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One Buc Mailbag: Season of Hope

Posted Jul 13, 2017

Fan-submitted questions about the offensive line, Jameis Winston's fantasy value and the offense's scoring potential lead to a deep well of optimism this week.

Each week during the offseason, Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith will dip into the inbox to answer questions from Buccaneer fans. This week our topics range from the state of the offensive line to Jameis Winston's fantasy football possibilities to the franchise's single-season scoring record.

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.

1. O-Line Optimism?

Scott--
I liked your answer to the ATL fan in the last mail story and I'll admit I'm pretty excited about this season like you seem to be. I don't think you're "selling false hope" like that guy said…but maybe you are sorta just giving us the good stuff without mentioning the possible problem areas. No offense intended! I like hearing good news!! I'm just thinking there's maybe one problem we're not talking much about and we can't ignore it.

I think the defense started to get better last year and is going to be even better this year. Maybe not as good as the Super bowl defense, but still good enough. There's obviously a lot of great players for Jamies to throw to and I'm not at all worried about the running backs. But like they always say a quarterback can't make use of his weapons if he doesn't have time to throw. Is our O line really good enough to take care of business. I don't think they were great last year and there's nobody new. If I'm right about that. Just wondering what you think-is the O line good enough?

Thanks and go Bucs!
- Nelson Vargas--from St. Pete, originally! (via email to
tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Thanks for the feedback, Nelson. That last mailbag was fun – I started to answer the harmless trash-talking tweet from a Falcons fan mostly as a joke, and then I kind of got into it and ended up with a 1,300-word response. In a way, there are some similarities between what he tweeted and what you have written. Now, don't worry, I'm not saying you and a Falcons fan have anything in common (that might be an insult in your eyes!). I'm just saying that both of you are essentially wondering if I'm being too optimistic and ignoring potential problems on this current Buccaneers team. Admittedly, yours was presented in a much kinder way!

I'll concede this: The offensive line does seem to be the area that outside NFL analysts point to when casting any doubt on the Bucs' chances in 2017. Here's one of the most recent Tampa Bay previews, from Vinnie Iyer on the Sporting News website. He singles out Ali Marpet as a strong player but wonders about the lack of O-Line additions this year. Overall, it seems to be a very positive review of the team, but he calls the offensive line, "middle-of-pack…at very best."

But here's something I've repeated quite a bit on our weekly Buccaneers Insider Live show: I think there's a big gap between the internal and external opinions of Tampa Bay's offensive line. (See, I HAVE talked about the offensive line – you just have to listen to our show!) You can't blame an outside analyst for wondering about the group, given that it did have some struggles during the first half of last season, but team architects inside One Buccaneer Place seem a lot more confident in the line. Head Coach Dirk Koetter said pretty much exactly that about young left tackle Donovan Smith, in particular, back in June.

"We think he's building on that second half [of last season]," said Koetter during the team's mini-camp. "We think he's done that this spring. Donovan is a very intelligent guy, extremely athletic, extremely powerful. … I think the number one thing Donovan just has to cut down is he's got to cut his penalties down and he’s got to play a little more consistent. When Donovan's consistent, he can be physically dominating at times and we’re a lot happier with Donovan than some other people are."

READ: SEVERAL BUCS AMONG NFL'S ALL-TIME GREATS

As Koetter also pointed out during the team's offseason program, the Buccaneers' 2017 offensive line is not exactly the same as it was a year ago. If the first-team combination the Bucs were using during OTAs and the mini-camp holds, there will be new starters at two new positions. First, Marpet is moving from right guard to center and, second, 2016 free agency acquisition J.R. Sweezy is stepping into that vacated right guard spot.

I think there's pretty much universal optimism, in and out of One Buc Place, about how Marpet will fare at center after two very promising seasons at guard. When it comes to Sweezy, that's another area where internal and external reactions tend to differ. I've personally received multiple replies on Twitter along the paraphrased lines of, "You can't count J.R. Sweezy as an upgrade because he hasn't even played a single snap for the Buccaneers."

Look, I get it. It certainly wasn't a good development for the team (or J.R.) that he ended up missing all of 2016 due to a back issue. That said, logically I don't see why we can't optimistically believe he can make a difference this year. Sweezy was one of the first players the Buccaneers targeted in unrestricted free agency in March of 2016, and they signed him with the intention of inserting him directly into the lineup at left guard and reaping the benefits of his rugged run-blocking. That ultimately didn't happen because of the injury, but now that he is healthy again, he's the same player the Bucs thought they were adding a year ago. He practiced all offseason without any issue and never lost his spot on the first-team line. Koetter said Buccaneer fans are going to like watching Sweezy play because he's a mauler like Joe Hawley, only bigger.

Plus, Sweezy is back at his more familiar position. He started 49 games in four seasons in Seattle, all at right guard. A year ago, the Bucs intended to put him on the left side to replace the retiring Logan Mankins. When Sweezy couldn't go, the Buccaneers turned to former tackle Kevin Pamphile at left guard and uncovered another starting-caliber player in the process. Now Pamphile can stay on that side and with Marpet moving to the pivot, Sweezy can go back to right guard.

One thing is for sure: That's a big offensive line. As I noted back in June (see, I've written about the O-Line, too!), the Bucs' current starting five has an average height of 6-foot-6 and an average weight of 315 pounds. It's a good thing Jameis Winston is tall, and I'm thinking Buccaneer backs are going to enjoy running behind that beefy front.

READ: FANTASY FOCUS - BUCCANEERS' DEFENSE

Demar Dotson has been a solid performer at right tackle for years and has plenty left in the tank. Marpet looks like a rising star. Pamphile is still young and improving. If team leaders are right in their optimism about Sweezy and Smith, and if second-half improvements from last year carry over into 2017, this could be a very solid group, certainly one that can provide Winston with enough time to utilize his stellar supporting cast.

Yes, I know that last sentence started with, "if." It's perfectly fine for outside analysts – and even die-hard Bucs fans like Nelson – to wonder if the offensive line will be a weak spot for the team in 2017. I may not have succeeded in convincing you otherwise. You are welcome to take a wait-and-see approach. Just know that, inside One Buccaneer Place, there is a lot of confidence in that offensive line. I tend to think they're right. (But you know me – I'm a chronic seller of "false hope," right?)

2. Drafting Jameis? Nelson (politely) questioned my optimism and now Alex wants me to put my money where my mouth is. I've got a target on my back today, and apparently it bears the word "homer."

It's a fair question, though. I am far from alone in believing that the 23-year-old Winston, a former first-overall draft pick who has thrown for over 8,000 yards and tossed 50 touchdown passes in just two seasons, is poised to take his game to another level, statistically. He was 12th in the league in passing yards last year, and tied for seventh in TD throws. Since then, he has welcomed DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin to the Bucs' locker room. It is not unreasonable to believe he could rack up, say, 4,240 yards and 31 touchdowns this year. In fact, that's being downright conservative with the projections. You know who put up those exact numbers last year? Andrew Luck. Would you hesitate to draft Andrew Luck in fantasy football?

Joe Kania, Andrew Norton and I are right in the middle of a series of Fantasy Forecast articles here on the site; I've already written about draft strategies regarding Mike Evans and the Buccaneers' defense, and I'll be looking at Doug Martin's situation next week. Joe is going to be writing the one about Winston, however, so I won't step on his toes by doing a full fantasy analysis of the Bucs' quarterback here. I'll just get straight to the point.

Well, actually I'll sort of get straight to the point, after a quick detour: I assume Alex is asking if I would draft Winston to be the number-one quarterback on my fantasy team. It's fairly obvious that Winston will be selected at some point if a league is 10-12 teams deep and all or most of them draft two quarterbacks.

So now, straight to the point: Yes, I would draft Jameis Winston as the first quarterback on my fantasy team this year. I think I can win with him.

Now, I'm not going to go overboard here. I am not going to be the guy in your draft who takes Winston well ahead of his average draft position. I'm not going to hitch my team's wagon to the Bucs' rising star if Aaron Rodgers is still available. But if I follow the common strategy of waiting on quarterbacks and loading up on receivers and backs first, then I'd be perfectly happy to nab Winston in the seventh or eighth round.

ESPN has Winston ranked 12th among fantasy quarterbacks this year, which means they view him as a #1 option (in a 12-team league), if only just that. Overall, they have him ranked 119th, sandwiched between Ben Roethlisberger (112) and Matt Stafford (125). He's ahead of some guys you've probably spent decent draft capital on in the past, including Philip Rivers and Eli Manning.

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In a 12-team draft, the 119th pick would be right at the end of the 10th round. I would love to get Winston (or Rivers, for that matter) in the 10th round, but in my personal fantasy drafting experience, the second tier of quarterbacks always goes several rounds ahead of these industry projections. A run starts, people get nervous and they call come flying off the board. That's why I said I'd be happy with Winston in the seventh or eighth round.

And if Winston gives me those Luck-ian numbers I mentioned above, I win (the pick, not necessarily the whole league since I'll probably blow my first-round pick on a running back who gets injured in Week Two). ESPN has Andrew Luck ranked fourth among quarterbacks and 63rd overall, which means he is roughly a low sixth-round pick, or more likely a fourth-rounder in a real draft with real, nervous people.

Now, there's one stat I haven't mentioned yet and it's probably the reason that fantasy analysts would put Winston down around #12 even though there's a very real chance he'll put up the types of yards and numbers that you'd get from luck. That stat is interceptions: Winston threw 18 of them last year, and getting that number down will surely be a main focus – if not the main focus – for him in 2017. Since INTs cost you points in fantasy football, his ascension to the next level in fantasy value involves both adding to his yards/TDs totals and subtracting from his pick totals.

As I said, I'm perfectly comfortable with Winston as my fantasy starter this year, particularly if I'm deciding to wait a bit on the quarterback position. I think Winston will cut down on his interceptions this year, and if he does that I'm almost certainly getting a quarterback who will outperform his draft position.

However, if you're reading this and you happen to be a fellow owner in one of my leagues then, um…no, I'd never draft Jameis Winston and he's going to be a total fantasy bust. That Mike Evans guy is pretty bad, too.

3. Top-Scoring Bucs? Ah, our old friend Phil, who has gifted Bucs Live with questions several times in the past. I think he meant for this one to go on the live show, too, but I'm going to steal it for my mailbag because … well, because it's really easy and will only take a couple minutest to answer! I mean, the weekend is almost here and my time is precious.

The highest-scoring season in franchise history was actually pretty recent: 2012. That team scored 389 points, or 24.3 per game, behind the first 4,000-yard passing season in team history – courtesy of Josh Freeman – and the exploits of two newcomers: rookie running back Doug Martin and wide receiver Vincent Jackson, one of the best free agent signings in team annals. Mike Williams was pretty good, too, Dallas Clark had one last semi-productive NFL season and the O-Line mostly stayed healthy.

I guess we were all pretty excited about that at the time, but I'm not sure we felt like it was the best Buccaneer offense ever. It only broke the previous franchise record by one point, set in…2000? Am I reading that right, 2000? I guess so. My immediate surface recollection of that team is that the running game was very powerful but the passing attack was relatively anemic. I guess that was the first year with Keyshawn Johnson, but no Buccaneer player even cracked 900 receiving yards. Still, that group managed to score 388 points, so… okay, I see. The defense accounted for five of the 43 touchdowns and there was another one scored on a blocked punt and another on a punt return.

Not surprisingly, the top seven scoring seasons in franchise history have come since 2000, and five of those seven have come since 2010. I don't need to belabor the point about how the NFL as a whole has steadily become a more offensive-minded, high-scoring game. The 2002 Super Bowl Buccaneers are rightfully thought of as a defensive juggernaut but the offense wasn't terrible. That one ranks fifth in team history with 346 points (admittedly, that included six return touchdowns, too).

Here are two other scoring seasons that rank in the Bucs' top six all time: 2015 and 2016. Yep, the first two with Jameis Winston at the helm. The Bucs scored 354 points last year, which isn't amazing by NFL standards but was within shouting distance of the team record. With DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard added to the mix, and with hopefully a healthier and more productive backfield, the 2017 version is likely to score even more. Truthfully, I would be a bit surprised if the Bucs did not break their single-season scoring record in 2017.