Many fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers also enjoy the world of fantasy football. Where the two intersect is a territory that can be particularly entertaining for Buccaneer rooters. Here we begin a regular feature looking at the ways in which recent developments on the gridiron for Tampa Bay may affect the fantasy game.
This week's notes:
1. Solid Line?
We start by acknowledging the elephant in the room: Davin Joseph was lost for the season to a knee injury on Friday night and that fact has to at least be considered when choosing where to draft the Buccaneers' skill-position players in fantasy football.
Joseph is obviously very good at his job. He went to the Pro Bowl for a second time last year, and in the months that followed the Bucs added his 2012 Pro Bowl teammate, former Saint Carl Nicks, to play the other guard position. Tampa Bay brass believed, for good reason, that it's offensive line was going to be one of the team's great strengths. That was particularly important because Greg Schiano's coaching staff intends to have a power running game at the core of its attack.
All of those plans will go on, even if they have to do so without Joseph this year. There is still a lot of talent on the Bucs' offensive line, and the duo of Doug Martin and LeGarrette Blount will still get plenty of work. The Bucs will ask Joseph's replacement – whether it be Ted Larsen, Derek Hardman or someone else – to play as well as Joseph, or at least try.
But will Joseph's absence be enough of a problem for Martin and Blount that it should hurt their draft stock? It says here: No. Blount averaged 4.6 yards per carry over his first two Tampa Bay seasons, and that was with just one Pro Bowl guard in front of him. He still has that in Nicks, who many considered the best guard in all of football last year. It would be a stretch to declare that Tampa Bay's O-Line will definitely be as good without Joseph as it would have been with him, but it will still be very good.
For his part, Martin has already displayed an array of impressive moves, the kind that allow a running back to get yards even when faced with less than ideal holes up front. The proof will be on the field when the regular season begins in two weeks, but for now it could be a mistake to downgrade one of your Buccaneer targets in fantasy football and risk missing out on him.
2. A Return to Fantasy Relevance?
From 1997 through 2008, Tampa Bay had the most consistently effective defense in the NFL, ranking among the NFL's top 10 at the end of 12 of those 13 years, including eight top-five finishes. In the best years in that range (1999, 2002 and 2005 come to mind), the Bucs were also an excellent team-defense pick for fantasy football players. That has been less true in recent years as the team has gone through a very thorough transition from the Derrick Brooks-John Lynch-Simeon Rice-Warren Sapp era (well, thorough with the exception of Ronde Barber, the still-excelling tie between the two eras).
That's not going to change in your drafts this year. So far in the Yahoo fantasy leagues, the Bucs are second-to-last in average draft position for the defenses, just ahead of Indianapolis. Of course, it's essentially a 12-20 team tie for that position, because most leagues have just 10-12 drafters and most of them take only one team defense. The other defenses are just going undrafted in most instances, but there are plenty of fantasy players who "stream" defenses from week to week and will be constantly looking for the best matchups.
The question is, will the Bucs' defense be an attractive play at some point this year? It's far too early to tell, of course, but there have been encouraging signs in the preseason. Over the last two games, Tampa Bay's first-team defense has forced nine three-and-outs in 12 possessions against the starters for Tennessee and New England. The Bucs are working on a whole new defense under Schiano and coordinator Bill Sheridan, and it looks like they will have new starters in about six of their 11 positions. That includes two rookies in strong safety Mark Barron and weakside linebacker Lavonte David. That is obviously a lot of questions to be answered, but few would argue that the team has amassed a lot of raw talent on that side of the ball. In addition, the new defensive scheme appears to be very aggressive, so if it comes together quickly, that could mean a lot of sacks and turnovers, like Barron's pick-six against the Patriots on Friday night.
You can obviously take a wait-and-see attitude on how good the Bucs' defense will be this year. If the early results are good, you might want to target matchups against Washington in Week Four (rookie quarterback), Kansas City in Week Six (27th-ranked offense in 2011, Bucs coming off a bye week) or Minnesota in Week Eight (if the Adrian Peterson comeback isn't strong). Unfortunately, there are a lot of very good offenses on the rest of the Bucs' schedule, but if the defense manages to be really good, the Bucs will play the St. Louis Rams in Week 16, which is championship week in most leagues. That could be a matchup worth playing.
3. Quest for Sleepers
Unfortunately, if you're still obsessively preparing for a fantasy draft or two, the fourth week of the preseason isn't going to provide you with much new evidence of use. Most teams will play their starters only sparingly, if at all, and it will be hard to glean anything particularly solid out of reserves playing reserves. It's a very useful game for NFL coaches, who are looking for ways to make the final separations on their depth charts before the roster cutdown to 53 players, but you're not going to find the answer to whether you should draft Vincent Jackson or DeSean Jackson.
You just might get a glimpse of a sleeper or two, though. For instance, it's not entirely clear who is third on the Buccaneers' receiver depth chart after Jackson and Mike Williams. Arrelious Benn might have already nailed that down if not for the knee injury that has kept him sidelined since late July. Benn could conceivably return to action this week, though, which would provide some useful evidence for fantasy players. Either way, there should be a number of slot-receiver candidates in action in Washington, including Preston Parker, Sammie Stroughter and newcomer Jordan Shipley. Buc fans might also get a better feel for the immediate fortunes of rookie RB Michael Smith, who has looked good on kickoff returns this preseason and ran well against New England in the second half Friday. Smith would obviously be a very deep sleeper in fantasy football, but if he's a threat on kickoff returns, that could make the Bucs' team defense more attractive.