What a difference one year has made for the Buccaneers, and three of their returning skill players. Tampa Bay’s 2011 season began with sizable optimism, as coaches and players planned to build upon the surprising 10-6 record that they attained in 2010. And a trio of emerging playmakers were fueling Tampa Bay’s apparent resurgence, as Josh Freeman threw for 25 TDs and 3,451 yards in 2010, while only tossing six INTs in 474 attempts. LeGarrette Blount didn’t even capture his first start until week 6, yet he proceeded to outrush all first year runners by rambling for 1,007 yards, while scoring six times in 13 games. And Mike Williams led all rookie WRs in several major categories, while snaring 11 TD receptions. But the production of all three players plunged considerably last year. Freeman’s TD total dropped to 16, and his INTs soared to 22, which was the NFL’s second highest total. Blount only rushed for 781 yards, and scored just five times, despite lining up in more games last season. And Williams entered “season killer” status for many fantasy owners, as his discouraging production included an emphatic drop to just three TDs. Their collective decline played a significant role in the team’s overall free fall, as the Bucs plummeted to a 4-12 record. That cemented them firmly in the NFC South cellar, and hastened the departure of Raheem Morris. In late January, he was replaced by former Rutgers HC Greg Schiano, who is a strong proponent of ball control. That can only improve an anemic rushing attack, that ranked 30th in 2011, averaging a meager 91.1 YPG. So should the addition of former Boise State Bronco Doug Martin, who became the team’s first round draft selection. GM Mark Dominik also addressed Tampa Bay’s passing attack, by signing two-time Pro Bowler Vincent Jackson to a five year contract at the onset of free agency. Both Jackson and Martin will become major contributors in their initial seasons as Buccaneers. That will impact Freeman, Blount, and Williams to varying degrees, as they attempt to rebound from the disappointment of 2011.
From the moment that Tampa Bay made Freeman the 17th overall selection in the 2009 draft, the organization has built the roster with him as their offensive cornerstone. He in turn, rewarded them by quickly developing into a viable starting QB, but his steady improvement abruptly ended last year. When his TD and INT totals both moved in unfavorable directions, it helped drop his rating to a lowly 74.6, which was 26th among all signal callers last season. That placed him below Matt Cassel, Kyle Orton, and even Tarvaris Jackson, and was a massive decline in comparison to 2010, when he ranked sixth (95.9). And despite making the NFL’s eighth highest number of passing attempts (551), his TD total only tied him for 18th. Having two-time Pro Bowler Carl Nicks as his new LG will improve life for Freeman, as will the additions of Jackson and Martin. And he has shed 20 pounds, in hopes of resuming the career progression that had occurred until last season. But in order to be a viable fantasy entity, he must reduce his mistakes significantly, and boost his TD total. The new ball control approach will help him shrink the INT total. But it will also lower his number of attempts, placing a limit on his ceiling for TDs, and somewhat counteracting the presence of Jackson. And even though he will also generate around 200 rushing yards, it is best to maintain modest expectations. Consider him as a No. 2, who can be drafted in the ninth round.
Not only does Martin possess the combination of skills that are required to be an effective every down back, but the Buccaneers will supply him with an opportunity to utilize them early and often. Most observers considered him to be the most talented rookie RB beyond Trent Richardson. And the 5’9”, 223 pound Martin had the good fortune to be drafted by a team whose new HC wants to focus on running the ball. Plus, last year’s leading rusher (Blount) has deficiencies that will cost him significant playing time in Schiano’s new system. Martin’s strength and vision should result in consistent production on first and second downs, and his versatility should keep him on the field in third down situations. He is an effective pass blocker and receiver, which gives him a huge advantage over Blount, who struggles in both areas. Tampa Bay moved up into round one in order to secure Martin, and also signed him to a five year deal. Such a considerable investment was not made so that he could backup Blount, or even split a large allotment of touches with the veteran. Martin will be employed extensively by the Bucs, and you should target him in round five or six.
The assessment of Martin makes it clear that there are many factors working against Blount in his quest for playing time. First, his declining output last season made his status tenuous. Also, when Schiano was discussing Blount in March, the new HC specifically stated that "no one who touches the football will get touches if they don't protect the football”. That was in direct reference to the nine fumbles that Blount has coughed up during his 385 career rushing attempts. Also, Blount has been almost a nonentity as a receiving threat, garnering just 20 receptions in two seasons. It is highly doubtful that Schiano will employ him more frequently in that role. All of which places his stock below Martin’s, regardless of who might be taking first team reps at this point in the summer. If you reach round 12 on draft day, and Blount is still available, he may be worthy of selection as a back who will generate some production early in first quarter of the season. And you can hope that he will be allotted opportunities near the goal line. But there is little reason to consider him any earlier on draft day.
His talent has never been in question, but contractual issues have created uncertainty regarding Jackson’s status in recent seasons. But the franchise tagging, and the lengthy holdout that all occurred in San Diego, have evolved into a lucrative five year deal with Tampa Bay. He now provides Freeman with a 6’5’’, 230 weapon that will invigorate Tampa Bay’s offense. If you eliminate the 2010 season, when a contractual stalemate limited Jackson to just five games, he has averaged 1,124 yards and eight TDs from 2008-2011. He should easily attain similar numbers again this year. However, there is also an element of feast or famine that you should prepare for, if you decide to rely upon Jackson this season. While he generated 1,106 yards last year, that was accomplished in great part by accumulating 140+ yards in three different games. While owners were thrilled with those results, they also had to endure six other contests in which he failed to surpass 34 yards, with totals of 29 or less in four of them. While you should target safer options when selecting your No. 1 WR, he will produce high quality numbers, and can certainly be entrusted as a high end No. 2. Based upon all of the intangibles, the wisest strategy is to plan on drafting him in round four. But if you are committed to having him on your roster, and strongly believe that he can produce at a No.1 level in his new environment, then you may need to secure him in round three.
Just last summer, confident owners (including me) selected him 14th among all WRs, with an ADP of 48. And understandably so, since he had immediately become Freeman’s most trustworthy and explosive target as a rookie in 2010. He not only led Tampa Bay in receptions (65), and yardage (964), but topped all first year WRs in each category. He also tied for fourth among all WRs with those 11 TD catches. But instead of building upon that success in 2011, he became an enormous disappointment to those who drafted him. His yardage total plunged to 771, which was surpassed by 46 WRs and TEs, and (as mentioned previously) scored just three times. Now, he has surrendered the team's No . 1 WR slot to Jackson. And his fantasy value has taken a similar downturn, as a whopping 61 wideouts currently have a better ADP. Maybe the exceptional work ethic that he exhibited in 2010 will help him quickly grasp the new offense, and Williams will rebound sizably this year. But due to Jackson’s presence, and Schiano’s preference for a run oriented approach, it is dangerous to consider Williams as anything beyond a No. 3.
Stocker collected just 12 receptions for 92 yards in 2011, as a knee injury, a hip problem, and the presence of Kellen Winslow, all combined to limit his production. Yet, his health has returned and Winslow has been removed from the roster. And it currently appears that he will capture the No. 1 TE slot ahead of Dallas Clark. A major factor in that decision is his ability to block, which unfortunately does not in itself generate points for owners. But it will enable him to capture the majority of snaps. He certainly is not included among the top tiers at his position. But if you are steadfast in wanting to wait until the end of your draft before selecting your TE, and all familiar names have vanished from your board, Stocker could provide reasonable production. Our own Greg Brosh recently provided some very insightful comments regarding Stocker's potential as a sleeper this season, which you can find here: 2012 Fantasy Football Sleeper: Forget Dallas Clark, Put Stock In Luke Stocker.
It has been a precipitous fall for Clark, who has evolved from an elite TE who caught 100 passes and scored 10 times in 2009, to a guy who is essentially peering up at Luke Stocker on the depth chart. Clark has missed 15 games in the past two seasons, while making just 71 catches. While he will share snaps with Stocker, his deficiencies as a blocker, will keep him sidelined too often. Factor in his diminished skills, and the once elite 10 year veteran should now be relegated to the list of TEs that should be ignored on draft day.