Josh Freeman was a buzzy quarterback during draft season last summer, but his performance declined in almost every meaningful way in 2011. His yards-per-attempt fell from 7.3 to 6.5, his interceptions jumped from six to 22, and he threw only 16 touchdown passes, down from 25 the prior year. It was a disastrous four-win season for Tampa and a long, terrible campaign for the franchise's young QB.
But this is the NFL, a league where teams and players often re-write their scouting reports week-to-week. As overrated as Freeman was entering 2011, he might just be that underrated in 2012. The Bucs have done just about everything possible since January to improve his setup. Freeman's O-line was upgraded with the addition of All Pro guard Carl Nicks, his receiving corps improved massively via the Vincent Jackson signing, and he'll now have a reliable short-range option from the backfield in rookie Doug Martin. Tampa Bay also hired former Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan — one of Eli Manning's mentors in recent seasons — to be the team's new offensive coordinator. And the Bucs jettisoned Kellen Winslow, a player who was the targeted receiver on 10 of Freeman's interceptions last year, and who was not exactly meshing well with new head coach Greg Schiano.
You really have to like the way this off-season treated Freeman, all things considered. You have to like the way he's treated himself, too, as he's reportedly dropped 20 pounds in an effort to improve mobility and stamina. This is a player with a strong arm, great size (6-foot-6), an enhanced supporting cast, and a friendly draft day price (ADP 128.0, QB18). Freeman looks like a reasonable play as a platoon QB for fantasy purposes.
Yes, Schiano intends for his team to have a run-oriented offense. But realistically, Tampa's miserable D may not allow it at all times. In 2011, the Bucs' defense ranked dead-last in the league in points-against (30.9 per game), next-to-last in yards per pass attempt (8.2), last in total sacks (23.0), and last in rushing yards allowed (156.1 YPG). This team will find itself in plenty of NFC South shootouts — Schiano may not enjoy 'em, but fantasy owners won't complain. (Seriously, take a look at Tampa Bay's schedule. The division is a minefield, plus the Bucs have to face the NFC East and AFC West). I can't guarantee that Freeman will put the ball in the air quite as often as he did last season — his 551 pass attempts ranked eighth in the NFL — but his team will be forced to throw much more often than they'd like. Sorry, LeGarrette Blount lovers ... if any still exist.
Blount was a total dud in his sophomore NFL campaign, averaging just 55.8 rushing yards per game and losing touches at the end of the season, due to fumbling issues. He hasn't yet been useful in the passing game (20 career catches), and we've been given no reason to think he'll see an uptick in targets under Schiano and Sullivan. Ball security has been a major point of emphasis for Blount during the off-season...
"They've told me to carry the ball high and tight like that everywhere I go, and I'm doing it,'' Blount said, "Even when I go to the mall, I'm carrying it like that.''
...and he'll no doubt earn a share of the backfield touches, assuming he can keep possession of the football. No one is particularly excited to draft Blount (until they're wooed by his charming Yahoo! head shot), but it's not as if the price tag is frightening (ADP 103.8). He'll get some early-down opportunities, and he'll likely have a handful of chances to plow into the end zone. But, again, this is a reception-challenged back in an offense that could be playing from behind all year.
Thus, Doug Martin is the Bucs RB who has drawn the most interest from the fantasy community (ADP 40.8, RB20). Martin found the end zone 32 times during his junior and senior seasons at Boise State, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and catching 56 passes. This is a decisive, powerful runner, a guy who looks like an every-down back, worth the first-round price paid by Tampa Bay. Some of the more flattering scouting reports on Martin offer Ray Rice as a comp. Here's a highlight reel; judge for yourself. Rice played under Schiano at Rutgers, so that's a connection Martin's new head coach has surely made as well. The rookie obviously won't be handed anything in camp, but the worst-case scenario here is probably a rotational back who dominates passing downs. Utah State rookie Michael Smith is an interesting depth chart name, too, a player with 4.33 speed who averaged 7.6 YPC last season. Think about him in deeper dynasty formats.
I'd like to be careful not to oversell V-Jax, because I don't really think he's earned a place among the elite receivers. He's never caught 70 passes in any season, he hasn't reached 1,200 receiving yards, and he's never scored double-digit TDs. Jackson has also put a few games on tape in which he's looked utterly zombified. But he's a legit deep threat, a receiver with size (6-foot-5) and talent to spare. He's a nice fit for the offense that we assume the Bucs would like to run, leaning heavily on the ground game, then taking shots off play-action. As long as you're drafting him as a No. 2 wideout — that's where he's going at the moment (ADP 57.5, WR24) — then you likely won't be disappointed with him.
Mike Williams is being selected roughly 55 picks after V-Jax, making him a fair risk/reward play. Williams was as much of a year-two disappointment as Blount, primarily because his touchdown total fell off a cliff (from 11 to three). It's worth noting that he actually caught as many passes last season as he did in his much-more-useful rookie campaign (65). Perhaps we should have never expected him to maintain a rate of one TD for every six catches. There's some nice off-season propaganda out there on Williams right now — "It was a great camp! ... Best shape of my life! ... Learning so much from Jackson!" — so it's easy to talk yourself into drafting him, given the friendly price. You have to think the presence of V-Jax will relieve pressure, and he's just a season removed from a top-12 finish at his position.
It's tough to imagine this offense producing more than two ownable pass-catchers, but Preston Parker, Arrelious Benn, Dezmon Briscoe, and Sammie Stroughter have all had their moments. Parker is coming off the most productive season out of that group (which isn't saying a ton, but there it is), and he has Freeman's full confidence. He enters camp as the team's presumptive No. 3 wide receiver. With Winslow now in Seattle, tight end duties in Tampa fall to a decline-phase Dallas Clark and former fourth-rounder Luke Stocker. Neither really has a reasonable shot at reaching Winslow's target total from last season (121). No need to mess with 'em, given the league-wide depth at the position. If you're looking for someone to convince you to take a flier on Clark, look elsewhere. He falls outside the top-20 in my tight end ranks.
This defense didn't do anything well last year, as we mentioned above, and they don't have many appealing match-ups on the schedule. If you want to take a shot with DE Adrian Clayborn (7.5 sacks) in an IDP league, fine. Rookie safety Mark Barron could prove useful as well, and so might first-year linebacker Lavonte David. But don't touch this team DEF in standard leagues. (And no, you probably didn't need an expert for that last nugget).
2011 team stats: 17.9 PPG (NFL rank 27), 91.1 rush YPG (30), 239.9 pass YPG (17), 27.83 yards/drive (19), 0.209 turnovers/drive (32)