Back in January, we speculated on Buccaneers.com about the potential fantasy relevance of Tampa Bay Buccaneers players in 2011.
Among the specific questions we contemplated were: Is Josh Freeman a top-10 fantasy quarterback? What round would you have to move on LeGarrette Blount? Should there be "sophomore slump" concerns regarding Mike Williams? And will the Bucs' roster feature any tasty sleeper options?
(For the record, our answers in January were yes; late-second to early-third; doubtful due to Williams' chemistry with Freeman; and perhaps Arrelious Benn.)
Late in March we enlisted the help of NFL.com Fantasy Editor Michael Fabiano to dig deeper into the Tampa Bay's 2011 fantasy prospects and he provided more valuable insight for Buccaneer fans. Fabiano, for instance, agreed with the third-round projection for Blount and suggested he could reach 1,500 yards, but he did consider Williams something of a risk-reward selection. Fabiano's strongest advice was aimed at those Buccaneer fans who expect big things out of Freeman in 2011. Go ahead and target Freeman, he advised, thereby skipping the early-round sweepstakes on quarterbacks and loading up early on backs and receivers.
Now that it's mid-June, we've arrived on the cusp (hopefully) of fantasy drafting season, and Buccaneer fans will soon be formulating their strategies for August. Fantasy sports are all about speculation, of course, but as draft time nears analysts begin to make more solid predictions, providing detailed rankings at each position for fantasy players to use as guides.
And those rankings will provide evidence as to how confident fantasy football players are in the Buccaneers' rising stars. We guessed in January, shortly after his breakout 2010 campaign, that Freeman would be seen as a starter in 10 or 12-team leagues this year; five months later, do the rankings indicate the same belief? Did LeGarrette Blount's second-half momentum carry on throughout the offseason, or are analysts finding reasons for caution as draft time nears? Have the experts talked themselves into Williams as a definite #2 fantasy receiver?
It's time for our first look at those answers, as the Fantasy Football '11 game on NFL.com has gone operational. Click here to check it out, and to get an early start on setting up your league(s).
The NFL's game includes comprehensive rankings (overall and position-by-position) in addition to auction values. These rankings will not likely predict exactly how your draft will unfold, but they do offer a good look at the perceived values of such Bucs as Freeman, Blount, Williams and Winslow.
And what do these rankings tell us about the Bucs' fantasy possibilities in 2011?
Well, for one thing, the book on Freeman hasn't changed much since January. And for another, Williams might still be available late enough in your draft to be considered a steal once again by the end of next year. Let's check out the Bucs' fantasy rankings on NFL.com at each position.
- At quarterback, Freeman is ranked 10th, which means he's considered a starter in most fantasy formats. His auction value of $10 is equal to that of Atlanta's Matt Ryan, who is ranked ninth, and just $2 behind that of Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, the eighth-ranked passer. Freeman is ranked ahead of Houston's Matt Schaub, who was a popular option in last year's draft after the big-name types such as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers had been selected.
Overall, the NFL.com rankings have Freeman at #66, directly in between Ryan and Schaub. This is a reflection of what Fabiano tried to tell Buccaneer fans in March – the depth at the quarterback position is so good that very productive players can be found relatively deep into the draft. The 66th pick would be mid-seventh round in a 10-team league and mid-sixth round in a 12-team league. Of course, as Fabiano noted, quarterbacks have risen in popularity as early-round picks in recent years, so your league could experience a run on the position that bumps Freeman up a round or two.
- At running back, Blount is ranked 15th, which may be an indication that fantasy experts still feel better about backs with longer track records than newcomers who made an unexpectedly big splash in 2010. Blount was the third-leading rusher in the NFL over the last six weeks of the season, but that wasn't enough to get him into the top 10 in the summer rankings for 2011.
Still, given that a majority of fantasy players try to lock down at least two running backs in the first four rounds, that still puts Blount solidly in the third to fourth round neighborhood, as Fabiano suggested. On the other hand, if a number of owners in your league choose to heed Fabiano's advice and wait on quarterbacks, a run on ballcarriers could even suck Blount up into late in Round Two. The fact that Blount is almost certain to get the lion's share of the Bucs' carries makes him potentially more attractive to those looking for a second back than the likes of, say, Knowshon Moreno or Jonathan Stewart.
In the NFL.com rankings, Blount finds himself between Denver's Moreno (13th) and Carolina's Stewart (16th) and he is slotted directly behind the St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson. Blount has also leap-frogged several backs who were popular early-second-round picks a year ago, the Jets' Shonn Greene and the Chargers' Ryan Matthews. Blount isn't the only potential high-scoring runner on whom the analysts are obviously still reserving judgment, as Cleveland's breakout fantasy star, Peyton Hillis, is lingering at #18.
Overall, Blount is the highest-ranked Buccaneer, at #35. Again, that projects as the third or fourth round, depending upon the size of your league. The NFL.com Top 200 list has him below a handful of players who have been given a lower auction value, primarily wide receivers such as Dwayne Bowe and Brandon Marshall. Interestingly, of the 21 players that are ranked from 14-34 – just before Blount – only four are running backs. This suggests that part of the ranking process for the NFL.com experts was an expectation that many drafters would try to hit several categories – say, a QB-RB-WR trio in rounds 1-3 – before doubling back to hit running back again. Should individual strategies in your league differ, Blount may not be available in the late third round.
It should be noted that all of the above discussion relates to leagues that do not employ points-per-reception (PPR) as part of the scoring system. In the NFL.com PPR rankings, Blount drops to 18th among running backs.
- At wide receiver, Williams is slotted at #22, with an auction value of $11 that is equal to the two players ahead of him, Buffalo's Steve Johnson and Denver's Brandon Lloyd. Williams comes in just ahead of New Orleans' Marques Colston, Baltimore's Anquan Boldin and San Francisco's Michael Crabtree.
A year ago, Williams was available in many drafts in the 10th round or later. Of course, that was before he broke Tampa Bay's single-season record with 11 touchdown catches in 2010 and just missed cracking 1,000 yards. Williams finished last year as the 12th-ranked receiver in fantasy football, using a common scoring system.
However, it is those same 11 touchdowns that may be pushing Williams down the list again in 2011. Simply put, most analysts believe he will have a hard time duplicating that feat this year, and thus they believe his overall scoring value will be down. By these rankings, Williams doesn't quite qualify as a #2 receiver in a 10-team league, but he's obviously right on the cusp. Buccaneer fans in leagues with similarly-minded folks might not be able to wait on Freeman's favorite red zone target.
In the overall rankings, Williams comes in between Blount and Freeman, at #55 overall directly between Lloyd and Colston. That would project to a mid fifth-round pick in a 12-team league and a mid sixth-rounder in a 10-team league. The PPR option doesn't change Williams' ranking among receivers; he's still listed at #22.
And Benn just might be gaining ground as a sleeper candidate. He is listed at #64 overall among wide receivers, which probably only gets him into the draft in the deepest leagues. Even a 12-team league with five receivers on each squad would only need to go 60 deep at that position.
Still, Benn is in the same general vicinity as some other fairly well-known receivers who might be considered sleeper candidates, including Oakland's Louis Murphy, Cincinnati's Jordan Shipley (a fellow 2010 rookie), New England's Brandon Tate and Carolina's David Gettis. Benn might get more attention in drafts conducted in the Bay area, but chances are he will be available to hopeful Buccaneer fans in the later rounds.
- At tight end, Winslow's ranking is affected fairly significantly by whether or not the scoring includes PPR. In PPR leagues, Winslow is judged to be the 10th-most coveted tight end in the league, but in non-PPR leagues he drops to 12th. This is understandable, given that Winslow has been the Bucs' leading pass-catcher in each of his two seasons in Tampa, averaging 71.5 receptions per year. At the same time, he has caught five touchdown passes in each of those two years, good but not remarkable numbers in terms of fantasy football.
Still, Winslow was the sixth-highest scoring tight end in fantasy football last year by some scoring systems. It's also worth noting that he was targeted 98 times, more than such highly-rated 2011 tight end options as Vernon Davis, Marcedes Lewis and Zach Miller. There is an obvious connection between Freeman and Winslow, and Winslow's previous injury issues haven't stopped him from playing in all 32 games since he arrived in Tampa. One might expect those facts alone to make Winslow more coveted in 2011 than 2010, but the rankings suggest some amount of caution from the analysts.
Overall, Winslow comes in at #114 in the NFL.com rankings, just behind New England tight end Gronkowski and right in the vicinity of such unsure running back options as Beanie Wells, DeMarco Murray and Thomas Jones. The 114th pick would come in near the middle of the 10th round in a 12-team league and near the middle of the 12th-round in a 10-team league.
Last year at this time, Tampa Bay players were generating only a modest amount of buzz in regards to the upcoming 2010 fantasy football drafts. This season, it should be different, as a handful of Buccaneers are considered potential high picks. As evidenced by the new 2011 player rankings on NFL.com, fantasy analysts have high hopes for such Buccaneers as Josh Freeman and LeGarrette Blount, but they also maintain a bit of skepticism. Perhaps a year from now the Bucs' fantasy stars will be trying to break into the top five, instead of the top 10 or top 20.