For many fantasy football players – well, those whose 2010 teams weren't sunk by injuries or Shonn Greene – Week 15 of the NFL season was the playoff semi-finals.
And for those fantasy teams that made it into the playoffs on the strength of Aaron Rodgers' weekly exploits, that was a problem.
Rodgers had exited the Packers' Week 14 loss at Detroit with a concussion (dooming many a quarterfinal fantasy team in the process) and he wasn't expected to play the following Sunday in New England. Woe to those teams that weren't carrying a viable backup quarterback option.
Josh Freeman fit that category in many leagues in 2010. Chances are he'll be thought of as more than that when fantasy players begin drafting for the 2011 season.
In fact, Freeman's Tampa Bay Buccaneers are likely to be more relevant on draft day in 2011 than they have been at any point since fantasy sports blossomed into a nationwide obsession. Freeman, LeGarrette Blount, Mike Williams and Kellen Winslow make up a quartet of likely starters in any league, and sleepers may include Arrelious Benn, Cadillac Williams, Connor Barth and the Buccaneers' defense.
Freeman will be the most intriguing case among Buccaneer players in 2011. By one popular scoring method (one point per 25 yards passing, six points per touchdown pass, -2 points per interception, 10 points per rushing or receiving yard), Freeman was the eighth highest scoring fantasy player in all of football last year. Of those above him – in order, Tom Brady, Rodgers, Michael Vick, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees and Arian Foster – only Vick and Foster weren't common first or second-round picks, and Foster was a popular sleeper last summer.
Obviously, that list is dominated by quarterbacks (the next 11 players on the list were all passers, too), so position scarcity and the relative difference between the first and the 10th player at each position plays a big part in decision-making on draft day. No one would suggest that 18 of the first 19 selections should be quarterbacks. But the fact is that Freeman was the seventh-highest scoring quarterback in 2010, and he's on an offense that seems to be on an uphill trajectory. How quickly might fantasy drafters be jumping on the Buccaneer passer next summer?
That's a good question, one that will surely be debated extensively in the lead-up to next season. Let's look at five more fantasy-related questions involving Buccaneers players and the 2010 and 2011 seasons:
How much of an impact did Buccaneer players have on the fantasy world in 2010?
Probably more than most people realize.
There are certainly many different ways to score a fantasy league, and there are definitely two schools of thought on whether passing touchdowns should be six points or something less, most commonly four. Still, the basics mentioned above are a very common framework, so we'll stick with them for the rest of this article. For kickers and defense, we'll provide scoring definitions as we go. We're also not worrying about negative points for fumbles, just to keep the analysis simple.
Freeman has already been discussed to some degree above. It's true that he was more valuable in the second half of the season (1,729 yards, 15 touchdowns, one interception, 162 rushing yards) than the first (1,722 yards, 10 touchdowns, five interceptions, 202 rushing yards), but that might have kept him in play on the waiver wire in some leagues.
As injuries either long-term (Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford) or short-term (Vick, Rodgers, Cassel) arose, Freeman likely proved to be a very valuable fill-in down the stretch. He had at least one touchdown pass in each of the last 13 games of the season; only Brady, Brees and Atlanta's Matt Ryan could say the same thing. Fantasy players love big weekends from their quarterbacks but not as much as they despise those games where they score far below their projections. Over the last eight games of the season, Freeman scored below 17 points only twice, and never below 13 points.
Blount finished the season as the 23rd leading scorer among running backs, but that's misleading. By season's end, he was likely a weekly starter for most owners, particularly in league's with two running backs and a RB/WR flex position. Blount didn't become an active part of the Bucs' rushing attack until Week Seven; from that point through the end of the season he was the third-leading rusher in the NFL, behind only Jamaal Charles and Foster, and he was only four yards behind Foster.
Using just rushing yardage and TD totals, Blount was the fifth highest scoring back over those last 11 weeks, behind only Foster, Michael Turner, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Charles. Like Freeman, Blount was very helpful down the stretch, with three 100-yard games and two touchdowns in the last five weeks. Of course, it's fair to point out that we did not consider receiving totals in that analysis, and Blount was not an active pass-catcher. That certainly would give a boost to such backs as Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice.
Williams, on the other hand, was a fantasy force throughout the season. Using the above scoring rules, he finished 11th among all receivers, right between Buffalo's Stevie Johnson and Dallas' Miles Austin. Williams' greatest asset was his nose for the end zone; he had fewer yards, for instance, than Austin, DeSean Jackson, Larry Fitzgerald or Santana Moss but scored more touchdowns than all of them. Not only did Williams rack up 11 touchdowns, but he had the decency to treat his owners to at least one score in 10 different games. That is exactly the type of consistent scorer that is so coveted on draft day.
Winslow gives the Buccaneers three players in the top 10 in their categories in fantasy scoring; he was seventh, just behind Chris Cooley and just ahead of Tony Gonzalez. Winslow was consistent enough down the stretch to stay in the starting lineup for many owners, as he averaged just under 50 yards a game during the last eight weeks and scored all five of his touchdowns in the second half of the season. Those who stuck with Winslow for their championship games were rewarded handsomely, as he exploded for 98 yards and two touchdowns (21 points) in Week 16.
Is Freeman a top-10 quarterback in 2011?
It's hard to conclude otherwise.
Freeman's 25/6 touchdown/interception ratio was the ninth best in NFL history among quarterbacks with at least 20 TD passes, and even Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson admits that those numbers are so good they'll be hard to match every year.
However, that's not an indication that Freeman's fantasy scoring will go down. On the contrary, he appears to be on the rise, if only because the Buccaneers' offense as a whole seems healthier and laden with more potential than it has in, well…perhaps ever. The Buccaneers kept the offense rolling in the second half despite multiple injuries along the offensive line, and while it was pleasing to discover the NFL viability of such players as undrafted rookie Derek Hardman it will certainly be a boost to get Jeff Faine and Davin Joseph back next season.
In addition, Freeman's receiving corps should only get better. Williams, Benn, Dezmon Briscoe and Preston Parker were all rookies in 2010 and Sammie Stroughter was only a second-year player. Judging from his dedicated approach to the 2010 offseason – which produced impressive results this past fall – Freeman is almost certain to take the lead in working with his young receiving corps throughout the spring and summer. The Buccaneers purposely surrounded Freeman with young pass-catchers with the strategy that the entire offensive core would grow together into a formidable unit.
There is also the matter of Freeman's quietly effective work with his feet. Only Vick ran for more yards among quarterbacks this season, and those are hidden fantasy points that the savvy drafter can rely on. Even if a quarterback only runs for 20 or 30 yards in a game, that can negate any points he may lose by throwing an interception. Freeman ran for 20 or more yards in 10 of his 16 games this past season.
And, most simply, Freeman was already a top-10 passer in 2010. Obviously, he exceeded expectations for many fantasy players, but now he has established something of a baseline. Freeman was a consistent performer throughout the season and a very high-scoring one during the final month. End-of-season performances tend to linger in the minds of drafters the following summer (see Foster, Arian), so expect Freeman to be among the top 10 quarterbacks off the board.
Where will you have to move on Blount in your 2011 drafts?
It sure feels like the second round, or perhaps the first half of the third round.
Yes, Blount was the 23rd highest scoring running back last year, but again he didn't really get involved until Week Seven, and that will surely not be the case next year. If you project his performance over the last seven weeks to a full 16-game season, you get 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns. Using just the simple yards and TD points mentioned above, that would be good for 184 fantasy points, and that would have tied Steven Jackson for 14th among all running backs in 2010.
Would 14 running backs go in the first two rounds of a 12-team draft? It wouldn't be a surprise in most leagues, in which running backs are at a premium. Obviously, a handful of quarterbacks will come off the board in the first two rounds, but even six passers and four receivers taken would still leave room for 14 backs.
Perhaps the 14th-rated running back would seem like a third-round pick, but here's one consideration that could push Blount into the second round: Fantasy players love upside.
Generally, fantasy players don't win their league because they drafted Adrian Peterson first overall and he did exactly what he was projected to do. Fantasy players win by identifying – whether through luck or skill – those players who produce more than their projections predict. Some owners nabbed Arian Foster in the third or fourth round this past summer, and he went on to lead all backs in scoring. The Bucs' own Mike Williams was a find, a potential 10th or 12th-round pick that scored like a second or third-rounder. Seattle's Mike Williams was almost certainly not drafted in your league, but the astute owner who picked him up got at least a part-time starter.
Blount's stock seemed to be continually on the rise in 2010. Won't some fantasy owners roll the dice that that arrow continues to point upward in 2011, and the Buc back works his way into the NFL's top 10? If he can increase his touchdown total, that would not be at all far-fetched.
One issue may be Blount's role in the passing game. He caught only five passes for 14 yards in his rookie campaign, and it's unclear how much he will be used in that capacity in 2011. Of the top 15 running back scorers in 2010, only Michael Turner, Rashard Mendenhall and BenJarvus Green-Ellis didn't pad their stats with at least 300 receiving yards. Foster, for instance, had 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground plus 604 receiving yards and two more scores.
What fantasy players will like about Blount, on the other hand, is that he does not appear to be in a complicated backfield situation in Tampa. From Week Seven on, Blount had 191 carries to Cadillac Williams' 49. Earnest Graham had six carries in that span. Williams, if he returns, is clearly a valuable third-down weapon, but Blount is just as clearly the Bucs' man on first and second downs.
Is a sophomore slump in the offing for Williams?
It is natural for a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan to wonder about this issue, given Michael Clayton's career trajectory. A first-round pick in 2004, Clayton had a marvelous rookie season with 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns. However, he fell off to 32 catches in 2005, has since had no more than 38 grabs in any season and has added just three more touchdowns.
But, other than the fact that they both wore Buccaneer uniforms, how much of a connection is there between Clayton and Williams? Ronde Barber would be the only player in common between '04 and '10, and the team has a new offensive coordinator, a new quarterback and a drastically different coaching staff. The Bucs went through three different starting quarterbacks in 2004 and two different starters in 2005; barring injury, Josh Freeman will be starting every game of Williams' first two seasons.
And Clayton's pattern is not the norm for breakout rookie receivers. Wideouts who get 1,000 yards in their debut campaign aren't common anyway; you need to cover the period of 1978-2006 to get 10 of them. The other nine are Marques Colston, Anquan Boldin, Randy Moss, Terry Glenn, Joey Galloway, Bill Brooks, Ernest Givins, Cris Collinsworth and John Jefferson.
Just from that list of names you can probably guess how this analysis will go. The only other two who saw significant declines in their second year were Boldin and Glenn, and both saw that second season cut significantly by injury. Boldin fell from 1,377 yards to 623 but played in only 10 games due to a knee injury. He has since had four more 1,000-yard seasons. Glenn suffered through a variety of injuries in his sophomore campaign and caught just 27 passes, but he had three more 1,000-yard seasons and finished his career with nearly 600 receptions.
Brooks, Givins and Collinsworth all had their 1,000-yard rookie seasons right before a strike year, so you have to do a little prorating to see if they had any falloff. Brooks went from 61-1,131-8 to 51-722-3, but that latter number was in just 12 games. That projects to 68-963-4. Givins went from 61-1,062-3 to 53-933-6 in 12 games; his full 1987 projection would be 71-1244-8. And Collinsworth went from 67-1,009-8 to 49-700-1 in just nine games; his projection for a full second season would be 87-1,244-2.
None of the other players on the list saw a dropoff and all of them went on to extremely good NFL careers. Now, Williams actually did not hit the 1,000-yard mark in 2010, but he did lead all rookies with 964 yards. His 11 touchdowns were also more than any rookie on the above list had except Moss and Jefferson. Williams just missed that four-digit plateau, but his season is obviously comparable to those above, and there's no evidence there to suggest any sort of dropoff, barring injuries.
Further good news for fantasy owners is that Williams is clearly Freeman's most trusted target in the red zone. Williams' 11 touchdowns are a single-season Buccaneers record – for all players, not just rookies – and he only had one game in which he scored twice, as mentioned above. Williams didn't inflate his stats with two or three big games; he was always on Freeman's mind when the end zone was near. Witness the Buccaneers' very last touchdown of the season. It was fourth-and-one at the New Orleans Saints' 18, and OC Greg Olson dialed up a tricky little play in which Freeman faked a QB dive, then backed out to throw a pass. Intended target Kellen Winslow was mugged at the line by two defenders and two other Saints were sprinting untouched at Freeman, so the quarterback simply lobbed a pass to Williams, who was in the end but well-covered. It was purely a confidence move by Freeman – he believed his receiver could out-fight the defender for the ball, which is exactly what happened.
In addition, Williams continues to be driven by the fact that he was passed over in the draft until the fourth round. He set lofty goals at the beginning of his rookie campaign, wanting to win the league's Rookie of the Year award, and he worked tirelessly in pursuit of them. Expect more of the same during the 2011 offseason, as well as more of an opportunity for him to build chemistry with Freeman. A sophomore slump would be extremely surprising.
Can the Bucs' defense get back to being a top fantasy option?
If you're the type of fantasy player who jumps on a defense earlier than most of your draftmates, you've probably been focusing on teams like the Steelers, Ravens and Jets. There was a time, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, where the Buccaneers were likely to be among the first defenses off the board.
Could Tampa Bay be returning to that form? Fantasy owners will probably want to see the Bucs prove it with a big season before putting their defense back at the top of the list, but there is little doubt that this young squad has a handful of intriguing playmakers.
The Buccaneers already ranked ninth in points allowed in 2010, which is usually part of the fantasy scoring formula, so that's a good sign. That's particularly true considering how many injuries the team suffered in the second half of the season and how many young and inexperienced players were thrust into key roles.
Just as important – or perhaps more so given the league set-up – for a fantasy defense is the big play. As Bucs Head Coach Raheem Morris says, you want your defense to "score and get the ball back." Lumping in kickoff and punt returns (which are commonly part of a defensive payout in fantasy football), the Buccaneers had four return touchdowns in 2010. That was tied for the 10th best mark in football.
Most leagues also give points for sacks and interceptions (often two points for each turnover and one for each sack), even if they don't result in touchdowns. The Bucs had half that formula covered in 2010. Tampa Bay was seventh in the NFL in interceptions per pass play, led by third-year cornerback Aqib Talib, who had six despite missing the last four games with a hip injury. Interceptions are notoriously fickle, as talented defensive backs may get seven or eight one year and one or two the next, depending upon opportunity. That said, Talib appears to be one of those rare defenders who will produce INTs every year; in his first three seasons he has posted four, five and six picks.
The Bucs were not particularly strong in the sacks department in 2010, but that will certainly be a point of emphasis heading into 2011. That is, in fact, the most obvious area in which the team needs improvement. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was just starting to hit his stride, with three sacks in his final three games, before he was felled by a biceps injury, and fellow rookie DT hardly had a chance to get going before his season was ended by injury. If the Bucs can get to the quarterback more often in 2011, and if the team continues to follow Morris' lead in emphasizing scoring on defense, the Bucs could indeed be one of the better fantasy defenses next year.
Do the Bucs have any fantasy sleepers of note in 2011?
Tampa Bay served up a big-time sleeper in 2010 with Mike Williams, and he was the best kind of sleeper for Bucs fans. Those who followed the team closely during the offseason and training camp had a good idea that the former Syracuse standout was going to be a focal point in the team's passing attack, so many Bucs fans likely got the jump on their fantasy competitors, taking Williams in the later rounds.
The same thing could happen in 2011, because the Buccaneers are loaded with talented young players and they will be carving out their roles over the summer. Williams will likely remain target 1a in the passing game (with Winslow as 1b) but if the Buccaneers' passing attack continues to grow it might finally have two (or more) relevant fantasy wideouts, a la Indianapolis or New Orleans.
Arrelious Benn is the obvious name that comes to mind, because he was rapidly taking control of that number two role before his season-ending knee injury in Week 15. He produced a string of big plays, including three catches of over 40 yards during the second half of the season and is a talented runner after the catch. Like Williams, he should be a force in the red zone due to his size and strength.
If Cadillac Williams is present it will be interesting to see how his role develops. Blount is clearly the lead ballcarrier but the Bucs' offense was productive enough, and Williams was strong enough of a pass-catcher, to keep the latter back relevant at times in 2010. For instance, Williams was good for eight points in Week Six, 10 points in Week Seven, 14 points in Week 10 and 11 points in Week 11. As with all of the aforementioned Buccaneer skill-position players, things will only get better for Williams in 2011 if the Bucs' offense as a whole continues its improvement.
Many fantasy players wait until the final few rounds to pick a kicker, so you may not consider any player at that position to be a sleeper. Still, if you want to let the "big name" kickers go by, you could certainly do a lot worse than the Bucs' Connor Barth.
After arriving in midseason in 2009 and looking quite promising, Barth solidified his hold on the Bucs' job with an outstanding 2010 season. He made 82.1% of his field goal tries (23-28) and was one of 12 NFL kickers to score between 100 and 110 points this past season (he had 105). If your league gives extra points for long-range kicks, consider the fact that Barth has made four of his six tries from 50 or more yards since becoming a Buccaneer.
And if you're looking for a really deep sleeper, it might be worth keeping an eye on Dezmon Briscoe. Again, it will probably be more clear in August if Briscoe is headed towards a role of any real relevance, but it's obvious that the Buccaneers believe in his talents. They grabbed him from the Bengals before he could land on Cincinnati's practice squad, and when they promoted him to the active roster in December they threw him immediately into the fire. With Benn out for Week 16, Briscoe stepped into the void and immediately produced four catches for 65 yards and a touchdown.
In the end, Briscoe is likely to go undrafted but be a player to watch on the waiver wire early in the season. There is no guarantee, either, that all of the optimistic projections above will be met. Still, with the likes of Freeman, Blount and Williams leading the way, it is almost certain that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be very relevant in your 2011 fantasy football drafts.