2019 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Fantasy Football Preview
Labeled the "perfect fit" by their new head coach, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have lured Bruce Arians out of his brief retirement and back to the sidelines as their new head coach. Arians becomes the oldest head coaching hire in NFL history, and, according to him, "the sexiest" hire as well.
Indeed, this fantasy situation drips in sex appeal. Between Arians' high-flying, aggressive attack, Jameis Winston's gun-slinging ways, and as stacked a receiving corps as their is in the league, Tampa Bay is set to produce some serious offensive fireworks in 2019.
Ridiculous Extensive Track Record
Known for a personality as explosive as his offense, two-time NFL head coach of the year Bruce Arians has NFL roots as deep as any coach in the league. This sturdy offensive oak began growing in 1989, nearly 30 years ago, as the Chiefs RBs coach, spreading to a variety of locations, positions, play-calling, and eventual head honcho gigs. In this span, Arians compiled a track record that includes developing QB-greats like Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and a rookie year Andrew Luck, while also resurrecting Carson Palmer's career. Deservedly, Arians' is now well-recognized as a QB-guru and offensive wizard.
Most recently and recognizably, Arians spent five seasons as the Cardinals head coach. Here, he compiled a solid 49-30-1 record that included two playoff berths and three 10+ win seasons. His desert-stay began in 2013, where Arians helped jump-start the NFL's 31st ranked offense (15.6 PPG) all the way to 17th (23.7); moreover, in the other two years in which Palmer was healthy, Arians' offense ranked 2nd (29.4) and 6th (26.1) in the league. Considering the Cardinals offensive ineptitude both before and since (2018 = 14.1 PPG, 32nd in NFL), Arians deserves significant credit for his offensive magic here.
Arians earned this Arizona gig -- his first time every head coaching -- after piecing together a 2012 masterpiece as the interim HC with the Colts. Forced to takeover for Chuck Pagano, who was diagnosed with leukemia, Arians led the Colts to a 9-3 record (most wins ever by an interim coach) and clinched a playoff berth -- all with a rookie QB in Andrew Luck. In fact, Luck's 4,374 passing yards set the NFL record for a rookie, as did his six 300-yard passing games and seven game-winning drives.
Moreover, the Colts improved from 2-14 to 11-5 in this span, marking the third highest single-season turnaround in NFL history. All together, these achievements earned Arians "Coach of the Year" awards, an honor he repeated just two years later with the Cardinals in 2014.
Prior to Indianapolis, Arians spent eight seasons with the Steelers, including five as offensive coordinator (2007-11) and three as the wide receivers coach (2004-06). During his tenure as the offensive coordinator, the Steelers had a 55-25 record, tying Green Bay for the second-best mark in the NFL during that span, while racking up three AFC North Division titles, two AFC Championships and a victory in Super Bowl XLIII over the Cardinals.
Statistically, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger put together some of the best seasons in team history, establishing a then-franchise record with 32 touchdown passes in 2007, recording a then-team record 4,328 passing yards in 2009 and registering a career-high and Steelers-record 104.1 passer rating in 2007. Roethlisberger earned his first career Pro Bowl selection in 2007 under Arians. Additionally, in 2009, the Steelers’ offense became the first team in NFL history to have a 4,000-yard passer (Roethlisberger), two 1,000-yard receivers (Santonio Holmes, Hines Ward) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Rashard Mendenhall) in the same season.
Before Pittsburgh, Arians' otherwise sterling resume received a bit of a blemish during a horrendous three year stint as the Browns OC (2001-03). In his defense, these Cleveland teams lacked any semblance of talent, and every other stop -- including his work as Peyton Manning's QB coach and mentor from 1998-2000 -- has been nearly flawless. Outside of Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll, no current coaches can hold a candle to Arians' NFL accomplishments and longevity.
This alone could be enough to turn around a tortured Bucs franchise, who have exactly zero playoff berths and three seasons above .500 in their last 11 seasons since Jon Gruden's departure. Despite the misery and rocky waters, the Bucs have the pieces in place for a fast turnaround under a captain like Arians.
Overall, Arians' offense has two main goals: being unpredictable, and achieving chunk plays as a result.
To accomplish this, Arians uses three key ingredients:
Impeccable and unpredictable timing.
Consequently, his attack is unlike any other in the league. His offense constantly stresses the defense, attacking from all angles and often putting up an avalanche points within the blink of an eye.
Though, like any bright coach, Arians will mold his offense to both his own talent and that week's opposition, let's dive into these three consistent staples a bit more.
When previously asked to describe his offenses, Arians' replies have included:
"We have six home runs on the play sheet every week, and we're not leaving any bullets unused."
"No risk it, no biscuit."
Translation: Attacking and aggressive.
Arians' offense has typically hovered around a 60% pass / 40% run ratio, with a heavy portion of the passing game including deep shots at unexpected times.
Most often, Arians will spread out the defense -- sometimes in 4 or even 5 wide WR sets. He will then use one side of the field to set up a first down opportunity, with the other side including an explosive play.
These "explosions" are achieved through a variety of intentional deep routes. This can include the standard vertical routes, such as the "go," "double post," or "deep cross." Often, these longer routes come from an unexpected position and/or part of the field, such as the slot or even out of the backfield. Perhaps, for example, he'll send multiple verticals out of a three-tight end "heavy" package.
More often, however, Arians loves to utilize double moves, oftentimes ones that have been set up on a previous play. He is a master of creating a rhythm that gets defensive backs biting, and dialing up the big play at the perfect moment.
These deep shots become even more deadly when combined with Arians'...
Expert, and unpredictable, timing
As creative as Arians' is in his route designs and play calling, the when is even more important to the what.
Arians is an expert at recognizing what most teams would call in a given down-and-distance, and then flipping this on its head. For example, often on second-and-long, coordinators will play conservatively with the goal of making third down more manageable. Arians, however will go right over the top and shoot for the end zone. He similarly will bomb teams deep when he may only need a yard or two to move the sticks, or run draws and screens when in need of 10+ yards.
Simply put, Arians has a knack for knowing which play will work perfectly at any given moment, especially if it can result in a huge gain. He gets his players in a rhythm and instills confidence as his calls time up with exactly what the defense is offering.
Carson Palmer, who experienced a late career Renaissance under Arians, stressed the importance of timing in Arians' scheme:
“It wasn’t the game plan, it was his timing,” Palmer says. “He was just on point with his calls..when he was calling certain things. When he was calling screens, we were gashing them. When he was calling [deep] shots, the shots were there. The run-game calls were spot on."
Unlike many playcallers, like Sean McVay who uses "11" personnel on nearly 90% of his snaps, Arians doesn't stick to a single formation. Rather, he lines up in many different sets, going from three tight end formations on first down and then spreading you in an empty back, wide open formation within the blink of an eye. The next week, defenses might see the same exact alignments, but Arians will run a completely new set of plays from the look. He firmly believes an offense that is easy to recognize is easy to defend, and uses variance as much as any NFL play caller to keep defenses uneasy and unprepared.
Once again, Palmer emphasized the importance of diversity to this scheme, noting:
“Yeah, I think that’s what makes him hard to defend and makes us hard to defend...There aren’t a bunch of tendencies that you see on film where you know a certain play’s coming. He’s very, very careful in designing plays and designing a game plan with what’s on film...He always tries to keep you guessing. One week it will be a whole bunch of runs out of one formation. The next week it’ll be all passes. So he makes it really tough to find a tendency in what he’s doing."
Essentially, the central tendency of Arians' offense? Not having a central tendency.
Arians' unpredictable and aggressive scheme has been a goldmine for his QBs, and he's often referred to as a "Quarterback Whisperer" for a reason; he played a massive role in the development of greats like Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, and also resurrected Carson Palmer’s career. Needless to say, the resume is stacked.
Less obvious but more important than his scheme, however, is Arians' ability to make QBs feel perfectly comfortable and confident come each game day. He preaches the fundamentals better than anyone else, and communicates so openly and honestly with his QBs that he consistently achieves the ideal and often difficult QB-HC marriage.
Turnovers are a byproduct of such an aggressive, gun-slinging approach. Still, Arians is so calculated that he still keeps these trimmed. He crafts every game plan alongside his QBs, noting, "the one thing we always have done with all our quarterbacks is they’ve really called the game...Friday, we’ll sit down and pick out his 15–20 favorite first-and-10 plays.. then we’ll sit down and go through the entire third down package and let him pick the plays, the ones he’s most comfortable with. I can call what I think is the greatest play, but if he’s not comfortable with it, it’s probably not going to work."
Simply put, Arians is a guru at coaching QBs both before, during, and after each game, setting them up for the upmost success.
Despite a volatile early career, Jameis Winston should thrive in a contract year alongside Arians. Winston has always possessed the raw arm talent and has a stacked weapons cabinet in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and DeSean Jackson. Now, and most importantly, Winston will also have the perfect coach and scheme to unlock his true ceiling.
First and foremost, Arians will instill confidence and proper fundamentals into an admittedly shaky Winston. The 66-year old coach immediately (and purposely) declared the team’s offense “is going to be built around Winston,” while reminding reporters that he wouldn’t have left retirement without “the perfect fit” at QB. Moreover, Arians and his staff have already studied “every career Winston throw,” and believe his mistakes are nearly all mechanics related. Winston has already said Arians’ firm faith “means a lot,” and this budding rapport, plus Arians’ early list of coaching points, is a perfect start to a potentially magical pairing.
In fact, the pair has deeper roots than most in the league, as Winston attended Arians' football camps in Alabama throughout his childhood. Arians is already thoroughly impressed with Winston, gushing, "He’s smart. He loves ball. He’s here. He’s got all the talent in the world, so why can’t he be successful?”
Beyond establishing the crucial QB-HC bond, Arians has consistently crafted explosive and unpredictable attacks. Winston has the cannon-arm and deep ball touch to thrive. Last season, Todd Monken dialed up the most deep throws in the league in his Air Raid Scheme, and Winston flourished. He should see even more lucrative opportunities with Arians.
Palmer feels this marriage will be perfect, stating:
They're going to be great together," Palmer said. "It's probably the best thing that could've happen to Jameis at this point in his career. Getting a guy like B.A. to come in and clean up some things technically. And really installing what he does best and that's push the ball down the field.
"He finds ways to get the ball down the field to Mike Evans with DeSean Jackson there and speed on the outside. His passing game, his vertical passing game is just different. It's hard to defend. You don't see it throughout the league. Every team doesn't do what he does. That combined with the way that Jameis can throw the ball down the field with accuracy, I think it's a great tandem."
There's simply no one better to help Winston realize his limitless ceiling than Arians.
If not thoroughly clear yet, let's drive this home once more: Arians loves attacking teams deep.
Through unpredictable formations, timing, and aggressiveness, Arians crafts a vertical offense unlike any other. He will send his WRs streaking on a variety of deep routes, and is particularly masterful with setting up double move deep shots. Arians also loves moving WRs all over the place to find exploitable mismatches. He remolded Larry Fitzgerald into a slot maestro, especially at running vertical routes from this inside position.
Unsurprisingly, Arians has had at least one of his WRs top 1,000 yards in all but one of the last 10 seasons. He does typically craft plenty of targets for his slot weapons, though Arians spreads the ball well to every weapon at every layer of the field.
In short, the success of any vertical offense hinges on the weapons outside. Arians utilizes them to perfection.
2019 Outlook – Plenty of Perfectly Fitting Weapons for Arians to Deploy
Across all his stops, Arians has coached some impressive WRs corps. Yet, if the Buccaneers' crew remain fully in-tact (aka if DeSean Jackson stays put, which Arians is hoping for), this may be his most talented weapons cabinet yet.
At the top sits Mike Evans, who, despite up-and-down TD production, has topped 1,000 yards in all five of his professional seasons. At a massive 6'5" that can move, Evans presents Arians the perfect mismatch weapon. Evans trailed only Tyreek Hill in Deep Yardage, notching 543 yards on throws of 20+ yards. He can run the entire route tree, and use his size to outmuscle defenders even when seemingly covered, and Arians will utilize this to the fullest. He should top 1,200 yards and approach 10+ TDs.
Should Jackson return, he presents the ideal speed for Arians' to maximize. Near identical to Santonio Holmes and John Brown, Jackson would similarly dominate in this aggressive, downfield attack. Even on less usage, Jackson also ranked Top-10 in Deep Yardage last year, and would undoubtedly be towards the top once more under Arians.
Even more intriguing, however, is looming breakout star Chris Godwin. Though he'd undoubtedly benefit from a target bump if Jackson leaves, Godwin should make a massive impact regardless. He plays bigger than his 6'1" frame as a contested ball maven with excellent body control and leaping ability. In addition, early expectations have Godwin manning Arians' invaluable slot role, where Fitzgerald experienced a late career renaissance. Godwin similarly would present a size / speed mismatch to execute the seam routes, and the natural agility to handle the intermediate field, to experience similar success to Fitzgerald.
Arians has coached multiple 1,000+ yard WR pairs throughout his career. With a stacked group that can execute his vertical route concepts to perfection, the Buccaneers seem likely to have at least two cross that threshold in 2019.
Inside an offense predicated on the deep ball, tight ends typically take the back seat in Arians' scheme. None have reached 100 targets, and Arians has typically relied on his RBs or rangy WRs in the Red Zone. In fact, while in Arizona, Arians' top tight end averaged only 50 targets, 32 receptions, and 348 yards per season and were often fourth or fifth on the offense in targets.
Still - this could be a prime example of a "Correlation Trap." As always, we advise against forming "locked-in" projections based on a past player and/or coaching trend. Arians has never possessed a top-flight athlete at the position that can stretch seams as effectively as his wideouts. This is about to change in a major way in Tampa Bay.
2019 Outlook – Concern for OJ Howard?
Indeed, Arians' historic lack of tight end usage is disconcerting, at least at first glance.
However, he's never had a weapon like OJ Howard. Fantasy's TE5 in PPG, and one of only six tight ends to average over 10 PPG, Howard was en route to a sophomore breakout before suffering season-ending ankle and foot injuries. Howard's freakish athleticism was on display every week, as the size / speed freak posted an absurd 70.8 catch percentage, and was on pace for roughly 50 catches, 820 yards, and 7 TDs).
Simply put: few athletes are as physically blessed as Howard. He stands at an imposing 6'6" and 251 pounds, yet runs a blazing 4.51 forty with combine-leading leaping stats to boot. For context, that's faster than fellow pass-catcher Mike Evans. That's simply unfair, and something speed-obsessed Arians will exploit to the fullest.
Considering Arians is a master at creating mismatches through unique formation and play designs, you can bet Howard will be afforded weekly chances to destroy linebackers, outmuscle safeties, and win on one-on-one jump balls. He wasn't labeled the best tight-end prospect in the last decade without reason, and Arians creativity and aggressiveness make him the perfect mind to tap into this limitless ceiling.
Elsewhere, Cameron Brate, due an absurd $7 million from an inexplicable $40 million contract, is a likely release candidate. The six-year deal was a team-friendly deal for the Bucs, as they can cut Brate without any dead cap starting this offseason. While the lumbering oaf may be a solid red zone body, he'd offer little else in a system predicated on deep chunk plays. A Brate release would sure up even more volume for Howard.
Simply put: don't fall into a Coaching Correlation trap here. Arians has never had a comparable skillset at TE, and Howard drips in the athleticism Arians will utilize to the fullest. If you miss on the Kelce, Ertz, and Kittle, Howard is the next best option. Sure, the injury risk can't be ignored after Howard landed on the IR in back-to-back season. Should he stay healthy, though, he could approach the elite.
With offenses that hover around 60 / 40 pass-to-run ratios, RBs may seem like an afterthought in an Arians attack. In fact, after his Steelers days in which the run was mandated, Arians' only had one of six teams top 25 carries per game.
That this results in fantasy insignificance, however, couldn't be further from the truth... at least when Arians has the proper-fitting back.
In an ideal world, Arians will have a bigger-bodied bruiser who can shoulder 270-350 touches, while remaining a viable receiving threat. Whether intricate screens, deep wheel routes, or motioning the RB out to the slot, Arians loves utilizing his backs in unique ways in the passing-game. Yes, he does love the standard middle-of-the-field, dink-and-dunk reception plays that are widely available as the wideouts streak down the field. But Arians will get creative with his RB route-trees whenever able.
When provided the perfect back in David Johnson, the results were impeccable: 373 touches, 80 receptions, 2118 total yards and an insane 20 TDs. While not quite on this season-winning level, Rashard Mendenhall produced three straight low-end RB1 seasons, and even the small-ish Andre Ellington and Willie Parker squeezed out strong efforts.
If not, Arians often resorts right to the pass-game and an unappealing committee. As such, the mold and makeup of his RB is the predictive factor here, with the lack of a year-to-year usage trend.
At the moment, digging in too deep here is unwise. With only the uninspiring Peyton Barber and sophomore Ronald Jones, who somehow couldn't beat out this pathetic depth chart for even a modest role, the Bucs 2019 starter is unlikely on this roster.
Instead, let's speculate... especially with a free agent talent pool that features some glove-like fits for Arians. Of course, number one on that list would be Le'Veon Bell. Essentially a better David Johnson, Bell would come with similar 400 touch (80+ rec), 2,000 total yard, 20+ TD upside if he becomes Arians' offensive centerpiece. With enough cap-space and a gaping backfield void, this isn't overly far-fetched.
Though not quite as appealing though more realistic, Mark Ingram is another big-bodied, three-down horse that Arians could ride for massive production. Ingram is approaching 30, but hasn't been overly worked as a mostly-committee back in New Orleans, with only 1,321 career carries (roughly 163 per year over his 8 seasons). With the motivation to prove himself as a solo artist before retirement, Ingram could be drawn to the huge volume that Arians and Tampa Bay can promise.
Hell, even Jay Ajayi could be a huge boost. He's an underrated pass-catcher and extremely efficient in the power-run game. Despite his injury concerns, Ajayi is a volume-back who thrives the longer he can wear down a defense. Arians would afford him every chance to do so.
If the Bucs somehow add no one, Barber would have to be in line for a massive fantasy up arrow on just sheer volume. Perhaps Jones, who does possess the tremendous long speed that Arians craves, could be deployed more creatively as well. Still, this seems unlikely, making Tampa Bay one of the most important "Value Holes" to monitor.
Bruce Arians is back, and both Buccaneers and fantasy fans alike should be highly enthused.
Arians' unpredictable and aggressive offense is unlike anything else in the NFL, and has prodcued fantasy monsters at nearly every position. Most prominently, Arians is known for developing QBs, with an extensive track record that includes the development of Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, and the resurrection of Carson Palmer. His next project is Jameis Winston, who receives the perfect mentor at his current career crossroad. Winston has the arm talent and weaponry to thrive in Arians' vertical-obsessed scheme. More importantly, Arians is already establishing the crucial QB-HC relationship, and will sure up Winston's fundementals better than any in the business.
With Winston's rise will come continued massive production from Mike Evans. As a massive body with the speed and finesse for the entire route tree, Evan will be a mismatch nightmare for the creative Arians. The only other WR-lock to return is Chris Godwin, who's breakout should be sped up under Arians. Godwins solid run-blocking and smooth intermediate route-running have many beats speculate he'll man the invaluable slot role -- one which helped Larry Fitzgerald's stats explode over his three seasons with Arians. DeSean Jackson has the speed to thrive under Arians, who reportedly wants him to return. Still, his status is up in the air.
Perhaps the most intriguing fit will be the 6'6" OJ Howard, who runs a faster 40 than Evans despite his massive size. Arians has never utilized a TE heavily, but he's never had the insane skillset that Howard presents. This may be the marriage that allows Howard to ascend into the position's elite.
Lastly, the running game remains wide open. As David Johnson's 2,000 yard, 20 TD season illustrates, the ceiling is limitless for whoever fills this massive "Value Hole." Yet, with the uninspiring depth chart of Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones right now, it's likely the Bucs starting RB isn't yet rostered. This will be a crucial offseason story to monitor.
All-in-all, the Bucs fielded one of the most explosive passing games in 2018. Though Todd Monken set a tough bar to match, Arians is more than up for that challenge. This will remain a fantasy factory in 2019, especially if Winston siezes the perfect opportunity in front of him.
Copyright 2019, Roto Street Journal