Four games into the 2017, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston was "on pace" to throw for 4,792 yards by season's end. Winston, of course, won't throw for that many yards in his third season (maybe someday…he is just 23 years old!); it looks far more likely that he'll finish somewhere in the 3,000-yard range.
That's an illustration of something surely obvious to most: Relying on a player's "pace" of production just one quarter into the season to stay the same is a shaky presumption, at best. Even half-season stats are usually not solid enough to double into a 16-game projection. Tight end Cameron Brate had 32 catches for 414 yards and four touchdowns after eight games; double that and you get a 64-818-8 line. Four games later, however, Brate is at 37 catches for 481 yards and six touchdowns, so the scoring pace has stayed the same but the receiving projections have fallen to 49 catches for 641 yards. Those are still excellent numbers for a tight end, by the way.
There were, of course, circumstances that couldn't be foreseen four games into the season. In this case, the main was the injury to Winston's throwing shoulder in Week Six. He missed most of that game in Arizona, played two more full games through the discomfort – one very productive, one not – then hurt his shoulder again in New Orleans and missed half of that game. A three-week rest followed before Winston returned with a strong 270-yard, two-touchdown performance at Green Bay. Winston's absence undoubtedly affected Brate's numbers, too, as the two have an obvious rapport, especially in the red zone. In Winston's first game back, Brate caught his first two touchdown passes since Week Six.
In essence, Winston has played seven full games this season, plus two partial outings and three contests spent on the sideline. He hits the three-quarter pole with 2190 passing yards. There are a number of ways to predict what Winston might finish the season with now, but here's one: Isolate his seven full games and figure out his average production in those, then multiply by four (the number of games remaining) and add to his current total. That's assuming, of course, that Winston makes it through the final month of the season unscathed.
That formula comes up with a projection of 3,368 yards and 19 touchdowns for Winston. That's probably a bit optimistic on the yardage total, given that the Buccaneers have games remaining against the sixth, 10th and 11th-ranked pass defenses, and because the per-game pace we used was skewed by some very prolific early-season performances. Winston's last 300-yard game was at Buffalo in Week Seven.
Still, even a pace of 203 passing yards per game over the last month would get Winston to 3,000 passing yards and allow him to join Brad Johnson and Josh Freeman as the only quarterbacks in franchise history with three such campaigns. Winston had already become the first quarterback in NFL history to open his career with consecutive 4,000-yard seasons. While he won't extend that streak to three seasons, he is still rising up the all-time chart for most passing yards in a player's first three seasons.
Since we're now 75% through the 2017 season, making 16-game projections is a little safer. There are still plenty of variables, though – such as the upcoming pass-defenses the Bucs will face – so instead of making predictions we're going to look at what some Buccaneers need to average over the last four games in order to hit certain milestones. We'll start with the one just mentioned above, Winston's place on the list of most passing yards in a player's first three seasons.
Player: Jameis Winston
Target: 11,432 passing yards from 2015-17
Target Pace: 277.5 passing yards per game
First, let's start with the top 10 list as it stands before this weekend's game.
If not for his injury, Winston would probably already be in third place on this list, or at least knocking on Dan Marino's door. As it stands, the top two spots are now out of Winston's reach, as he's not going to average 491.3 passing yards over the last four games. The other seven spots above him are in play, though, so let's shoot for third place.
To get there, Winston needs 1,110 yards over the last four games. That 277.5-yard pace seems very reasonable; he had 270 yards in his first game back at Green Bay and he's likely to be more and more comfortable as he gets farther removed from his extended time off. If you want to be a little less aggressive, Winston would need to average 244.3 passing yards per game over the last month to pass Cam Newton for fifth place on the list. Winston's career average is 251.8 yards per game.
Player: Mike Evans
Target: Fourth consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season
Target Pace: 66.3 receiving yards per game
Evans is already one of just five players in NFL history to begin his career with three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. He could become just the third to make it four in a row. Here's the exclusive five-man club to which Evans belongs:
( Through 12 games; + on injured reserve)
Jefferson was the first to get 1,000 yards in his first three seasons but he missed the mark in Year Four and in fact never hit 1,000 again. Randy Moss and A.J. Green kept their streaks alive, but Beckham will not get the opportunity to do so as he's been on injured reserve since Week Five. Evans, however, has a very reasonable target pace to get to 1,000 yards once again.
Evans has played 11 games this season (he was suspended for one) and he's had 67 or more receiving yards in seven of them. Surprisingly, he does not yet have a 100-yard game this season. Just one such supersized outing in the next four would make him a near-lock to hit 1,000 yards, barring injury.
*Player: Cameron Brate
Target: 9 touchdown receptions
Target Pace: 0.75 touchdown receptions per game
It's probably easier to think of this one not in terms of pace but rather in terms of his total production needed. Simply put, three more touchdown catches would give him sole possession of the single-season record in franchise history among tight ends. Brate already has a share of that record, scoring eight times last year to match the mark originally set by Jimmie Giles in 1985.
Brate got to his six touchdowns in stutter-start fashion. He had a rather impressive streak of four straight games with a scoring reception (Games 2-5) but was then shut out for six weeks before adding two more last Sunday in Green Bay. It's not hard to identify the factors that led to that pattern – Brate's continued targets in the red zone made him more of a priority for opposing defenses as the season went on, and Winston's energy almost surely affected Brate's numbers. Winston and Brate have a very good connection in the red zone, as evidenced by last week's two scores.
Expecting any player to catch three touchdowns in a four-game span is a bit much. Brate is "on pace" for another eight-TD season, but pace means less with such a small number. Another two-touchdown game would give him a shot; he has two of those in his career.
Player: Pat Murray
Target: 93% field goal success rate
Target Pace: 100% field goal success rate
Kicker Patrick Murray is ostensibly chasing a record that he has almost no chance of breaking, not because of any flaw in his performance but because he is unlikely to get enough opportunities.
Since taking over as the Buccaneers' kicker in Week Five, after Nick Folk was released, Murray has been fantastic, hitting on 14 of his 16 field goal tries. One of his two misses was a 55-yarder in New Orleans on which he actually made his first attempt but only after the Saints had called a timeout right before the snap. On the retry, Murray missed.
That 14-of-16 performance gives him a field goal success rate of 87.5%, and that's already the second-best single-season percentage in franchise history (minimum 10 attempts). It's not terribly far behind the record of 92.9% by Connor Barth in 2011, but every field goal Murray makes over the last four weeks will only bump up his own mark incrementally.
Murray has missed twice; Barth also only missed twice in 2011. The difference is, Barth had 28 attempts. The math for Murray is easy, he needs to make all of his field goals, and he needs to get 13 more attempts. That's highly unlikely, given that he so far has had 14 attempts in eight games. Still, every kick Murray makes without a miss down the stretch will solidify his grip on the second-best field goal season in franchise history.