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Why Football Outsiders isn’t high on O.J. Howard and DeSean Jackson, either

The stats analysts aren’t optimistic about the Bucs this season.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Football Outsiders has not been optimistic about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ chances and development this year, to say the least. We talked about the general reasons for that pessimism with them last week, but we delve into the details a little more today.

Why are DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard not going to transform the Bucs offense this year? What could the Bucs have done differently? Will Jameis Winston be much better, or mostly the same questions. Football Outsiders’ Andrew Potter has the answers to those questions, and a few more—at least from their perspective.

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Outsiders hasn’t been as excited about DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard as many analysts have been. Could you explain why your models aren’t all that impressed with these additions?

The Howard question is the easier one to answer: he’s a rookie tight end. Those guys, historically, just don’t have that big an impact. Even top-tier receiving talents like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Jordan Reed didn’t explode onto the scene in their rookie seasons. (Travis Kelce is a notable omission here; he missed almost his entire rookie season on injured reserve.) Just last year Hunter Henry had a great rookie season for the Chargers, ranking sixth in DYAR and scoring eight touchdowns, but still didn’t reach 500 yards and wasn’t his team’s leading receiver at tight end. Most of those guys are eased into action as a rookie, focussing on adjusting to the position’s greater demands at the NFL level, then are finally unleashed in their second year. We expect a similar progression for Howard.

Jackson’s situation is a little different, in that we aren’t down on Jackson himself. We project him to finish second on the team in yards and receptions – nobody’s taking first away from Mike Evans as long as Evans is healthy – but still rack up over 900 yards on 100 targets. Most teams would take that from their second receiver! The issue here is that adding a top receiver doesn’t tend to make as big a difference to the team outcomes, especially for teams with winning records. About the only recent examples of a big-name veteran receiver markedly improving a team with a winning record were both guys who will undoubtedly end up in the Hall of Fame: Terrell Owens for the 2004 Eagles, and Randy Moss for the 2007 Patriots. Jackson is a great player and will probably have a hugely productive year, but he alone isn’t likely to take the Buccaneers from 9-7 wild card contenders to 12-4 division winners, especially given all of the other stuff I talked about above.

You note that the Bucs offense was terrible in the first half of games and awesome in the second half of games. Is that something that generally carries over into this season, or more likely to be a statistical mirage?

We’ve never found any evidence that this carries over from one year to the next. I’d expect that any possible root causes would be weeded out in the evaluation process every team goes through at the end of each season. It’s just an interesting little tidbit from last season’s numbers.

Can you give us a quick impression of how you expect Jameis Winston will do in his third season, and why?

Jameis Winston, in 2016, was roughly a league-average starting quarterback. If that sounds like it’s underselling him a bit, we probably have a bit of a skewed view of just how good a league-average starter is. He ranked 15th in DYAR and 16th in DVOA as a passer, with an above-average number of both touchdowns and interceptions. The thing is, he was almost identical in 2015, his rookie year: 16th in DYAR, 16th in DVOA, with an above-average number of touchdowns and interceptions.

That’s consistent enough to suggest that we have a pretty good idea who Jameis Winston is: he’ll probably have more volume this year than he did last year, because that looks like the team’s focus on offense, but he’s not likely to suddenly become a much more efficient passer. I would expect to see him increase his yardage total again, perhaps as high as 4,500 yards, flirt with the 30 touchdown mark, and be among the league leaders – say top 5 – in interceptions.

The turnover column’s the most critical of those: if he can bring those interception numbers down while retaining the big-play ability he’s already shown, that would go a long way toward making this offseason’s dreams a reality, and move Winston himself a little closer that to established upper tier of (dare we use the word “elite”?) quarterbacks.

What should the Bucs have done differently this offseason to have had a good chance of making the playoffs?

It’s hard to say that they should have done much differently, because a lot of what the Buccaneers still appear to need really wasn’t available in either the draft or free agency. It would have been awesome to see them have a chance at Eric Berry, but Berry never made it to the market and there (understandably!) weren’t any other truly game-changing safeties available. Jason Pierre-Paul would have been my next target, but he never made it to the market either.

This is the most talent-starved and voracious offensive line market I can remember – even Matt Kalil is earning big money after three years of injuries and poor play – so even though the Buccaneers are one of the many teams in need of linemen, I’d take my chances with what I have too if $11m per year is the going rate for an unreliable left tackle. Still, a Kevin Zeitler or a Larry Warford would make me feel a whole lot better about the line, and I’d be giving the tyres of former Buccaneers draftee Jeremy Zuttah a good, hard kick right about now.

Philosophically, I thought they would have been better completing the defense – a safer safety, one of a decent group of free-agent cornerbacks, and a top-tier defensive end such as Calais Campbell – instead of making splash moves on offense, but you need the right players to fill those holes and I’m not going to argue that they shouldn’t have signed the best receiver available. (Even if I feel that Chris Godwin is actually better suited to Jameis Winston’s playing style.) I’d feel a whole lot better about their prospects with a top offensive lineman instead though, and I have very little confidence in that secondary to repeat last season’s success.