anywhere close to a definitive answer to your question, Mason, and like I said I think a lot of that will take shape over the next six weeks.  It gives you a few ideas to work with, however.

Hmmm.  I'm going to answer your question, Brandon, but not really, because I don't think its underlying premise is really true.

No one perceives the 2014 Bucs as a threat?  Now, obviously I know you don't mean "no one" 100% literally, as in, "There is not a single human on the planet who thinks the Bucs are a threat."   I think it's clear that you do, and I do as well, so there's two people to start with.  I'm sure what you mean is that, "I've seen a lot of predictions from NFL analysts about the upcoming season and almost none of them say anything promising about the Buccaneers."

See, I don't even think that's true.  For instance, you might look at the series of articles Pro Football Talk is running for its "Preseason Power Rankings" and see that the Bucs are ranked 26th, behind such teams as Cleveland, Houston and Atlanta, all of which struggled as much or more than Tampa Bay in 2013.  If you look a little closer, however, you'll see that what this opinion comes down to – as do many similar ones on other sites – is uncertainty.  So much has changed in Tampa since the end of last season that it truly is hard to say very definitively what is going to happen this fall.  That PFT article ends with its "Prospects" for the Buccaneers and says this:

"In another division, the Bucs prospects would be much brighter.

But for all the changes elsewhere, they’re battling against proven programs with recent success.

If [Josh] McCown is able to maintain the kind of clean play he gave the Bears last year, they have a real chance to make strides. He has a respect level among players and an underrated athleticism, so there’s a chance he could make them stable.

That might be all they need, as [Lovie] Smith should make the defense better by scheme alone.

Schiano was overmatched in the pro game, and his lack of any kind of interpersonal skills made it worse. You can only play the Bill Belichick tough-guy act if you win, and Schiano never did.

Smith doesn’t have an act, he’s simply a good coach. That’s enough to make the Bucs better in a hurry."

Or, here's what SportsonEarth.com's excellent Mike Tanier said in his review of Tampa Bay's 2014 offseason:

"The more you study the Buccaneers, the less you understand them. … The Bucs made sweeping changes with the arrival of new head coach Lovie Smith and an all-star staff featuring college quarterback guru Jeff Tedford as offensive coordinator. There are new faces on just about every unit, of all shapes and sizes: rookies, Pro Bowlers, role players, 35-year-old journeyman quarterbacks. The sheer volume of changes makes analysis difficult, and the fact that there was so much mismanaged talent already on the roster just compounds the problem. Analyzing the Bucs is like trying to hit a moving target from a moving target on an obstacle course in a summer squall."

I added the emphasis in that quote to drive the point home.  Honestly, Brandon, I think there is a decent amount of optimism among the analysts about the Buccaneers' chances this year, but they also have to take into account two things: The strength of the competition in the NFC South and, as Tanier writes, the sheer volume of change.  You can't really expect to see a lot of Bucs-to-win-the-division predictions given those circumstances.  What you get instead is cautious optimism as the analysts wait for Lovie Smith's crew to actually prove itself on the field.  When and if that happens, I think you'll see those analysts jumping onboard quickly.

Seriously, the good words about the Buccaneers are out there, and you don't have to look too hard.  Here, for example is prominent ESPN.com blogger Pat Yasinskas stating his belief that the Bucs will have a top-10 defense in 2014, and possibly even a top-five squad.  Or here, you have Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com saying he "wouldn't be stunned" if the Bucs made the playoffs this year.  Sean Leahy of The Boston Globe really doesn't have any reason to have a Buccaneer bias, and yet just two days ago he listed Tampa Bay second on his list of five "teams that could rise" in 2014.  NFL.com's Chris Wesseling thinks Josh McCown will be "making the leap" this year, possibly all the way to the Pro Bowl.  Back to that same Mike Tanier article on SOE, he finishes his analysis with a "Bold Prediction" that Lavonte David will be the NFL Defensive Player of the Year (though I guess it doesn't specifically say this year).

They're out there, Brandon, really.  Yes, if we sort of mash it all together to find one prevailing mood on the Buccaneers and their chances in 2014 it's uncertainty.  It's, 'Yeah it looks good on paper, but prove it to me.'  And that's fair.  And it's also fine with me.  How about we fly under the radar just a little bit longer.