TAMPA, Fla. -- When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take the field for training camp, they’ll be seen not only as playoff contenders with Tom Brady as their quarterback, but also as a team capable of enormous fantasy football production. Here’s a closer look at how Brady can rebound from a down year in fantasy last season, and how he’ll make an impact for the Bucs' receivers, running backs and tight ends in coach Bruce Arians’ offense.
Where will the ball go?
Brady’s 263.68 fantasy points in 2019 were the lowest of his career since his 258.56 points in 2016, when he played in 12 games. He shouldn't be frustrated by a lack of options in Tampa Bay, with two 1,100-yard receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, plus a healed and reinvigorated Rob Gronkowski, not to mention Cam Brate and O.J. Howard at tight end.
What will be interesting is where the ball goes. Brady is capable of distributing high-level fantasy output to multiple receiving targets, but it’s typically with two pass-catchers -- not three. In the past 12 seasons, Brady has had a wide receiver finish in the top 20 at the position 13 times, and he's had a tight end finish in the top 15 at the position 11 times. The only instance when three Patriots pass-catchers had top-end fantasy production was in 2011, when Brady was throwing to fantasy's top tight end (Gronkowski), third-best tight end (Aaron Hernandez) and second-best wide receiver (Wes Welker).
At first glance, it appears Evans, Godwin and Gronkowski will benefit the most. But there will be some challenges, including adjusting to a different type of personnel.
How will Brady adjust to different types of receivers?
Brady’s hasn’t thrown to a dominant No. 1 outside receiver since Randy Moss (2007-09). Evans would be the closest thing to Moss on the Bucs’ roster, averaging 9.19 targets per game -- eighth-most of any player in the league since 2014. If Evans reaches 1,000 yards this year, he’ll become the first player in NFL history to reach 1,000 yards in each of his first seven seasons.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brady has had nine pass-catchers who have averaged 9.0 or more targets per game in a season, but only Moss was a true outside receiver. All the others -- Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Troy Brown -- were slot receivers. The Bucs don’t have a true slot receiver, which raises the next question.
Will Godwin’s role evolve?
In his first year as a full-time starter and his first year moving into the slot under Arians, Godwin averaged 8.57 targets per game -- 15th in the league -- and just below Evans’ 9.00 targets. His 71.7% reception rate was second most of any receiver in the top 15 in targets, behind only the Saints' Michael Thomas (80.5%). While Godwin is sure-handed, and his 4.42-second speed in the 40-yard dash is more than enough to outrun defensive backs downfield, he’s not the same kind of player Brady is used to having in the slot.
Brady’s slot receivers in New England contributed more in the short-passing game and won with quickness on crossing routes. How will Brady adapt to this?
The most important drills for slot receivers are the three-cone drill, the 20-yard shuttle and the 10-yard split in the 40-yard dash. Godwin’s 1.54 10-yard split is a solid number for a player his size. But Julian Edelman’s was a 1.52 and Deion Branch a 1.51. In his 20-yard shuttle, Godwin clocked a 4.00, compared to Edelman’s 3.92 and Branch’s 3.76. In his three-cone drill, Godwin clocked a 7.01, versus Edelman’s 6.62 and Branch’s 6.71. What does this all suggest?
Godwin is not as quick or natural at changing direction as the smaller Edelman and Branch. So while he was productive in Arians’ slot receiver role, he might not have been in New England.
Will it doom Godwin? No. He’s an incredible talent. And another incredible talent, Michael Thomas, had a 1.55 10-yard split, 4.13 in the 20-yard shuttle and a 6.8 in the three-cone -- all excellent numbers for a player who is 6-foot-3 and 203 pounds -- and he’s been the most productive slot receiver in the league. And they’re running Arians’ offense, not Bill Belichick’s.
But it could take longer for Brady and Godwin to develop chemistry. Brady might not be entirely sure how to use him at first and we might see him more on the outside. We really won’t know until we see the team in training camp.
It could also mean a player like Scotty Miller -- who fits into New England’s traditional slot role a bit better -- steps into the mix.
What does this say for running backs?
Since 2001, Brady’s teams accumulated 6,721 fantasy points from running backs -- second-most in the league in that span -- and 8,331 PPR points, third-most. He also has had the second-most pass attempts (1,995) and completions (1,474) to running backs in the league behind Drew Brees. Brady’s 771.0 fantasy points on passes thrown to running backs are also second-most in the league since 2013, and his 69 touchdowns are tied with Philip Rivers for second-most to RBs in that span.
How does that mesh with Arians’ backs historically? It depends what season you look at and the talent he had available.
From 2013 to 2017, Arians’ running backs scored 2075.60 fantasy points -- 13th in the league -- with 2,620 points in PPR (points per reception) leagues, ranking 15th. However, in 2016 -- David Johnson’s breakout year -- the Cardinals had 390.90 fantasy points from running backs, fourth-most in the league, with 484 points in PPR, third-most. Arians’ preference is to have a balanced attack, Brady tends to function best this way, too, but do they have the personnel to do it?
Brady’s arrival could hurt Ronald Jones, who took over the first- and second-down role from Peyton Barber midway through the 2019 season -- but struggled in pass blocking. Jones was ranked 53rd of 60 in Pro Football Focus’ pass-blocking efficiency metric.
Rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn doesn’t have Jones’ explosiveness, but he did catch 29 passes in his final season at Vanderbilt, so he’s more of a natural pass-catcher and a complete back.
Dare Ogunbowale and T.J. Logan both factor into the equation on third down, but neither of these players scream “game-wrecker.” So, as was the case last year, proceed with caution if you’re thinking about picking up any Bucs running back, unless they can get a player such as Devonta Freeman on a cheaper deal than his initial asking price.
How much will they use the tight end?
The most intriguing aspect of the union of Brady and Arians will be the impact on tight end targets. In Arians’ five years with the Cardinals, his team had 584.44 standard fantasy points by tight ends and 947 PPR points, second-lowest of any team in the league. But Arians never had a superb tight end. The best he has had was Heath Miller in Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile in New England, Brady threw 176 touchdown passes to tight ends, the most in NFL history, according to Elias. Arians isn’t known for making his tight ends the focal point of the offense -- especially downfield -- but he and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich would be silly not to line up Gronk all over the field. They can use him as a downfield option and not just horizontally, as Arians’ tight ends often do. They should also line Gronk out wide, too, especially at the goal line, which he frequently did in New England.
If Gronkowski’s not available, then whom should fantasy owners turn to? While Brate seems like the more reliable No. 2 option, especially given his red zone production in previous years and Howard’s struggles adjusting to Arians’ offense, Brate’s inability to block might limit him in this offense, since protecting the 43-year-old Brady will be paramount.