Every year, a team comes out of nowhere to surprise the rest of the league and challenge for a playoff spot. In 2010, the Buccaneers were that team, led by a young quarterback, rookie starters at running back and wide receiver, and a young head coach.
No one expected the Bucs to be this good this soon, but now everyone expects them to keep it up.
It won't come easy. Josh Freeman piloted the Bucs to a 10-6 record thanks to his exceptional play and lack of turnovers (just six interceptions and three fumbles lost all year). Fantasy owners cashed in on Freeman because he was nearly an every-week cinch to land 230-plus passing yards and 20-plus rushing yards, and he only went touchdownless once all year with seven games with two-plus touchdowns.
But it was the help around him that made Freeman so good. The Bucs struck gold with Mike Williams, a fourth-round pick who fit into the starting lineup right away, and LeGarrette Blount, an undrafted free agent signed last September after the Titans cut him loose. Williams went on to record 11 touchdowns on 65 catches with 964 yards, and Blount romped for 1,007 yards on just 201 carries with six end-zone visits. Those guys not only made it easy for Freeman and the Bucs, but both were saviors to their Fantasy owners.
Now the secret is out on these guys, and the Bucs won't sneak up on anyone in 2011. A tougher division coupled with a schedule loaded with some challenges (including a "home" game in London) might make it harder on this offense to match last year's numbers. On the other side of the ball, the defense could have even more problems, which in turn would force Freeman to throw more (and Blount to run less), and thus potentially post more turnovers.
Or, the Bucs might surprise us all and make a Super Bowl run.
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Sleeper ... Kellen Winslow, TE
All right, you know who Winslow is. But I bet you didn't know that he caught over 140 passes over his last two seasons with 10 touchdowns. I bet you didn't know that he led the Bucs in receptions both seasons, and I bet you wouldn't guess that he didn't miss a game over that time. That's right, the man most associated with injury risk among the tight end population has been as healthy as a horse (well, thanks to some offseason surgery). Here's why he's a sleeper: Fantasy owners will fall over themselves to grab the likes of Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, Dallas Clark and Vernon Davis between Rounds 4 and 5. Winslow, who finished as Fantasy Football's seventh-best tight end in 2010, can be had much later -- at least Round 9 and potentially Round 12. By targeting him and other low-end No. 1 tight ends on Draft Day, you can load up at other positions and still expect a good amount of production. Winslow should be earmarked if you whiff on the elite tight ends.
Keeper-league target ... Luke Stocker, TE
Of course, Winslow can't do this forever. That's part of the reason why the Bucs picked up Stocker in the NFL draft. Naturally, they also had a need to improve at their backup tight end spot, and that's the role he'll fill for now. But Stocker has good hands and short- to mid-range receiving ability, so it's not a stretch at all to think he'll eventually be a solid contributor. And if Stocker has a solid training camp and lands some playing time, the Bucs could always flex Winslow out from the linemen and put Stocker there to exploit mismatches. He's not worth picking up in a standard league but he's not bad if we're talking long term.
Bounce-back candidate ... Arrelious Benn, WR
While Mike Williams thrilled Bucs fans and Fantasy owners alike, Tampa Bay's other rookie wideout -- the one they took with a second-round pick -- struggled to impress. And then once Arrelious Benn started to put it all together, he tore his left ACL in Week 16. Instead of spending his offseason improving his route running and overall game, he's rehabbing his knee. That said, all accounts are that he's on pace to get back on the field in August, but even if he's there chances are he won't be 100 percent healthy or 100 percent in tune with the Tampa Bay offense. The hunch here is to pass on Benn on Draft Day and consider him off waivers once he gets into the swing of things with Josh Freeman & Co.
For starters, the Bucs have seven home games and nine road trips, assuming you include their "home" game in London against the Bears to be a roadie. That's never good. The Bucs also play a fair share of pass-happy teams for much of the season; that might mean the offense has to pass a lot to match up on the scoreboard, or it could mean that the offense becomes one-dimensional in its second halves and gets battered. A big key will be to see how the Bucs deal with star cornerback Aqib Talib, who got in some trouble this offseason -- if he's gone and their safeties aren't improved, the Bucs' secondary will be a liability. You might want to grab Buccaneers for the Fantasy postseason run, though -- they play the Panthers twice and Jaguars once between Weeks 13 and 16.
Training camp topics
As we said earlier, these Bucs won't sneak up on anyone in 2011. So in order for Freeman, Williams and Blount to put up the production we expect, they have to step up. That should be easiest for Blount, who was a brute force last year running behind one of the better young O-lines in football. If the line remains strong, he should be OK, though it remains to be seen who his primary backup will be. If you draft Blount, you'll want his backup in case he slows down during the season. But Freeman, and by association Williams, might be in for tough times. For Freeman to repeat his 25-touchdown, nine-turnover endeavor will take much skill and luck, and if he falters in any way then Williams' numbers will be impacted. Williams scored in 10 of 16 games last season -- that's going to be a tough task to achieve with defenses keying in on him. Then again, defenses knew he was the primary playmaker late last season and he still finished with four touchdowns in his last three games. If you draft Freeman and/or Williams, do it expecting a slight decline in stats this year but not enough of a decline to make them unappealing.
Tampa Bay's defense got a double dose of pass rush help on Draft Day with Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers joining the team via first- and second-round picks. The infusion of youth combined with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy playing from the inside should give the Bucs the good Cover-2 look they've been desperate for. But the secondary is in flux and they're expected to lose star linebacker Barrett Ruud, which could result in some pretty big complications against the pass.
Arrelious Benn (knee; questionable for the start of training camp).
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