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Read and React: Week of May 19

Posted May 23, 2014

Continuing our weekly survey of, and reaction to, articles regarding the Bucs…This week, we root around in projected standings, player rankings and some musings on Dashon Goldson's status and future


STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Football Outsiders' projected NFC standings have the Bucs making a three-game improvement in 2014
  • The PFF Top 101 includes four Buccaneers, including two who rank very high
  • While Dashon Goldson is sidelined, Bucs coaches are getting a longer look at Keith Tandy and others
The NFL generates a massive amount of online media coverage, a share of which is devoted to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  Even the most avid Buccaneer fans might not catch everything that's out there.

That is why I will be taking a weekly look around the web to gather some of the analysis you might have missed.  I'll also provide my own take on those articles; I will "read and react," if you will.

The pieces that caught my attention this week included a projection of the NFC standings by Football Outsiders, the Pro Football Focus list of its Top 101 players in the NFL and ESPN.com's report on Dashon Goldson's health status.

Keep in mind, the opinions stated below are my own and don't necessarily reflect Buccaneers management, coaches or ownership.

1. Early projected NFC Standings, Aaron Schatz, ESPN.com (FootballOutsiders.com)

I don't like to link to articles behind subscription walls, and this one is part of the ESPN.com Insider package.  However, I just couldn't pass it up after writing in the mailbag yesterday about the playoff potential of the 2013 teams that won four or fewer games.  If you can access it, great.  If not, I'll have to describe it well here.  This particular ESPN.com article is actually courtesy of one of the analysts at FootballOutsiders.com.

If you're not familiar with Football Outsiders' work, they have created (and continue to create) "brand-new, in-depth statistics" that they use to bring "objective analysis" to the NFL.  If you like baseball sabermetrics, you'll like this stuff.  And even if you don't like to personally dive deep into the stats, FO uses their most advanced stats to create team and player rankings that are easy enough to understand for the layperson.

Their signature stat is DVOA, which stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average.  It strikes me as similar to baseball's WAR.  Again, you don't need to know the details of how it's calculated (but here's a description), just that higher values are better for offense and lower values are better for defense.  Here's a quick excerpt from the FO site: "DVOA is a method of evaluating teams, units, or players. It takes every single play during the NFL season and compares each one to a league-average baseline based on situation. DVOA measures not just yardage, but yardage towards a first down: Five yards on third-and-4 are worth more than five yards on first-and-10 and much more than five yards on third-and-12. Red zone plays are worth more than other plays. Performance is also adjusted for the quality of the opponent."

During a season, you can use DVOA, as it is updated every week, to determine, say, which team has the best defense or who is the most effective running back overall.  Or, as is the case with the piece of analysis in question, if you can figure out a way to estimate DVOA values for the upcoming season you can use those to project which teams will win each game and thus come up with projected standings.  Which is what FO did.

I should definitely note – because Schatz emphasizes it both in this article and on the FO site – that these were "down-and-dirty" projections they came up with in order to help ESPN's Todd McShay put together a draft order for his insanely-early 2015 mock.  They are still "building" their more complicated forecast, which will include more variables.  I'm rather looking forward to that.

One aspect of these projected standings, since they factor in a "usual regression toward the mean," is that they tend to trend toward the middle.  They end up with only one team worse than 6-10 and none better than 12-4, and Schatz himself says that is obviously not going to happen.

It certainly didn't happen last year.  The Buccaneers were one of seven teams that ended up with four or fewer wins in 2013, and that's what sparked the aforementioned mailbag discussion yesterday.  Noting that at least one team has rebounded from a season of four or fewer wins in one season to a playoff berth in the next every year since 2005, I sought to determine who was the most likely candidate to do so in 2014. Clearly, this wasn't just a clinical discussion – both me and the submitter of the question wanted the answer to be the Buccaneers, of course.

In the end, I put the Washington Redskins at the top of my rankings and hedged a bit by calling Atlanta and Tampa Bay options "2a" and "2b."  Essentially, I'm confident that the Buccaneers are going to be much improved in 2014 but I'm also aware that they face very stiff competition within the NFC South.  Same is true for the Falcons.

So, what does Football Outsiders think, at least with these early projections?  Well, they're not nearly as high on the Redskins as I am.  If you rank the seven contenders that I considered yesterday based on how many projected wins FO gives them, they would come in this order: 1. Houston, 2t. Tampa Bay, 2t. Atlanta, 4t. Cleveland, 4t. Jacksonville, 4t. Washington, 7. Oakland.  (You have to refer to Wednesday's AFC projections, too, to complete the list.)

The projections have only Houston hitting .500 from that group, with the Bucs and Falcons cresting at seven wins and the Browns, Jags and Redskins all getting six.  Oakland projects to just four wins.

What's interesting here is that each team's projections do take into account the projected DVOAs of all 16 of its opponents, so the Buccaneers' (and Falcons') tough division road is taken into account.  Given that the Redskins would appear to have an easier division road and yet they still project to fewer wins, that actually indicates some pretty strong confidence in Tampa Bay.  Of course, I should also note that FO is not particularly high on Carolina and expects them to fall from 12-4 to 8-8.  In that way, then, I may be overstating the difficulty of the Bucs' path to the playoffs when I use that as the main reason not to put them at the top of my bounce-back rankings. (The Bucs are also just 20th in strength of schedule, with first indicating the toughest schedule, which belongs to the Raiders.)

As to the author's specific write-up concerning the Buccaneers, I think we're going to have to wait until a later version of the projections to get much clarification.  Schatz calls the Buccaneers "a colossal question mark," which if you're a glass-half-full kind of guy you can probably take comfort in.  If you don't like the 7-9 projection here, this is a nod to the idea that the team might actually do much better than that (or much worse, I suppose).  Schatz notes that the Bucs' were 19th in DVOA last year, which indicates that they played better than their record suggests, and that is usually an indication of a team poised to improve the next season.  (Baseball sabermetricians look at a team's record in one-run games in a similar way.)

However, as Schatz notes, there has been an awful lot of change to the team that produced those numbers.  Pessimistically, he notes that a new coaching staff usually means a bit of a step back, and doesn't seem to look too kindly on the departure of Darrelle Revis exit or the arrival of Josh McCown.

What should we take away from these "down-and-dirty" projections?  Well, if you're a Bucs fan and feeling optimistic (as I am), look at this way.  Based largely on how the team played last year, the FO analysts see a 7-9 record.  If you are more optimistic about the play of McCown, especially after the draft additions to the offense and the return of several running backs from injury, it doesn't take much of a leap to see the team get to eight or nine wins.  If you believe the Revis loss was adequately covered by the Alterraun Verner signing and think the additions of Michael Johnson, Clinton McDonald and Dane Fletcher will work out, this unit could quickly coalesce into one of the league's best.  If that happens, too, now you can see a path to 10 or 11 wins and a return to the playoffs.

(And, as long as we're still discussing yesterday's team-rebound question, this Don Banks piece on SI.com sees the Buccaneers' situation about the same way as I do.  He's generally high on all the offseason moves and thinks Lovie Smith was a good fit but worries about their tough division and the history of teams with wholesale free agency makeovers.)

(From left) DE Michael Johnson, LB Lavonte David and DT Gerald Clayborn all placed in the Pro Football Focus Top 101

2. The PFF 101, Top to Bottom, PFF Analysis Team, ProFootballFocus.com

Well, if we're going to start off with a trip through some Football Outsider projections, I guess we should check in on Pro Football Focus while we're at it.  They, too, are in the business of "thorough analysis" of NFL performance, using their own evaluations and statistics to grade and rank players.  As with the FO projections, this is a matter of setting up a system and then going by what it spits out, so the rankings are as objective and thorough as the underlying system allows them to be.  In other words, if Houston's J.J. Watt produces a grade of 111.6 and no other player produces a higher number, than J.J. Watt is the best player in football that season.

That's exactly how PFF saw it, by the way.  The good news for Buccaneer fans is that you don't have to move very far down the list to encounter a Tampa Bay player or two.

Anyone who consumed PFF's work last year (or saw our own frequent references to it here on Buccaneers.com) won't be surprised to hear that the site is very high on both Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David.  Those two NFL All-Pros come in at fourth and fifth, respectively on the Top 101 list.  Only Watt, St. Louis DE Robert Quinn and Denver QB Peyton Manning graded higher.

Everyone in the top 10 got an extensive write-up, and we'll get back to that in a minute.  First, however, I should note that there are actually four Buccaneer players among the top 101.  Simply dividing that 101 by 32 teams would give you an average of three per team, but of course it doesn't work out that way, of course.  The Super Bowl Champion Seahawks lead the way with eight players, while Denver places seven and Cleveland (!) has six, along with Kansas City.

Now, I'm counting that in terms of where the players are now.  While this list was compiled using 2013 performances, you still want to know how many of those best players from last year are on your team right now, don't you?  I found some links to this article misleading in regards to Tampa Bay, by the way, as they usually mentioned "five Buccaneers" on the list.  To get to five you have to count David and McCoy plus newcomers Michael Johnson and Alterraun Verner and the departed Darrelle Revis.  You can't have it both ways; the Bucs either have four players on the list, or three.  I'll go with four and count Johnson and Verner.

That's the same number as the New England Patriots, by the way (Tom Brady doesn't show up until #90!).  It's also the same numbers as Carolina; New Orleans led the way in the division with five while only got one.  Of course, healthier seasons for Roddy White and Julio Jones would probably change that, both for them and for quarterback Matt Ryan.  Only Jacksonville and Oakland were shut out.

Johnson comes in at #83, Verner at #93.  We should not ignore, of course, that Revis is #18, or that Michael Bennett, who departed Tampa after the 2012 season, is #16.  Still, two of the top five and four of the top 101 seems like a good start.  The return of a healthy Carl Nicks and a healthy Doug Martin would give the Bucs a shot at adding another player or two to the list next year, and we could also possibly hope for a rise from, say, Mark Barron or Dashon Goldson or Vincent Jackson.

Sam Monson handles the individual write-up for McCoy and calls him easily the best defensive tackle in the game last year, with Ndamukong Suh a bit behind and the rest of the field a ways behind those two.  That's quite a distinction for McCoy, because the NFL is littered with strong DTs right now, if one believes this Top 101 list.  Besides McCoy and Suh you have Kyle Williams (26), Jurrell Casey (27), Marcell Dareus (29), Dontari Poe (30), Terrance Knighton (50), Randy Starks (55), Brandon Mebane (56) and Damon Harrison (91).

Monson goes so far as to say McCoy would have been an easy choice for NFL Defensive Player of the Year in many seasons, just not one in which Watt and Quinn were so over-the-top dominant.  Here's the best part for Buccaneer fans: The author also stresses that, by the PFF grading system, McCoy excelled with little help around him.  The rest of Tampa Bay's defensive line did not grade out particularly well.  Now the Bucs have added another player on the Top 101 list to their front line, as well as defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, who had 5.5 sacks in a reserve role in Seattle last year.  If this help takes some of the attention away from McCoy, he could have an even more dominant season in 2014…though there's not much farther up the list he can go.

3. Dashon Goldson eyes training camp, Pat Yasinskas, ESPN.com

This is strictly reporting by Yasinskas, not an opinion piece, but there are a couple of things worth noting here.

First, this is essentially a confirmation of what Lovie Smith hinted at in early April, when the offseason program began.  Here are the relevant parts of what Smith said at the time:

"We don’t play a game anytime soon, so there is time, and everything we’re doing right now is to get ready for the season. For some guys that just means rehabbing and getting in the best position for the next time we – once we leave training camp, so that’s just a part of it. I know what Dashon Goldson, Mark Barron, some of those guys [can do] that haven’t done an awful lot. … I know they’re going to line up for us once we get started, whether they go in OTAs or not. We have a lot of mental work to do and for guys like that, for some of the veterans that have been around, it’s not like we need to [see them].  We need to see what some of the players [can do that] we don’t know a lot about. … A guy like Keith Tandy and some of those players that haven’t done an awful lot at the safety position, evaluating them is important. But believe me Mark Barron, Dashon Goldson, those guys will tee it up that first game.”

At the time, I took that to mean that Goldson probably wouldn't be rushed back into action before training camp, and Yasinskas probably did, too.  Here, of course, he's got confirmation from the player himself, so it's worth reporting.  That said, readers shouldn't take this new piece of information as a set-back from what Smith discussed in April.

Smith happened to discuss the issue again on Tuesday and reiterated some of the same points: That he already is confident in what Goldson can do in the Bucs' new defense, and that the side benefit of his absence is a longer look at Keith Tandy.

 “[it's] critical for us to have great safety play – it’s been like that since the beginning of time and it hasn’t changed," said Smith.  "We’re as good as anybody around at the safety position. I know Dashon Goldson hasn’t [practiced], he’s one of the guys that’s watching right now. Mark Barron is getting back out there, but they have video and both of them are perfect matches for what we’re going to do."

Despite the lack of concern regarding Goldson's timetable for a return, his injury and the one that has limited Barron so far are perfect reminders as to the reason the Buccaneers signed former Bears safety Major Wright in free agency.  That didn't look like an area of major need, and it involved an established starter coming to a team that already had two established starting safeties.  Smith, however, thinks it's likely the team will need significant contributions from Wright and Tandy before the season is through.

"Major Wright has started a lot of games in this league and played a certain type of football which is good football when we’ve been together," said Smith.  "Keith Tandy also…we have a group of guys and we’re going to need them. Just about every year I’ve been a head football coach we’ve gone at least…on good years we’ve gone down to our third safety, most years our fourth safety that will have to start for us during the year. With those guys being out right now, it is giving us an opportunity to look at some of the other players and for them to get valuable reps and they’re taking advantage of it."

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