Fantasy Managers Seek Clarity: Bucs Edition

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Fantasy managers hate uncertainty. In fact, we loathe it. We’d fight it on the street if we could, assuming we could tear ourselves away from our screens for however long it takes to finish a street fight.

There are few NFL teams with more uncertainty surrounding target distribution and rushing attempts than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs are (almost) the exact same team that won the Super Bowl six months ago and you would be forgiven if you don’t know what to do with their most productive players in August fantasy drafts.

That’s why I reached out to The Athletic’s Greg Auman, a first-rate beat writer covering the Bucs. Auman brought some clarity to Tampa’s maddeningly unclear backfield situation, which guy might serve as the team’s primary pass-catching tight end, and how wide receiver targets might be distributed in 2021.

Auman’s studied takes and training camp observations might even make you reasonably confident in fading or targeting Bucs players as the NFL regular season approaches.

Running backs

Leonard Fournette (7.07 ADP, RB34)
Ronald Jones (7.05 ADP, RB35)
Giovani Bernard (12.01 ADP, RB53)

Fantasy drafters have no idea what to do with Jones and Fournette. Hence, their nearly identical average draft positions. Lombardi Lenny’s late-season run was a heavy smear of lipstick on a pig of a season for the veteran back. Fournette was wretched for much of his first year in Tampa, and Jones’ December quad injury opened up enough opportunity for Fournette to look reasonably valuable for fantasy purposes.

Jones, meanwhile, had nearly double the carries of Fournette in the 2020 regular season and was worlds more efficient. Averaging 5.1 yards per tote to Lenny’s 3.8 yards per carry, Jones -- three years younger than Fournette -- was 23.8 fantasy points over expectation on the ground, per RotoViz. Fournette was a meager 8.2 points over expectation as a rusher. Both were utterly miserable as pass catchers. More on that momentarily.

The Tampa Bay Times’ Rick Stroud said this offseason that if Jones had “remained healthy down the stretch … who’s to say he wouldn’t have similarly flourished in the playoffs, when the Bucs became more committed to the run and play-action?”

It’s a worthwhile question.

Auman said nothing much has changed in the backfield since the start of the Bucs’ training camp. He said Jones and Fournette will “split time as primary ball carriers” in a Tampa offense that was 27th in rushing yards last season (and still somehow won a Super Bowl. Hmm.)

Then there’s the mustachioed veteran pass-catching back Gio Bernard, a priority signing by the Bucs this offseason after Jones and Fournette continually flubbed checkdown passes from Tom Brady in 2020 (as recently as this week, Fournette was seen dropping passes in practice). Auman described Bernard as the team’s “pass-catching third-down back.”

Bernard might -- just might -- be much more than that.

Head coach Bruce Arians offered this noteworthy quote on Bernard after the Bucs’ first preseason game against the Bengals: “I don’t mind him out on first and second (down) either. He’s a heck of a player. A lot of trust in him right now. He’s been a great addition.”

If you’ve been drafting Bernard in best ball leagues all spring and summer, your knees might be weak. If he truly has potential to play on some early downs in the Bucs’ productive pass game, Bernard will be among the biggest values in all of fantasy football this season.

“Bernard will be an upgrade [as a pass catcher out of the backfield], and in pass protection as well,” Auman told me. Asked about Bernard’s role being similar to that of James White’s with Brady in New England, Auman said, “[Bernard] and James White played in the same high school backfield together, so Bernard knows well how much Brady likes throwing to his backs. White was prolific, so not sure Bernard will match his overall production, but 40-50 catches would be easy this season.”

Jones is my preference if forced to choose between him and Fournette in the middle rounds. Jones has been good when given the chance; Fournette has always been a creature of volume. Without a mass of backfield touches, Fournette won't thrive. But why take Jones or Fournette when one can simply draft Bernard? More and more are asking this.

Wide receivers

Mike Evans (4.05 ADP, WR15)

Chris Godwin (4.12 ADP, WR18)

Antonio Brown (7.11 ADP, WR33)

Tom Brady’s inexplicable bond with the mercurial Antonio Brown is going to be the source of much consternation in fantasy circles this season. I hate it, you hate it, we all hate it. But we must adjust.

Auman said Brown, 33, “looks a step faster in training camp” than he did in the last half of the 2020 season, and will continue to siphon targets from Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.

“Much of [Brown’s] production last year was when Evans and Godwin were limited or out with injuries, so it'll be hard for [Brown] to duplicate, but he's the best No. 3 receiver in the NFL,” Auman told me. “Evans carved out a huge role as Brady's go-to red zone target, as seen with a team-record 13 touchdowns, but a healthy Brown for 16 games could definitely put Evans' record streak of seven straight 1,000-yard seasons to open a career in jeopardy.”

Evans’ 2020 production screams unsustainability. The big man accounted for almost 30 percent of the team’s pass attempts inside the 10 and caught nine of 14 targets inside the 10-yard line -- for nine touchdowns. His season long numbers were propped up by a career-high 18.57 percent touchdown rate. Meanwhile, Evans’ 70 receptions and 1,006 receiving yards were career lows for a full season. The Brady Even Distribution Machine is in full effect in Tampa, making Evans a tough sell in redraft.

Brown wasn’t particularly good in the season’s second half, posting a fantasy points over expectation of 17.3, well below Evans’ 27.1 fantasy points over expectation and Godwin’s superb 34.3 over 2020’s last eight weeks. To no one’s surprise, Brown was treated as a more intermediate option for Brady. His 7.9 yards per target and nine air yards per target was well south of Godwin’s and Evans’ numbers.

Most importantly, Brown was second in targets among the Bucs' three wideouts during those eight games, just two targets short of Evans’ team-leading 63. Brown is three and a half rounds cheaper than Godwin and Evans in 12-team leagues. That leaves me little reason to take Evans, no matter his red zone involvement. Godwin is tolerable at his ADP, if just barely.

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Tight ends

Rob Gronkowski (12.02 ADP, TE14)

O.J. Howard (17.03 ADP, TE28)

O.J. Howard’s Week 5 Achilles injury was a brutal and sudden end to what shaped up as a nice statistical season for the uber-athletic tight end. Howard led Bucs tight ends in targets and receptions before the injury. He ran a pass route on nearly 84 percent of his snaps while Rob Gronkowski ran a route on 74.6 percent of his snaps. It’s hardly a huge gap but it’s notable that Howard, when he was on the field, was deployed as a part of the passing attack.

Auman said Howard, fully recovered from the Achilles tear, “definitely has a chance” to be the Bucs’ pass-catching tight end in 2021. “He caught two touchdowns from Brady in four games last year before he tore his Achilles, and while they'll never have the chemistry that Brady has with Rob Gronkowski, Howard will benefit from matchups in 12 personnel when both tight ends are on the field,” Auman said. “A healthy Howard should relegate Cameron Brate to a smaller role, but Howard and Gronk can both have good seasons in this offense.”

The Bucs were 12th in three-receiver set usage last season and tenth in two tight end sets (formation usage that didn't change much when Brown joined the team in Week 9). That offers some hope that Howard could see enough playing time -- and the requisite pass routes -- to become a viable fantasy option in most formats. You may recall Gronk’s trolling of fantasy players last year when he proclaimed himself a blocking tight end and insisted that was the reason he came to Tampa. Many a true word is said in jest. That’s what you’re hoping, at least, if you take Howard in the final rounds this month.