Everything in Tampa Bay is new this season — new quarterback, new coordinators, new head coach.
However, everything new in Tampa this season is also kinda old. Quarterback Josh McCown is 35, joining his eighth NFL team. Coordinators Jeff Tedford (OC) and Leslie Frazier (DC) were plucked from the discard pile, each fired from prominent head coaching positions in recent seasons. And, of course, head coach Lovie Smith spent nine years in Chicago, compiling a career record of 81-63, yet failing to reach the playoffs in any of his final three seasons.
So this franchise has hit the reset button once again, in a responsible if less-than-exciting way. Still, Greg Schiano's reign of terror has ended. His departure is a victory for us all.
In McCown, the Bucs have added a QB with a long track record of mediocrity, punctuated by a half-season of excellence. He clearly benefited from working with uncoverable receivers in Chicago, but he also played long stretches of virtually mistake-free football. McCown rarely gave the ball away last year, throwing just one pick in 224 pass attempts. He's not the league's toolsiest passer, but he possesses enough mobility and arm strength to run a productive offense, and he obviously thrived in a highly structured system. Although McCown's career is a mixed bag (77.5 rating), it's awfully tough to find fault with last season's work. McCown actually only delivered one huge fantasy performance, in frigid conditions against Dallas' wretched, dead-eyed defense (348 yards, 4 pass TDs, rush TD), but he was solid in each start. He carried thousands of fantasy owners through some bleak Aaron Rodgers-less weeks last year, and for that he has our gratitude.
There's no serious position battle ahead for McCown, because Coach Smith backed the vet over Mike Glennon immediately...
Bucs' Lovie Smith, asked if Josh McCown is his quarterback: "Yes, he is."— Greg Auman (@gregauman) March 12, 2014
Glennon certainly had his moments last season, posting a rating of 83.9 while tossing 19 TD passes and only nine picks. But he was a scattershot quarterback in his first NFL season, and his performance dipped significantly in December (5.6 Y/A, 69.7 rating).
McCown is clearly the guy in Tampa. It's not difficult to see a path to top-20-ish value. He should be drafted in 14-team leagues, and he has bye-week appeal in standard 10 and 12-teamers. We don't know precisely what Tedford's offense will look like at the pro level — he coached Cal from 2002 to 2012, and his system isn't simple — but, based on personnel, we can expect to see a decent number of jump-balls in the passing game.
The Bucs' receiving corps is absolutely stacked with gigantic targets for McCown, players with ridiculous height and wingspans: Vincent Jackson is 6-foot-5, as are rookies Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Tim Wright is 6-foot-4, Brandon Myers is 6-foot-3, and Louis Murphy and Chris Owusu are both 6-foot-2. This group has size to spare. McCown took full advantage of Chicago's tall receivers last season, and he reportedly lobbied hard for the Bucs to draft pass-catchers of similar stature.
Of course no receiver on Tampa's roster can be reasonably compared to Brandon Marshall, one of the league's elite do-everything, all-weather, every-situation wideouts. And there aren't more than five receivers in the NFL who can top Alshon Jeffery's ability to high-point the football on deep throws, delivering degree-of-difficulty grabs versus any corner (or multiple corners, as needed). So I don't want to place unrealistic expectations on Evans, a rookie with a basketball background, who played only one year of varsity football in high school. That kid, while extremely talented, has some learning ahead of him. I don't mind him at his current ADP (107.3) because he has a clear shot to function as a red-zone terror, catching 7-9 TDs. But I'm not forecasting substantial reception or yardage numbers. V-Jax remains the No. 1 target in this team's receiving hierarchy. He's had his issues with drops (12 in 2013), and he's earned a boom/bust reputation within the fantasy community, despite huge target totals (159 last year). He's still a rough cover, however, even at 31. Jackson has topped 1,200 receiving yards in both of his seasons with the Bucs, and he's exceeded 1,000 yards in five of the past six campaigns. Draft early and enjoy.
Sefarian-Jenkins, another hoops-to-gridiron story, definitely looks the part of a productive pro tight end. But he happens to play a position where you should never anticipate fantasy relevance from a first-year player — it's ridiculously uncommon for a rookie TE to make a fantasy splash. Only five tight ends since the merger have produced 100-point fantasy seasons in standard scoring systems. Given the strength of the position, it's very tough to make a redraft argument for any of the Bucs' TEs, really. Wright had his moments last season, no question, but the current regime has no ties to him.
Tampa has made noises about utilizing a rotation of running backs this season, which of course leads to anxiety among fantasy managers. Last summer, we all loved Doug Martin for his projected workload as much as for his evident talent. Still, Martin remains a proven commodity who figures to own a majority of the early-down and goal-to-go carries for this offense, and he's just one season removed from delivering 1,926 scrimmage yards. This guy has already proven himself as a productive, heavy-usage back. A shoulder issue brought a premature end to his season in 2013 (and he wasn't finding running lanes, pre-injury), but he's now cleared and ready to roll.
But to what extent will he share touches with other backs? Back in June, Tedford offered these comments regarding workload distribution:
"I think you probably need to have two to three [backs] to bring different things to the table. But I think you at least need to have two to be able to spell them here and there and keep them healthy and that type of thing.
"That's the goal to try and create some depth right there where there's not a dropoff when one guy comes in and another guy goes out. There's no dropoff. We just keep going.''
Tedford wasn't necessarily talking about some 50/50 or 60/40 split, so there's no great need for panic here. He's basically saying he doesn't want the team utterly reliant on a single player, which is of course sensible. It would be no surprise if third-round pick Charles Sims saw passing-down work, which would impact Martin's PPR game, but don't be overly concerned about Mike James or Bobby Rainey. Those two are vying for the handcuff role.
Here's Lovie's vision for the backfield, expressed in March:
''I think you have to have a bell cow. [Martin] is ours. At the running back position, there are enough reps to go along. We want three guys we feel comfortable with. Two will play, but it's not a rotation that where every series we're going to have a different guy in there.''
Again, I can see no obvious reason to fret about Martin's workload. I'll draft him in Round 2 all day. It's a win for Martin that Tampa now has a competent QB and multiple receiving threats. Let's just hope the rebuilt O-line is up to the task. If the offense as a whole makes strides, as it should, then Martin will benefit. He won't need 350-plus touches to reemerge as a fantasy force.
When you think of Lovie Smith, you generally think of the Cover-2 scheme (even though that's not the only look in his gameplans). But you should also think turnovers — lots of turnovers. And points off turnovers. More than any other defense in the league, you can expect the Bucs to practice stripping, recovering and making house-calls. Lovie's defenses in Chicago were, at times, the team's greatest scoring threat. They were almost indifferent to yards-against, focused instead on takeaways.You can question the merits of that approach in real-life, but there's no doubting its appeal in fantasy. In our game, turnovers and defensive TDs are the keys to D/ST success. Here's where Lovie's defenses ranked in standard fantasy scoring from 2004 to 2012: 5th, 1st, 2nd, 4th, 11th, 16th, 10th, 1st, 1st.
Not bad, eh? Obviously the Bears had terrific players at important sports, but a huge contributing factor in their fantasy performance was always defensive philosophy. (If you need additional details, try this piece by Matt Bowen, one of Lovie's former players.) The bottom line is that you'll want this team's defense in fantasy. I view them as a top-10 unit, likely to deliver a few monster weeks. For those who IDP, the best bets here are LB LaVonte David (145 tackles) — one of the game's best IDPs — DLs Michael Johnson and Gerald McCoy, plus DB Alterraun Verner.
2013 team stats: 18.0 PPG (NFL rank 30), 198.8 pass YPG (32), 22 pass TDs (20), 100.8 rush YPG (22), 26.3 rush attempts per game (21), 32.1 pass attempts per game (26)