After what seems like an eternity, we have finally arrived at opening weekend. Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans and fantasy football owners alike have been counting down the days until kickoff. If you happen to belong to both groups, then not only have you arrived at the beginning of the season, but you've also found your way to the intersection of those two interests. Welcome to our new regular feature here on Buccaneers.com, which takes a look at how Tampa Bay's weekly matchup may affect your fantasy football decisions
This week's notes:
1. Fantasy Gold in the Running Game?
It's no secret that the defenses for both the Buccaneers and their Week One opponent, the Carolina Panthers, struggled against the run in 2011. That was obviously an important thing to know last fall when it came to running back matchups, but will that remain the case in 2012, and specifically in Week One?
Both defensive units have undergone makeovers this season, so it's far too soon to tell. The Buccaneers have some important new run-stopping additions in Lavonte David and Mark Barron and also now have a healthy Gerald McCoy. The Panthers have added Luke Kuechly and are getting several other linebackers back from injury. Still, if you want to use last year's results as a basis, and that's a fair thing to do until more information comes in, you should be starting this game's running backs.
Tampa Bay's Doug Martin has displayed a number of nifty moves throughout training camp and the team's preseason games. He will be facing a Panthers front seven that allowed 130.8 rushing yards per game and 18 rushing touchdowns last season. Carolina's most notable additions will be the return of LB Jon Beason coming off a torn Achilles injury in 2011, and their first round draft pick, Kuechly.
Fantasy team owners who drafted Carolina Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart will be paying close attention to Stewart's ankle. The Panthers listed Stewart as questionable on their Friday injury report. Facing the Bucs defense that ranked last in yards per game and touchdowns allowed (156.1 and 26), the Panthers running back corps is expected to have a decent outing.
Should Jonathan Stewart not play on Sunday, DeAngelo Williams owners should be sure to insert him in their starting lineup. If Stewart does see playing time, there will be some headaches as the two will split carries. Add in the touchdown-hawking RB acquisition Mike Tolbert, and dangerous rushing QB Cam Newton, and the rushing game in Carolina from a fantasy standpoint is a tough one to decipher.
2. Difference-Making Sleepers
After the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants game on Wednesday night, the fantasy football world has been buzzing about Cowboys WR Kevin Ogletree, the team's number three receiver. Ogletree finished the first game of the season with eight receptions, 114 yards and the first two touchdowns of his four-year career.
This just goes to show you the power of the fantasy football sleeper. Sunday afternoon's faceoff between the Bucs and Panthers will showcase three names to watch that might just fall into the fantasy sleeper category…at least for now.
Buccaneer WR Mike Williams is owned in 60 percent of all fantasy football leagues and listed as a starter in roughly four percent. In 2010, you may recall, Williams led all NFL rookies with 964 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. His numbers dropped off in 2011, but the 2012 campaign looks promising as he will line up as the second receiver behind Pro-Bowler Vincent Jackson. With Carolina's best corner, Chris Gamble, potentially shadowing Vincent Jackson all afternoon, Williams could benefit from his new number-two role.
Each team also starts a tight end that might turn some heads on Sunday. The Buccaneers acquired TE Dallas Clark in the offseason after trading Kellen Winslow to the Seattle Seahawks in May. Clark has dealt with injuries in the last two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, but looks to rebound to the numbers he achieved in 2008 and 2009. He has been healthy throughout the preseason and productive during training camp and team practices. Tampa Bay tight ends recorded 91 receptions last season. Assuming that QB Josh Freeman targets Clark the way he targeted Winslow last season, Clark could end the year on a much higher percentage of fantasy rosters than he is currently.
The Carolina Panthers, meanwhile, will be relying solely on Greg Olsen as their starter since choosing not to re-sign Jeremy Shockey after the 2011 season. The two combined for 995 receiving yards and nine touchdowns last year. If QB Cam Newton continues dropping down to a tight end when he finds himself in a rough situation, Greg Olsen could easily become the Panthers' most effective receiver outside of Steve Smith.
3. Which Cam Newton Will We See?
It would be irresponsible of us to offer a fantasy football post about Sunday's matchup at Raymond James Stadium without discussing Carolina quarterback Cam Newton. All eyes will be on Newton as he enters his sophomore season following a 2011 campaign that included a Pro Bowl appearance, AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, and NFL records for passing yards by a rookie and single-season rushing touchdowns by a quarterback.
He was a fantasy must-start in every game last season after establishing himself immediately, but we must ask: Did opposing defenses figure him out last season, at least to some degree? Will we see a dynamic repeat performance, or will his numbers be more along the line of what he produced later in his rookie campaign? Cam Newton is likely to be a star again in 2012, but from a fantasy standpoint, which Panthers quarterback will we see in 2012?
In Cam Newton's first eight games last season, he averaged 299 passing yards per game, fifth best in the NFL. He added 12 passing touchdowns and nine rushing touchdowns. His yards per attempt was also the fifth highest in the NFL.
In the final half of the season, he averaged 207 passing yards per game, 18th in the NFL, with nine passing and five rushing touchdowns.
It must be noted that in his two games against the Buccaneers last season he managed four rushing touchdowns and four passing touchdowns, throwing no interceptions. Again, however, Tampa Bay has made significant strides in changing their defense. New Defensive Coordinator, Bill Sheridan, has instilled a more aggressive approach. Barron and David, both added in this season's draft, will start and are the kind of athletes that can adjust to a run-pass threat. McCoy has returned from injury after a strong first six games last season; he didn't play in either Panther game in 2011. Defensive ends Michael Bennett and Adrian Clayborn also look like a growing strength.
Will this new-look defense have better luck against the dynamic Cam Newton? Will game tapes help the Buccaneers corral Newton similarly to how he ended last season? Newton was gone in the first two rounds of most fantasy drafts in August, so he will undoubtedly be started by his owners in Week One. Time will tell if he delivers the sort of numbers fantasy players came to expect last year.