Talk about a turbulent offseason. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers saw a massive loss in talent through “retirement” and then quickly saw that change. After that, they had to let veterans like Ndamukong Suh go, all while losing their head coach. First Tom Brady retires, only to unretire weeks later, a move that some say attributed to Bruce Arians stepping away from the head coaching job. On top of all this, they lost Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Ndamukong Suh, and other key parts to their Super Bowl caliber roster.
The Bucs are hardly in rebuilding mode though. Along with Tom Brady, they managed to bring back Chris Godwin, Leonard Fournette, and Carlton Davis III on defense. Leading this slightly revamped roster is Todd Bowles, a man who is no stranger to the Bruce Arians system that will likely stay in place, though the man himself is now in the front office.
Bowles played for Arians in college when he was a defensive back for the Temple Owls. He was signed as an undrafted free agent by Washington and eventually played himself into a starting role as a safety. Bowles played for a total of seven years in the NFL and won Super Bowl 22 with Washington in 1988.
He moved on to coaching, initially starting out in the college ranks and then moving to the NFL in a variety of defensive coaching positions. Eventually, he became interim head coach of the Miami Dolphins after they fired Tony Sparano in 2011. He did not retain the job and eventually became defensive coordinator under Bruce Arians with the Arizona Cardinals.
Just two seasons later, Bowles was named head coach of the New York Jets. He led the team to a 10-6 record his first season, narrowly missing the playoffs. Unfortunately, he was unable to solve his quarterback woes during his time in charge. He was forced to start Fitzpatrick, Christian Hackenberg, Bryce Petty, and Sam Darnold in his rookie year.
Bowles was fired after four seasons with the Jets and a 24-40 overall record. He was hired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to once again coach with longtime colleague Bruce Arians. As defensive coordinator, Bowles was a key part of the Buccaneers dismantling the Saints, Packers, and Chiefs to win their second-ever Super Bowl in the 2020 season.
Now that Arians has stepped back from the head coaching gig, for whatever reason, it’s time for Bowles to prove that he can succeed as a head coach. From Tom Brady to Russell Gage to even some players on defense, let’s take a look at how this change will affect the Bucs.
This article won’t dive too deeply into Todd Bowles’ defensive system. The basic version of it is Bowles uses a variety of rusher attacks while relying on Devin White and Lavonte David to cover a majority of the middle of the field. Despite some key departures on defense, the selections of Joe Tryon and Logan Hall in the last two drafts, and Akiem Hicks in free agency, have softened those blows.
Fantasy-wise, it is more valuable to discuss offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. The former NFL quarterback has skyrocketed through the coaching ranks in just a few years after starting as the quarterback’s coach for the Arizona Cardinals in 2017. After several successful seasons as the Bucs’ OC, he has received some head coach interest but is returning to Tampa Bay for another season.
Leftwich runs a fairly traditional West Coast scheme. Utilizing short passes for most of his drives and then hoping to stretch the field, usually using outside size, particularly Mike Evans. The two key differences in Leftwich’s system from your typical West Coast offense are the running game (or lack thereof) and the number of screen passes.
For the last two years, it has been extremely hard to trust any of the Buccaneers running backs. Leonard Fournette ended up finishing as the 11th-best back last year in fantasy but that was largely thanks to a 71-point stretch from Weeks 12-14. The Bucs next best running back last year was Ke’Shawn Vaughn who finished 87th. It’s also worth noting that Fournette finished 39th in 2020, not even the top spot in the Bucs backfield.
Leftwich’s offenses have finished below the league average in rushing attempts and efficiency over the last three seasons. While this can partially be attributed to Tom Brady’s more traditional approach to running an offense, Leftwich has had a history of not trusting the run game going back to his days in Arizona.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Leftwich tends to run screen passes more than the league average. So rather than depending on the run to slowly push the ball up the field, he likes giving his playmaking wideouts room to show off. What this means for fantasy owners is, past the always-dependable Mike Evans, receivers like Tyler Johnson and the newly-signed Russell Gage have some valuable (and underrated) PPR opportunities in the Buccaneers offense.
Who Stands to Benefit?
Leonard Fournette, RB
I know, I know, I’m just coming off a whole rant about how he has disappointed in the past. However, with Ronald Jones now in Kansas City, Fournette is now unquestionably the main back in Tampa Bay. While Ke’Shawn Vaughn will certainly take some catching opportunities away, Fournette will undoubtedly be the go-to option in goal-line situations.
The arrival of rookie Rachaad White certainly introduces some uncertainty, but Fournette’s 58 carries over the last four games of the season in 2022 certainly indicates there is growing trust between him, Brady, and Leftwich. Fournette is a perfect mid-round target with good FLEX value that could elevate into RB2/low-end RB1 territory if White doesn’t eat into his production too much.
Cameron Brate, TE
Along with screen passes, one thing you will quickly notice about Leftwich’s offense is he loves to have tight ends on the field. In almost 90% of plays, the Bucs offense will have a tight end somewhere on the field. Usually, it’s on the line but occasionally they’ll be split out in the slot, although I anticipate that will happen more rarely with Rob Gronkowski now retired.
Another effect of Gronk’s retirement will be the re-emergence of Cameron Brate as the top tight end option for Tom Brady. It’s been almost five years since Brate had over five touchdowns in a season but from 2016-2018, he finished with at least six touchdowns. With Gronk gone and O.J. Howard in Jacksonville, Brate is once again the top man at tight end.
Rookie Cade Otton could throw a wrench in these expectations but if Tom Brady has proven anything over the past few years, it’s that he can make the most of multiple tight ends. Brate’s ADP currently ranks him as the 24th-best tight end when he could end up being a low-end TE1 by the time the season is over. He’s the perfect player to target in the last three rounds as a bench and stash.
Potential Break-Out Player
Russell Gage, WR
Without a doubt, one of the more wild stories in the NFL this season (again) was Antonio Brown. Over the seven games he played for the Buccaneers, he averaged 11.3 points per game in half-PPR formats including three games with 15+ points. Unfortunately, in true AB fashion, Brown had a meltdown that seemingly ended his NFL career for good, and certainly, his playing future with the Bucs is over.
Enter: Russell Gage. Gage is coming off a career year where he saw 94 targets, 66 receptions for 770 yards, and four touchdowns. Stats won’t exactly jump out at you until you realize he accomplished that with an unspeakably shallow receiver corps where he was essentially the only target out wide.
In more than half of last season, Gage finished as WR18 and averaged 11.3 points per game in half-PPR leagues, the same number as Brown. His advanced statistics also show that Gage’s numbers weren’t simply the product of a high target rate, he made the most of his opportunities as well. His 2.3 yards per route run ranked him 12th in the league in that category.
Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Gronk all averaged 24 targets per game in the Bucs offense last season which was also the pass-heaviest in the NFL. So even if Chris Godwin is healthy, which is a big if, Gage is still a good value. Don’t be surprised if Gage, who you could, and should, begin targeting around the 5th or 6thround, finishes as a top-25 wide receiver this season.
Tom Brady Will Finish Outside The Top 10 This Season
Like Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean, you are likely saying to yourself, “That is too bold.” Brady is coming off a top-three finish in fantasy and all signs point to the Buccaneers keeping their passing attempt numbers high. However, if you look at Brady’s first season in Tampa Bay, he finished eighth. The two seasons before that, he finished outside of the top 10.
A large reason why Brady has remained so seemingly ageless is because of the weapons around him, and with Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski gone and Chris Godwin’s recovery still hovering over that side of the ball, there is enough doubt to see the GOAT finish outside the top 10.
It’s also worth noting that the Tampa Bay offense without Arians but with Brady is a first-time experiment this year. It remains to be seen just how big of an impact Arians’ absence will have on how this offense is run.
Still expect Brady to be drafted as a QB1 but be wary that this could be the season where Father Time finally catches up to him.