Every year, Football Outsiders publishes their outstanding Football Outsiders Almanac. And every year, we ask them a couple of questions about that humongous tome previewing every NFL team. This year, Vince Verhei wrote the chapter on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he was kind enough to join us to preview the Bucs' season. Why should the Bucs start Josh McCown? What can we expect of the defense? What was up with those blitzes last year?
1. Despite what most would consider to be a slightly better supporting cast (or at least a healthier one), the Almanac projects Mike Glennon to statistically get slightly worse. And while McCown is in line for a hefty regression according to the same model, he'd still be a more productive player. Should they be investing more in Glennon, or is sticking with the player likely to be more productive immediately a better guess, here?
The thing is, both of those players are very difficult to project. Glennon surprised us last year, so how do we weigh our post-draft projections against his 2013 performance? We know McCown played lights-out over his head last season, but will he return to his usual level of play (i.e., horrible), or will he split the difference. There is probably something to be said for the cliché of "establishing a winning culture," and if the coaching staff feels McCown gives the team their best chance to win, then he should start. Long-term, though, there is zero benefit to playing McCown, and the Bucs would probably be better off developing Glennon and determining how good he can really be.
2. You had Tim Wright as the sixth-best tight end by DYAR and the eighth-best by DVOA in 2013. Despite that pretty impressive-sounding stat, you have him catching just 18 passes for 178 yards this season. Why does the model think he'll fall off the map?
Opportunity. Wright was (due to injuries) the top tight end in Tampa Bay last year; now, he's behind Austin Sefarian-Jenkins and Brandon Myers on the depth chart. Realistically, Wright probably would have failed to match his numbers from last season anyway, if only because there wasn't a ton of room for improvement. Now, it seems unlikely that he'll even get a chance.
3. One interesting stat is that the Bucs managed to pressure the quarterback on 35% of blitzes (5+ rushers), which led the league, but still gave up an above-average 6.8 yards per play on those blitzes. How common is it to see that combination of getting pressure and still managing below-average defense?
Surprisingly, there's not a very strong correlation between pressure frequency and yards per play. That's counter-intuitive, because (obvious fact alert) every defense plays better when they get pressure than when they don't. There are so many other factors that determine pass defense success that it's hard to separate pass rush from coverage, tackling, scheme, etc. In Tampa Bay's case, those blitzes left Johnthan Banks and Leonard Johnson in one-on-one coverage. So on those blitzes where quarterbacks weren't pressured, they often made a big play. (If it makes you feel better, Dallas got pressure on 30 percent of blitzes, which was better than average, but still gave up 9.2 yards per play on those blitzes, 1.7 yards more than any other defense.)
4. The Bucs are going to rely on a lot of rookies to carry the offense, most notably Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Your model predicts they'll combine for just slightly more than 1,000 yards as rookies. How likely are they put up productive seasons, given recent trends in rookie receivers/tight ends?
I guess it depends on what you consider to be a productive season. In the past five years, only two rookies (A.J. Green and Keenan Allen) have gone over 1,000 yards receiving, but eight others have topped 800 yards, including DeAndre Hopkins for Houston last year. Wright-and I only just now realized this-had the third-best rookie season for a tight end this century, trailing only John Carlson (627 yards for Seattle in 2008) and Jeremy Shockey (894 for the Giants in 2002). Based on what other rookies have done in recent history, Bucs should be happy if Evans gets about 800 yards this season, and if ASJ gets about half of that.
5. Lovie Smith has kind of a ridiculous history of producing top-notch defenses year in, year out. How good can this Bucs defense be?
Smith started with the Chicago Bears in 2004, taking over a defense that had finished 16th in our rankings the year before. That ranking improved to ninth in Smith's first year, and in his nine-year run with the Bears, they finished in the top ten eight times, with five top-five rankings and two season on top of our defensive tables. Their best year was actually in Smith's last season; they led the league in defensive DVOA in 2012, with a defense that was better overall than last year's Super Bowl champion Seahawks (though the ‘13 Hawks were better against the pass than the ‘12 Bears).
What's most interesting about Smith's Bears defenses, as it pertains to the Bucs, is that they excelled in making plays in coverage-they intercepted 181 passes in Smith's nine seasons. Only Green Bay (185) had more over that timeframe. (Both defenses probably benefitted from the clown shows at quarterback the Lions and Vikings have featured for most of the past decade.) Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David pretty much guarantee that the run defense will be at least OK, but the secondary seems to be Tampa Bay's defensive weakness. If Smith can get Goldson/Barron/Verner/etc. to replicate the success his Bears DBs had, there's no reason to think this defense can't be one of the best in the league in 2014. But that is a very big "if."
You can follow Vince Verhei on Twitter at @FO_VVerhei.
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