Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Some Things Will Change in 2021, Some Won't | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Bucs fans have questions about Mike Evans' pursuit of another 1,000-yard season, potential team weaknesses and more

mbev

Guess what? It might be time to start thinking about fantasy football.

For some of you it's never time to think about fantasy football, which is perfectly fine. And for those of you who do participate, this might seem a little early, given that it's not even July yet. On the other hand, we're pretty devoid of any real football news right now so we might as well turn our attention to the fake stuff.

I did that earlier today because I wanted to get an idea of how the experts view Tampa Bay's possible fantasy stars. After all, we are talking about an offense that ranked third in scoring and seventh in yards in 2020, one that is directed by the G.O.A.T. and loaded with established NFL stars. Tom Brady was third in passing yards and tied for second in touchdown passes (with three rushing scores to boot). Mike Evans was fourth in touchdown receptions. In addition to Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and Ronald Jones all scored seven touchdowns and Leonard Fournette scored six (plus four more in the playoffs, which doesn't count but does hint at his potential.

Ah, but therein lies the problem, which isn't really a problem unless you care deeply about where Buccaneers players are ranked for fantasy football drafts. The Buccaneers may just have too many legitimate weapons, prompting Brady to spread the ball around and dilute each skill-position player's output a little bit. Fantasy football drafters prefer receivers and running backs who are clear-cut number-one options for their respective teams, such as Green Bay's Davante Adams or Carolina's Christian McCaffrey. If you could draft Mikhris Godevans and get the combined production of the Bucs' top two receivers in one spot, you'd probably consider that in the first round. Unfortunately, that's not an option.

So where does that leave the Bucs' stars in fantasy rankings? Well, the good news is that if you want to snag Evans or Godwin you can probably wait until late in the third round in a 12-team league. You probably won't have to jump on Brady until six or seven other quarterbacks are off the board. And if you have a hunch as to either Fournette or Jones emerging as the clear number-one back, you might find yourself a steal in the seventh round or later.

I looked at the current fantasy rankings produced by the experts at three sites: ESPN, Yahoo and NFL.com. Here's what they're saying about various Buccaneers, in order of how high they are ranked for standard PPR leagues (average ranking among the three sites):

Mike Evans (35.3)…All three sites have Evans as the first Buccaneer off the board, going between picks 34 and 37. That puts him at about the 13th or 14th receiver selected.

Chris Godwin (39.7)…There's a little more variance here, with Yahoo putting him 36th and NFL.com 37th while ESPN slots him in at number 44. The first two put Evans and Godwin nearly back to back in their rankings while ESPN has a 10-spot gap between them.

Leonard Fournette (74.3)…Well, Bruce Arians may call Fournette and Jones "co-starters" but fantasy experts have definitely picked their horse. Fournette is ranked between 70th and 79th on all three sites. That's about 25-30 deep into the running back pool but still well ahead of Jones' average projections.

Tom Brady (85.3)…This isn't bad for Brady, who is among the top 10 quarterbacks on all three sites. NFL.com is highest on him, putting him eighth among the QBs and 76th overall. The other two both have Brady at number 90.

Ronald Jones (99.7)…Yahoo thinks the most of Jones' chances, putting him at 71, exactly one spot behind Jones. They're obviously buying the co-starter idea and think both backs can be relatively productive. ESPN and NFL.com have Jones well behind Fournette, at 111th and 117th overall, respectively.

Antonio Brown (103.7)…Is there room for a third relevant fantasy receiver behind Evans and Godwin? Yahoo (128th) doesn't really think so but NFL.com (90th) and ESPN (93rd) are more bullish on the possibility. That's around middle to late third round.

Rob Gronkowski (139.7)…Gronkowski was a huge addition to the Bucs' offense in 2020 but the experts don't expect elite fantasy production from him anymore. His rankings range from 122nd on ESPN to 165th on Yahoo, which puts him the TE 15-20 range.

Giovanni Bernard (159.3)…This is interesting, even if we're talking about a pick in the 10th-15th round range. Bernard makes it into the overall top 200 on all three sites, albeit barely (199th) by ESPN. NFL.com has him all the way up at 122nd. Apparently the experts believe there is room for Bernard to put up some numbers as a pass-catching back.

Others? Scotty Miller doesn't crack the top 300 on any of the three sites but Yahoo goes deep enough to put him at 328. O.J. Howard gets a little attention near the end of the top 300 by both ESPN (249th) and Yahoo (280th). Perhaps most interesting: ESPN ranks Tampa Bay as the number-one defense, 169th overall. Yahoo has the Bucs' defense sixth and NFL.com ninth.

And now on to your questions. (Some of you probably already skipped to here when you saw the words "fantasy football.")

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

With all the weapons on this roster, do you think Mike could still hit another 1000 yard season?

- @bucs_uk (via Instagram)

Absolutely. No doubt in my mind.

There can't be too many Bucs fans out there who don't already know this, but just in case let's put this question in perspective. With 1,006 yards last year, Evans became the first player in NFL history to begin his career with seven straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons. He and Hall-of-Famer Randy Moss had been the only two players even to get to six. Obviously, Evans is now in position to extend his record this season, and for any number of seasons to come. Thus, the difference between, say, 900 yards and 1,100 yards means a little more for Evans than it would for a Chris Godwin or an Antonio Brown.

Yes, the Buccaneers' offense is loaded, but it was also loaded last year. There's a new face in the backfield in Giovani Bernard, and he would surely get some targets if he can carve out a role of any significance. The Bucs added a receiver in the draft but I think fourth-rounder Jaelon Darden is most likely to make his mark in the return game rather than the passing game early on in his career. Otherwise, it's pretty much the same collection of targets for Tom Brady as it was in 2020. And before you say that the Bucs have Antonio Brown for a full season this year as opposed to just eight games last year, be aware that Evans' totals were better with Brown in the mix. Evans had 30 catches for 373 yards and seven touchdowns before Brown's arrival and 40 for 633 and six after.

Brady will continue to spread the ball around, that's for sure, but I still think Evans will be either his first or second most-targeted player, depending upon how many games he and Godwin play in. Last year, Evans led the Bucs' skill-position players on offense with 1,092 snaps. Have to be on the field to have the ball thrown your way, and Evans will be on the field, barring injury.

And that's the true variable here: injury. Part of the reason Evans' production in the first half of the season was down was because he was gamely pushing his way through hamstring and ankle injuries. If you recall, he was actually considered "doubtful" for the season opener at New Orleans at one point but he gutted it out and caught a touchdown pass, though it was his only reception of the day. As Bruce Arians described it, Evans essentially played on one leg in Week Five in Chicago (and caught five passes, one for a score) because the Bucs had so many receivers banged up at the time.

So Evans had a number of low-wattage games in the season's first half but he also sprinkled in two 100-yard games. And that's the main reason I'm confident in Evans' ability to get to 1,000 yards again; that is, he always seems to go ballistic in a game about four or five times a year. I mean the man has 28 100-yard games in his first seven seasons in the league. There will be times in 2021 when opposing teams make a point of taking him out of the picture and he'll end up with low totals that hurt in his chase of 1,000, but he'll almost surely balance that with enormous performances on other weekends.

And then there's this, and it's a factor we can't forget when discussing any kind of statistical milestones in 2021: There's now a 17th game in the regular season. Before, Evans had to average 62.5 per game if he played in all 16 contests to get to 1,000 by season's end. Now, he'll only have to average 58.8 yards per outing if he's in the lineup every week. Or, if you don't like using per-game averages, think of it this way: If he's close entering Week 17 this year, he'll have two more cracks at getting to the goal where he would have had just one last year. And remember how close it was last season! Evans had three catches for 46 yards in the first half of the season finale and got over the mark on what would prove to be his last grab of the regular season.

He then suffered a scary-looking knee injury on an attempted catch in the end zone just before halftime and did not return to the game in the second half. As it turned out, Evans would make it back for the following weekend's Wild Card game, so had there been a 17th game last year he would have been able to play in that, as well. And if he had come up just a couple yards short before his injury he would have had another chance to get over the mark.

What is our biggest weakness heading into training camp?

- @orlando_pena23 (via Instagram)

Well, when we're talking about a defending Super Bowl champion that is riding an active eight-game winning streak, was red-hot on both sides of the ball to close out the 2020 season and was then able to bring back essentially its entire championship cast, we're obviously going to be grading on a curve when it comes to weaknesses.

That said, Arians and his coaching staff are sure to point out to the players what did not go so well in 2020 and remind them that there is plenty to work on, even for a team with a bunch of shiny new rings. As Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles put it in May:

"Looking at the tape, we have a lot of things that we can do better that we're going to look at. We want to do better at all facets – front, middle and back end. We're going to get to those tapes, we're going to look at them when they get in here and get to work. We've got a lot to take care of."

So what are those things? Well, statistically the Buccaneers' biggest weakness in 2020 were:

·    Rushing offense (yards per game and yards per rush)

·    Punt and kickoff returns and coverage

·    Passing defense (yards per game allowed)

Tampa Bay ranked 28th in rushing yards per game (94.9) and 25th in yards per carry (4.12) in 2020. However, I'm not sure that Arians would agree that his team has a weak running game. I don't think Arians cares all that much about the above numbers. I don't believe he goes into a game thinking the Bucs need 150 rushing yards, or any specific number for that matter. He just wants a ground game that he feels is effective so that it makes things easier for the Bucs' extremely dangerous passing attack. That could mean a 25-carry, 95-yard day in which the Buccaneers' backs picked up decent yards on most first and second downs to make for manageable third downs. And, hey, if Ronald Jones happens to spring a 98-yard touchdown, bonus!

Plus, the Bucs' rushing attack was actually pretty good in the playoffs. Fournette and Jones seem like a capable duo and they run behind a line that is solid across the board and exceptional in a couple spots. I just don't see the rushing attack as an actual weakness for this team.

Tampa Bay's pass defense ranked 21st in the NFL in 2020, giving up 246.6 yards per game, but that's not really as bad as it looks. Shave off a mere 10 yards per game and the Bucs would be in the upper half of the rankings, as there are a lot of teams bunched in the middle. The secondary also boasts potentially elite players in cornerback Carlton Davis and second-year safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards combine to do a solid job at the other safety position. The team's two third-year cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean, had uneven seasons in 2020 but came on strong at the end, particularly in the case of Murphy-Bunting's playoff performance. That's a young group that is getting better and benefits from the team's strong pass rush. This isn't my answer, either.

In the kick and return game, the Buccaneers struggled statistically in 2020. They ranked 19th in kickoff return average, 24th in punt return average, 26th in punt return average allowed and last in kickoff return average allowed. They also allowed one return touchdown and did not score one of their own. Yes, the return game is become increasingly minimized in the NFL but the Bucs could use some occasional big plays there, particularly on punt returns.

The Bucs clearly took special teams into consideration during the draft and there is a decent chance that third-day picks K.J. Britt, Chris Wilcox and Grant Stuard all become strong special teams players. The previously-mentioned Darden could also bring a spark to the return game. So far, that's all on paper, though. Fortunately, the Buccaneers have a proven and respected Special Teams Coordinator in Keith Armstrong who is a good bet to get the best out of those newcomers.

So, for now, I'd have to go with the return game and kick coverage as the most evident weakness for the 2021 Buccaneers, but I'm not sure it's going to remain that way.

Will the defense be similar to last season or do you see us incorporating more formats or layers this season?

- @nklepes03 (via Instagram)

Well, I think the overall scheme will be largely the same because there is a great benefit in continuity, especially for a defense that relies on a number of young and still-improving players at its core. When players like Devin White and those aforementioned young corners get comfortable in their roles through repetition they can process information quicker and play faster without having to overthink it.

That said, I think Bowles' defense is always going to be evolving. As players get comfortable in certain schemes and formations, Bowles can continue to add on that foundation and present opposing offenses with new wrinkles. Moreover, I think Bowles and his staff are excellent at identifying what their players do well and finding ways to emphasize them. White and his delayed rushes up the middle into the backfield come to mind as an example after the linebacker went from 2.5 sacks as a rookie to a stunning 9.0 last year.

Mike Edwards is another example. He played 107 snaps on defense through the first nine games of 2020, and 42 of those came as a nickel corner when Sean Murphy-Bunting was hurt in Denver in Week Three. Over the last 11 games he more than doubled that playing time while splitting snaps with Jordan Whitehead at safety opposite Antoine Winfield, Jr. Edwards was primarily used in expected passing downs and proved to have a nose for the ball with three interceptions and eight passes defensed, including the playoffs.

Really, I don't think a coordinator on either side of the ball can afford to stay the same from year to year in the NFL. Opposing coaches will eventually figure you out, so you have to adapt and find new ways to disguise the things you are doing the same.

You want specifics as to what Bowles and company will be adding to their schemes or doing differently in 2021? Well, I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you. Or, more accurately, I could tell you if Bowles decided to tell me, but that isn't going to happen. No reason to give any information away to your upcoming opponents. We can guess broadly at some possible new wrinkles, like a handful of specific blitzes the Bucs haven't shown before, or perhaps a deeper rotation of edge rushers after the arrival of Joe Tryon. Maybe the Buccaneers will find a few more ways to get Winfield, Whitehead and Edwards all on the field at the same time. Maybe we'll see a couple more creative ways of dropping those outside linebackers into coverage from time to time.

I'm not sure if we'll see any of that, but I'm quite sure we'll see something new from the beautiful mind of Todd Bowles in 2021.

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