Fantasy Football: Breaking Down the Position Battles in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Offense
Get anyone talking about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and you'll undoubtedly hear them marvel at the number of "weapons" this team possesses at the offensive skill positions.
Excessive "weapons" are great for the overall offense but can make it very difficult to uncover the preferred options in fantasy football.
Tight End: Cameron Brate vs. O.J. Howard
O.J. Howard was the 19th overall selection in the 2017 draft and immediately found his way on the field, playing 64.8 percent of the team's offensive snaps in 13 games, per PlayerProfiler.com. Although he got plenty of burn, Howard was used primarily as a blocker in 2017, seeing only 3.0 targets per game.
Cameron Brate, on the other hand, lacks the same draft pedigree. He was an undrafted free agent out of Harvard and is currently entering his fifth NFL season with Tampa Bay. Last season, Brate saw 4.8 targets per game, but was on the field for only 56.4 percent of the team's offensive snaps.
But who figures to be the primary fantasy option for 2018?
"We will see more of Howard," Auman said. "He is the more complete tight end of the two, and his role will increase as he can be used more places on the field."
Howard only departed the in-line position for the slot on 6.5% of his snaps while Brate did so on 20.2% of snaps in 2017, so if Howard can see an increase in slot routes and more advantageous alignments, he could see more targets from Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick, who figures to open the first three games as quarterback following Winston's suspension.
"Brate has been the best touchdown option for Jameis Winston in the past," Auman said, referencing Brate's 14 touchdowns in the past two seasons. "But what the coaching staff likes about the two-tight-end sets is that it doesn't tip their hand."
Even on limited targets (39) in 2017, Howard was able to match Brate's 6 touchdowns.
It is reasonable to assume that both Howard and Brate will continue to be used. Howard has the draft pedigree, and Brate inked a major deal to keep him in Tampa Bay this offseason. However, as long as they are both around, each one will continue to cap the upside of the other, particularly as the team projects to see more positive game scripts in 2018.
Howard certainly projects for a year-two leap in production and offers the higher ceiling, but Brate isn't going anywhere any time soon.
Running Back: Ronald Jones vs. Peyton Barber
Coming out of the season, the feeling was that Tampa liked what they had in running back Peyton Barber, who closed out the year as the Bucs' starter. Barber's Rushing Success Rate of 45.4 percent was significantly higher than the league average of 38.1 percent in 2017. However, the team drafted rookie running back Ronald Jones with the 38th overall selection this summer.
Auman noted that the team trusts Barber, but Jones looks to be the man to beat in the backfield and "would have to struggle to some degree" in order for Barber to carve out his own role in the offense besides spelling the rookie.
"The Bucs love the big play potential of Ronald Jones," Auman said. "The team totaled just nine yards on touchdown runs in 2017. By comparison, Ronald Jones' touchdown runs totaled 343 yards last year at USC."
With those two backs, there may not be much else to go around for the rest of the backfield.
Auman indicated that Charles Sims should remain involved in the passing game, but he added that Jacquizz Rodgers could struggle to keep a roster spot. Rodgers will battle with a few undrafted free agent rookies, including special teams ace Shaun Wilson out of Duke.
Our projections currently rank Jones as the 30th running back heading into the season by way of 180 rushes for 704 yards and 4.8 touchdowns on the ground plus, 33 receptions for 247 yards and 0.8 touchdowns through the air.
If Jones can perform well early and show the Bucs that he doesn't require Barber to serve as his training wheels, there is significant opportunity for Jones to outperform expectations.
Wide Receiver: DeSean Jackson vs. Chris Godwin
"There is certainly a more pronounced feeling [that] they can't all be on the field at the same time," Auman said, referencing the sheer quantity of talented pass-catchers available in the offense.
Jackson, who has always been a big-play threat, was actually below league average in 2017 in numberFire's Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target.
His 0.62 Reception NEP per target compared poorly to the wide receiver average of 0.65. By comparison, Jackson averaged 0.76 Reception NEP per target the year before in Washington, where he was better able to show off his big play ability. His poor year could open the door for second-year wide receiver Chris Godwin.
Godwin averaged 0.78 NEP per target in 2017, and the coaching staff wants him more involved in 2018.
"Godwin is a versatile guy," Auman said. "They cross train their receivers, and a smaller role for DeSean Jackson is probably a more pronounced role."
While Godwin profiles as an outside receiver, the Bucs customarily ask their wide receivers to line up in multiple areas. If Godwin can emerge as a leader in two-wide-receiver sets, that would be a major boost to his floor and ceiling because 12-personnel (one running back and two tight ends) is Tampa's preferred set.
Cashing In On Upside
Coming off a 5-11 season and opening 2018 with Winston on the bench, there will be a lot of pressure on Tampa Bay to perform in 2018. A retooled offensive line and several expensive additions to the defensive line should allow the Bucs to be more competitive throughout the season and dictate their style more effectively.
However, oddsmakers have hung Tampa Bay out to dry as the Bucs sport an over/under of 6.5 wins (per BetOnline) and trail only the New York Jets in odds to win their division (+1200). The Winston news has soured the public on them a bit, and recency bias has the consensus much closer to their 5-11 record in 2017 than their 9-7 showing in 2016.
With the Panthers, Saints, and Falcons also in the NFC South, the division figures to be one of the tougher ones in the NFL, but Tampa looks more prepared to compete in 2018. Our models like them to hit the over on their win total, which only helps to make their high-upside weapons all the more appealing in fantasy football.
For now, it looks like Howard, Jones, and Godwin are the players to target in an offense that figures to exceed expectations in 2018.