Don't discount fantasy potential in young Bucs

Arthur Arkush
Pro Football Weekly
Is it make-or-break time for Bucs QB Freeman?

If you enjoy watching scoreboards light up — and face it, if you’re a fan of today’s NFL, this is likely the case — the NFC South is your brand of football.

It was the NFL’s only division last season that saw three of its clubs finish in the top 10 in total offense. It boasts the NFL’s all-time single-season passing leader, Drew Brees, as well as the most decorated rookie passer in NFL history, Cam Newton. There is no shortage of star power at the skill positions, either, with Atlanta’s electric WR tandem of Roddy White and Julio Jones, New Orleans’ Pro Bowl TE Jimmy Graham and arguably the two deepest backfields in football in Carolina and New Orleans.

Needless to say, fantasy football players have definite stock in the division. And it says here that the club I omitted above, the Buccaneers, should be included on the radars of fantasy owners later this month.

I’m sure many of you are feeling a little gun-shy toward Tampa Bay after spending valuable picks in 2011 on QB Josh Freeman, WR Mike Williams and RB LeGarrette Blount, all of whom followed up breakthrough ’10 seasons with broken campaigns a season ago. That's understandable. The arrow appeared to be pointing straight up for these young talents, yet Freeman had too much placed on his shoulders, Williams was plagued by inconsistency and Blount struggled with health and mental mistakes a season ago.

However, after one of the more impressive offseasons in the NFL, Tampa Bay has reinforcements on the way that should bolster its fantasy relevance and put the real-life club in better position to compete in a loaded division.

Tampa’s $55,555,555 man, WR Vincent Jackson, was brought in to give the strong-armed Freeman a downfield weapon and bolster an unproven receiving corps. After spending several disgruntled (yet productive) seasons in San Diego, Jackson is healthy, with the fresh start he was yearning for. I think the signing will pay huge dividends for the Bucs and I also believe fantasy owners who can nab Jackson will net themselves a very solid No. 2 WR with the talent to be a No.1 fantasy-caliber wideout. V-Jax gained an eye-popping 18.4 yards per catch last season; if he can become a more consistent weapon in the receiving game, look out. What’s more, with Tampa looking to establish a smashmouth identity, plenty of opportunities should arise for Freeman to connect with Jackson over the top.

Doug Martin, whom the club aggressively moved up six spots to draft in April, is going to be a busy man in this offense. With an increasingly rare “bell cow” skill set, he is a strong candidate to repeat Blount’s feat of two seasons ago, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark on the ground as a rookie. New head coach Greg Schiano sees some of his former Rutgers star, Ray Rice, in Martin, and Martin's strong work ethic and competitive nature should quickly win Schiano’s affection. Oh, yeah; the Bucs added the best guard in football, Carl Nicks, giving them perhaps the best guard tandem in the league with Nicks and Davin Joseph. The table is set for Martin to make an early impact.

And while Blount has earned high marks this offseason for his commitment, working hard at becoming a better blocker and receiver, all it will take is one slip up until he finds himself buried in the ultra-disciplined Schiano’s doghouse.

Of course, the most important figure in this equation is Freeman, who followed up his dazzling second season with a dud, tossing 22 interceptions and dropping 21 points in his passer rating from 2010. With a much stronger support group in place and more of a commitment to balance on offense, the 24-year-old Freeman is primed for a major rebound.

He is reportedly in much better shape and throwing the ball with a lot more confidence. The best part is that Freeman can be had on draft day in the later rounds, giving fantasy owners options if they choose to load up on running backs and receivers in the early rounds.

So, when players like Brees, Newton, White and Graham are flying off the board early in the draft, don’t forget the division’s fourth club, the Bucs, which has some pretty intriguing fantasy options of its own.