There was plenty of excitement this winter in Tampa Bay when Bruce Arians was hired as the new head coach of the Buccaneers. Arians was a 2-time Super Bowl champion as part of the offensive staff with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He moved on to become a 2-time NFL Coach of the Year, first in 2012 after leading the Indianapolis Colts to a 9-3 record as interim head coach, then again in 2014 after leading the Cardinals to an 11-5 record (with three different quarterbacks) in his second season with the team.
Perhaps the most relevant aspect of Arians’ reputation for Tampa Bay fans is that he is known as a “quarterback whisperer,” thanks to his work with a young Peyton Manning, then later with Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, and Carson Palmer. Arians will now be whispering into the ear of Jameis Winston, who is entering a make-or-break season in 2019. The Cardinals exercised the team’s fifth-year option on Winston’s rookie contract back in April of 2018, and they seemingly have brought Arians in to help determine whether Winston’s 2020 season will be as their franchise QB or as their former QB.
Despite the high stakes on the line for Winston’s career, one Las Vegas sportsbook recently posted the Bucs’ over/under at 6 wins, which is no sign of great faith that the famed QB whisperer can get this particular QB to hear him. Of course, for dynasty owners, real life wins and losses are of little concern. The key question that Dynasty Nerds are worried about is simple: Who can score fantasy points on this team?
Mike Evans – Evans is as sure a thing as there could be on this roster. Over the past four seasons, Evans has averaged 149 targets, 1,263 receiving yards, and 7 TD. In theory, the addition of Bruce Arians could serve to push those numbers even higher, though competition from an emerging Chris Godwin and a hopefully-healthy O.J. Howard could slightly complicate that math. However, the vacated targets from the departure of DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries should manage to keep plenty of work funneling toward Evans, keeping him reliable as a WR1 and validating his ADP in the late first round.
The deep passes Evans has regularly able to rope in have allowed him to rack up considerable yardage. Evans ranked 1st in air yards and 3rd in receiving yards in 2018, though he is not always a beast after the catch (#33 in YAC last season). Yet with a 17.7 YPR average over 86 catches, dynasty owners can live with the limited YAC output.
Evans will turn 26 in August, so he is still on the front end of the wide receiver age apex and should be a stud for several years to come for dynasty owners everywhere.
O.J. Howard – At 6-6/251, Howard’s speed and agility metrics are eye-popping (98th percentile speed score, 97th percentile agility score). It’s no exaggeration to consider him an athletic freak. Coming into the league, Howard’s 4.51 time in the 40 (at his towering, hulking stature) was faster than the recorded 40 times of various big-name wide receivers, including JuJu Smith-Schuster, Larry Fitzgerald, Alshon Jeffery, Antonio Brown, and many more (including Howard’s teammate Mike Evans).
Pro Football Focus scored Howard’s 2017 rookie season at a mediocre 61.4, but the Alabama product demonstrated remarkable growth in his sophomore season. Although Howard’s sample size was cut short due to a season-ending injury in week 11, his performance through those 11 weeks earned him a salutatorian PFF grade of 89.4, which ranked him 2nd overall among tight ends, behind only George Kittle (who was the valedictorian in this metaphor).
Even still, some of Howard’s dynasty owners were panicked at the news of Bruce Arians coming to town. Arians has a reputation for under-utilizing his tight ends, but the head coach recently conceded that he’s never had the sort of talent at the position that Howard presents. Arians cited Howard as “obviously a mismatch versus safeties and linebackers” and said he expected to have “a lot of fun this fall” scheming up ways to exploit those matchups.
Howard was 4th in the league in tight end yards per game last year (56.5), trailing only Kittle, Travis Kelce, and Zach Ertz. The second-year standout also continued to emerge as a vertical threat downfield, ranking #1 in the league for both tight end yards per reception (16.6) and tight end yards per target (7.4) for TEs with 10+ receptions.
Thus far in Howard’s career, he has reached double-digit scoring in PPR leagues 11 of 12 times when he received at least 4 targets in a game (going 7 for 7 by that threshold in 2018). He is on a trajectory to become one of the truly elite tight end talents in the NFL. Ankle injuries have been his only kryptonite to date, so if he can stay on the field, his future is that of a prized fantasy asset for many years to come.
Howard has missed 8 games in two seasons, but he is expected to enter training camp at full health. Even with durability concerns, Howard is a worthy snag as the 4th or 5th TE off the board, though owners will be wise to draft some insurance a bit earlier than they might normally look for their TE2 candidate. But if Howard manages to stay on the field, his upside could lead to a top-3 TE finish in 2019, even considering the elite trio of players who are expected to top the TE list.
Chris Godwin – After posting a 34/525/1 stat line as a rookie, Godwin made a noteworthy leap in his second season, finishing with a 59/842/7 tally, good enough to establish him as a legit WR3 in PPR leagues. In 2019, the fantasy world seems to expect Godwin to jump again and earn a spot in the next tier up, as a weekly WR2 starter.
Bruce Arians lit the fantasy community on fire earlier in the off-season when he told the media, “I think Chris Godwin is going to be close to a 100 catch guy, especially because I think he can play in the slot. He’s never coming off the field.”
The coach’s excitement over Godwin’s capabilities is well founded. Godwin’s 128.3 SPARQ-x score represents 95th percentile athleticism. The former Penn State star did have a bit of boom-or-bust to his game last year (6 weeks of 16+ PPR points, 8 weeks of 8.2 or less), but as he continues improving and acclimating further to the NFL level, it’s reasonable to believe that his 2018 boom weeks will become his 2019 typical weeks.
To appreciate what Godwin has already accomplished and what he has shown the capability to do in the future, consider this fun fact: Godwin will finish his 3rd NFL season at just 23 years old; he is younger than even some incoming rookie receivers, including San Francisco teammates Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd.
Nevertheless, it’s fair for skeptics to wonder how much room is left for Godwin to grow, as long as Mike Evans is filling the role of the alpha receiver on the team. After all, Godwin already graded out on PFF with an 80.4 score in 2018, making him one of only 23 NFL wide receivers to score 80 or better (DeAndre Hopkins topped the list with a 92.0 grade to put that number in some context).
Yet any open-minded cynics can be won over with the knowledge that the Bucs have 179 vacated wide receiver targets, thanks to the departure of Adam Humphries (105) and DeSean Jackson (74). Granted, it’s a new offense, but it’s also an offense known for being pass-happy, just like its predecessor. In reality, the open target share should further skyrocket Godwin’s role this fall.
After OTAs wrapped up recently, giving Arians his first chance to work in-depth with his budding star, the coach was asked about his thoughts on Godwin’s development. Once again, Arians kept pouring fuel on Godwin’s already-blazing stock by explaining, “I had high expectations [of Godwin] and they’re even higher now. I think I’ll stand by my 100-catch announcement.”
Owners looking to acquire Godwin (be it by draft or trade) will need to do it promptly, as his cost continues to rise (ADP of 61st overall in March shot up to 42nd overall in June), but the return on investment in him figures to be substantial.
POSSIBLY A STUD, POSSIBLY A DUD
Jameis Winston – All the other starters in the NFC South have led their teams to a Super Bowl (with Drew Brees the lone Super Bowl champion of the group); meanwhile, Winston has struggled to lead his team anywhere meaningful.
Jameis Winston: ”I just need to be smarter in my decision-making.”— Pete Pappas (@PGAPappas) May 8, 2019
Also Jameis Winston: “I think I’ll have a golf ball teed off my head today.” pic.twitter.com/9liqVLm1gv
Winston was suspended for the first three games in 2018 after the league investigated allegations that he had groped an Uber driver; Winston was not arrested or charged with a crime related to the incident, but league investigators concluded that he had violated the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy.
The alleged behavior (coupled with a well-documented history of incidents dating back to his early college career) was enough to infuriate Buccaneers brass, yet most assumed Winston would rotate back in as the starter once he served his suspension. Then Ryan Fitzpatrick happened (in exactly the sort of way Ryan Fitzpatrick tends to happen, which is to say explosively hot out of the gate and bound to suddenly fizzle back to earth).
However, even considering the historic numbers posted by Fitzpatrick to begin the season (he was the top-scoring player in all fantasy football through 3 weeks), it still spoke volumes that Winston was not given the starting job back immediately in week 4. Independent of the fact that he was ultimately back under center by the third quarter the following week, the fact that a 24-year-old former #1 overall NFL draft pick got Wally Pipp’d at all is not a promising sign for the organization’s commitment to Winston as their franchise quarterback.
Even though the demotion only lasted 2 quarters beyond the suspension (Fitzpatrick was pulled at halftime of week 4), Winston wasn’t done losing the job as the Bucs’ starter just yet. After surrendering 5 sacks and throwing 4 INT against the Bengals in week 8, Winston was replaced by Fitzpatrick again in weeks 9-10 before getting called out of the bullpen to close out the week 11 game, in which Winston led 4 straight TD drives off the bench in the second half, coming up just short in what finished as a 38-35 loss.
Winston completed the season as Tampa Bay’s starter in the final six games, scoring as QB7 overall from weeks 12-17.
There are times when Winston flashes the elite potential that made him Tampa Bay’s 1.01 overall in 2015, but there are far too many times where his play turns erratic and undisciplined. One of the fascinating storylines to follow this season will be whether Arians can mold Winston into one of the game’s top QBs.
Winston is currently being drafted as QB13, just ahead of guys like Kirk Cousins and Mitchell Trubisky. Both Cousins and Trubisky both averaged more fantasy points per game than Winston last season, and both are firmly established as the franchise quarterbacks of their respective teams for the foreseeable future (or at least beyond 2019, representing a job security that Winston has yet to earn). Furthermore, neither Cousins nor Trubisky got fired midseason last year. The combined composite picture makes Winston’s current draft stock position look like The Bruce Arians Effect manifested.
But if there’s one thing dynasty owners love, it’s upside. Few would argue that from a pure talent perspective, Winston has more of it than both Cousins and Trubisky. The latter players are certainly safer picks with higher floors, but in the QB13 range, the upside play becomes the understandable pick.
If Winston is ever going to blossom into a reliable QB1 for the prime years of his career, we are going to find out this fall. For owners who roll him out as their starting QB in 2019, Winston will be the fantasy football equivalent of riding a motorcycle without a helmet: thrilling and exciting, but with a high danger quotient.
DUDS … OR MOSTLY DUDS? … IT’S COMPLICATED, REALLY … LET’S DISCUSS
Any credible dynasty owner is familiar with off-season OTA hype talk. It’s the time of year where everyone reportedly looks amazing. Player X has packed on muscle, player Y has come into camp leaner than ever, and player Z said his goal for next season is 2,000 yards. 75 different players are primed for a breakout season, according to the various stream of reports and blurbs.
So consider the element of Hyperbole Season when processing this recent quote by Bruce Arians about his thoughts on the backfield he inherited:
“I like our backfield,” Arians recently reflected, according to Ira Kaufman of Joe Bucs Fan. “I think it’s [an] ok backfield. There’s not a David Johnson or a Todd Gurley. But you don’t need one.”
And that was the best he could come up with: “It’s [an] ok backfield.” Remember, this came from the same guy who predicted 100 catches for Chris Godwin, then doubled down on that prediction after mini-camp. As a result, Arians’ assessment of his backfield feels frighteningly honest for dynasty owners who are searching for a breakout candidate to emerge.
Even though Arians also went on to say, “I don’t overpay for that position,” it’s almost certainly reasonable to expect the Buccaneers to be a potential landing spot for one of the elite running backs expected to be part of the deep 2020 draft class. Of course, then again, the Bucs were expected to be a prime landing spot for one of the RBs in the 2019 draft too, yet they zagged against the expected zig move, drafting a kicker (Matt Gay), but not a single running back this past April.
But Arians spent a third-round draft pick on David Johnson back in 2015, so “overpay” can be couched as a relative term in this case. The most probable blueprint for the Bucs backfield headed into 2019 is a 16-game audition. If no “David Johnson” emerges from this season’s running back room, one or more of them may be walking the plank next March.
Peyton Barber – The one candidate few expect to have a breakout performance in 2019 is Peyton Barber, who stumbled into a workhorse job in 2018 and proceeded to spend the season answering the question, “What would it look like if Alfred Blue was a workhorse running back?”
The reality is that Barber had all stars align in his favor last year, giving him every opportunity to seize a starting role and own it. He didn’t. Barber only eclipsed 100 yards rushing once in 16 games, serving as an unreliable play for fantasy owners. He scored double-digit PPR fantasy points just five times. Just as often, he scored fewer than 6 points. Barber finished 19th in rushing yards, but averaged only 3.7 yards per carry.
Barber ranked in the top 10 for both carries and red zone touches last season, yet he finished as RB31 in PPR, and he was the only player in the top 35 RBs to average single-digit fantasy points per game. If we’re being honest, those are JAG numbers.
Some have made the case that Arians can get more out of Barber, pointing to Barber’s #10 ranking in evaded tackles last season (3.9 per game). However, Barber also ranked #31 in juke rate, which paints his total evaded tackles tally as more of a volume play than an efficiency indicator. There is only so much whispering to be done by Arians.
It’s true that Barber presents value at his June ADP, which is 152 overall. Last time we saw Barber, he was a starting running back in the NFL. While the fantasy world is showing little faith in him, he hasn’t actually done anything to lose his starting job yet, so to snag him at RB52 is certainly a pick with a reasonably high potential of return, at least compared to some of the other players being selected in the 13th round.
Ronald Jones – Coming off a rookie campaign that was one of the most spectacular disappointments in recent years, Ronald Jones is a conundrum, but the fantasy community at large remains interested in him.
After being a healthy scratch for the first three weeks in 2018, then missing four games due to a hamstring injury later in the season, Jones was active for only nine games (and only touched the football in six of them), finishing his rookie campaign with a breathtakingly inept stat line of 23/44/1. Even still, RoJo truthers are a strong contingent, currently plucking him just inside the top-100 players in startup drafts (99th overall).
Supporters and optimists point to the draft capital invested in Jones, who was selected early in the second round last year (38th overall). Yet it can’t be ignored that as a rookie, Jones faced one of the least resistant paths possible to playing time, yet he couldn’t traverse it and earn a starting job.
When he was given a chance to play, Jones struggled in almost every way possible, averaging 1.9 yards per carry and dropping 2 of his 9 targets. We don’t need to organize a symposium of the Dynasty Nerds analytics team to determine that a 22% drop rate is despicably bad. Jones will obviously need to perform better in all facets of the game in 2019.
The good news is that RoJo Truther Squad members have valid points to support their case. Jones was the youngest back in the 2018 draft. In fact, he is still only 21 and is younger than incoming rookies Miles Sanders and David Montgomery, who both declared early for this year’s draft. So it’s not outlandish to believe that there is still plenty of growth left in Jones’ game.
As for his receiving chops, Jones was seldom used in the passing game at USC, but when he was called upon, he was at least serviceable, hauling in 14 of 15 targets as a true junior in his final college campaign.
It’s also worth noting that while Jones registered the second-lowest PFF grade (52.4) among rookie RBs in 2018, he was only a year removed from earning the highest RB grade in the country (93.1) from PFF evaluators. The dropoff in performance was certainly an epic cliff dive, but the track record of college success could still indicate a bounce-back for Jones in 2019.
All reports have been positive related to Jones this spring (despite the “ok” label Arians slapped on the backfield at large), so he’s a worthwhile snag at his current ADP in the early 9th round of startup drafts.
Bruce Anderson – The dark horse candidate to derail the Ronald Jones redemption tour is UDFA rookie Bruce Anderson, who arrives in Tampa Bay after averaging 7.5 YPC during his senior season at North Dakota State. As a key contributor on 3 FCS national championship teams in his career, Anderson was a versatile weapon for the Bison.
Bruce Arians may not see “a David Johnson” in his backfield just yet, but Anderson will get a thorough examination during training camp to see if he has potential to become one. The actual David Johnson, who Arians coached from 2015-2017, also played his college football at the FCS level, so there’s no reason to think that Arians will be dismissive of Anderson’s resume.
Anderson never tallied more than 12 receptions in a season, but he clearly has receiving skills, and his film shows him consistently reaching out to snatch balls out of the air away from his body, indicating an ability to do more in the passing game than he was asked to do in NDSU’s scheme. Anderson’s career receiving stat line of 32/448/7 over 52 games is not wildly more impressive (and certainly less efficient) than Jones’ 32/302/3 career receiving totals over 40 games. One of the key questions for Bucs coaches to answer this summer will be whether Anderson’s limited passing game contributions were due more to scheme or skills. So far, reports have emerged that Anderson looks smooth in OTAs and has received positive reviews from QBs during pass-catching drills.
Pass protection ability may be a critical element that gets Anderson on the field over Jones, but it will be a battle to watch as training camp progresses. Jones has received some notoriously bad reports about his pass blocking skills and history, dating all the way back to evaluation of his college film. Anderson’s available film library is a limited sample size, but he does appear to present a consistently game effort as a blocker, though he tends to lunge or launch his body, creating high-risk/high-reward results. If Anderson doesn’t cut or knock down a defender, he compromises his ability to recover. In the NFL, defenders will have far better skills to defeat blocks than the opponents he faced at the FCS level, so Anderson will need to evolve his approach accordingly. If he can do that, he could go so far as to challenge for playing time in year one.
Special teams skills alone (11 career tackles), including value as a returner (1,360 career kick return yards with 2 TD), should help Anderson stick around past final cuts. If he does end up earning a role, the range of outcomes for Anderson could include anything from a yearlong stint on taxi squads to a descriptor of him as “the Phillip Lindsay of 2019.”
Since Anderson’s college background is less well known by many readers, compared to prospects who emerge from FBS schools, the reel below offers a glimpse of the skill set Anderson will bring to training camp later this month.
Even if Peyton Barber manages to keep his foothold atop the Tampa Bay depth chart, the departure of free agent RB Jacquizz Rodgers leaves 45 vacated targets and 33 carries theoretically up for grabs. At worst, Jones and Anderson should be battling for those touches; at best, one of them will supplant Barber and emerge as an alpha back that Tampa Bay can rely on for the immediate and foreseeable future.
But if this backfield situation wasn’t muddled enough to begin with, according to Scott Reynolds of Pewter Report, both Arians and Bucs general manager Jason Licht have indicated that some players likely to end up on their 53-man roster are not on their current 90-man roster. So for all we know, the running back of note for the 2019 Buccaneers could be Duke Johnson or any number of names we haven’t even considered yet as being in play. The end takeaway for dynasty owners here is simple: Proceed with caution.
STASH GUYS & WATCH LIST NAMES
Scott Miller – Miller was the only rookie offensive player drafted by the Bucs this year, and he will jump into the fray for the wide receiver job available behind Evans and Godwin in 3-wide sets. Miller saw the field as a true freshman at Bowling Green (87th percentile breakout age), and he capped off his college career with a 71/1148/9 stat line as a senior in 2018.
Miller ran a scorching-hot 4.36 in the 40 at his pro day, and at 5-9/174, with those sort of wheels, it’s tempting to wonder if Arians views Miller as the John Brown chess piece Arians deployed with the Cardinals for a 65/1003/7 stat line in 2015. Miller’s profile is strikingly similar in many ways to Brown, who ran a 4.34 in the 40 at 5-10/179 during his pre-draft process in 2014.
The best athletic profile comp for Miller, according to Player Profiler, is Tyler Lockett. His other listed comps include T.Y. Hilton, DeSean Jackson, and Emmanuel Sanders. If Miller can use his athletic skills to carve out a career that is remotely similar to any of those names, he’ll be the steal of the 2019 fantasy season.
Miller is currently probably homeless in your dynasty league, and you can likely acquire him for a $0 bid. You might end up bragging about the transaction in a few months if he turns into the weapon he has the sneaky potential to become.
Breshad Perriman – Bringing up Perriman is a touchy subject for many dynasty owners. Perriman’s 4.24 pro day time in the 40 is legendary, but his injury history has become just as legendary to fantasy football owners (27 games missed in 4 seasons).
Perriman enjoyed a brief window of productivity late in the season for the Browns last year, averaging 21.3 yards per reception (over just 16 catches) in limited action. He ended up signing a one-year deal with the Bucs in the off-season, and he’ll look to connect with fellow 2015 first-round draft pick Jameis Winston in search of a breakthrough campaign.
The idea of Perriman becoming a startable flex player is not an impossible scenario, but it’s not a likely one either. Perriman is worth a stash for those who have the bench spot available, but he’ll be a movable piece (i.e. droppable) for owners who have high-priority transactions to make during the season.
Justin Watson – Watson could be the guy who emerges as the Bucs’ 3rd wide receiver if Miller is too raw, or if Perriman stumbles…or if Watson just turns out to be better than both of them.
Watson has some amazing athletic traits in his profile, even though he played his college football at Penn. He ran a 4.49 in the 40 at 6-2/215 with a 92nd percentile catch radius, among other high-end metrics (including his speed score and burst score). As one would hope to see in a prospect coming from the Ivy League, his college dominator rating is elite, and his breakout age is plenty promising. He’s still a developmental prospect, so he can’t be considered any sort of sure thing, but he’s a name to watch if nothing else.
From a fantasy football perspective, the 2019 Buccaneers are collectively shaping up as a prototypical high-ceiling/low-floor team. Things could easily go sideways if Winston doesn’t commit to being coachable under the stewardship of Arians. But if the QB whisperer can work his magic with his most challenging pupil to date, the Bucs’ passing game has a chance to become one of the best in the NFL. And if a top-flight RB manages to emerge and vacuum up passes out of the backfield, fantasy points could rain down weekly in Tampa Bay with all the intensity of a southwest Florida thunderstorm. On behalf of dynasty players everywhere, our wish is simple: Let it rain.
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