Can sleeper receivers emerge with Josh Freeman under center?
I like Josh Freeman. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were terrible last year, but they took a noticeable step forward in reducing their timidity when Freeman took over from the Byron Leftwiches and Josh Johnsons of the world. No question, Freeman made dozens of mistakes tinged with the exuberance of youth (he turned just 22 in January), but you also had a sense he could lead the team. It's way, way, way too early to start saying Tampa messed up taking Freeman in the first round of the 2009 draft.
That said, the Bucs' offense is really held hostage by Freeman's development, so we have to ask ourselves: Can anyone emerge into a true fantasy threat in the Tampa passing offense if its quarterback is coming off a "good" half-season in which he completed only 54.6 percent of his passes?
The likeliest such candidate is tight end Kellen Winslow. Winslow should probably be exempt from this conversation, because he's an established fantasy starter who finished seventh in fantasy points at his position last year even with the Bucs' rotating mess under center. Winslow caught 60.7 percent of the passes thrown to him before Freeman ascended to the starting job last year, and 60.5 percent of the passes Freeman threw to him. It's true that four of his five receiving scores came pre-Freeman, but he got four red zone looks before and four after the switch. There's nothing here that scares me off Winslow, and he's my No. 8 fantasy tight end right now.
Otherwise, the passing game in Tampa is a giant fantasy question mark. You'll be tempted to draft two rookies, Mike Williams (fourth-rounder this spring) and Arrelious Benn (second-rounder), but of course no NFL rookie receiver eclipsed 800 yards receiving last year and only Eddie Royal did it two years ago. Holdovers Maurice Stovall and Sammie Stroughter are also in the receiving mix (and in fact Stovall appears to be leading Benn as the starting "Z" receiver, with Stroughter in the slot). But really, everyone here but Winslow is held hostage by Freeman's development.
So what's ahead for the second-year signal-caller? Well, the Bucs are changing from the play-action, deeper-pass-based system they ran last year to a "truer" version of the West Coast offense, which presumably will accentuate shorter throws. My first reaction to this news is that it's not a good fit for Freeman. His accuracy was poor in '09, and his physical tools make him much more than a dink-and-dunk quarterback. But what do his '09 numbers say? ("Rating Rank" is where Freeman's passer rating ranked among starting QBs last year.)
It appears that Freeman's performance last year was a bit better, relative to the rest of the league, when he threw shorter passes. But it still wasn't good. I'm actually fine with the theory of calling quicker throws, dumps and screens when you're developing a young quarterback. I think Joe Flacco is an illustration of a guy who made his bones that way for a season-plus. But Freeman will have to take a real leap with his accuracy to make the kind of timing-pattern and quick-read decisions that will create success in a West Coast offense. That 66.2 percent completion percentage on throws between 1 and 10 yards looks fine until you look at the rest of the league: It ranked 21st. Among the signal-callers who posted worse marks were guys who have accuracy concerns that make many of them fantasy problem children: David Garrard, Donovan McNabb, Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford, Brady Quinn, Jay Cutler, Vince Young, Matt Cassel, Mark Sanchez and Marc Bulger. Of those players, only McNabb circa '09 can be said to have "succeeded" in a West Coast offense.
You hear a million stories every summer about how young quarterbacks have made quantum leaps, and I urge you to believe none of them. That's not to say Freeman won't be better in Year 2. He probably will. But he's not going to suddenly have Drew Brees' accuracy. Mike Williams is a very tempting player, because he looks like the Bucs' No. 1 receiver and starting split end, and if he's put his collegiate attitude problems behind him, his future may be bright. I think Williams should be drafted late in all leagues because he'll probably lead all Tampa wideouts in targets and because he might make some big plays. But I give him, say, a 20 percent chance of being usable in fantasy starting lineups. Benn has struggled to stay healthy in training camp and may not start, Stover is a perennial tease, and Stroughter is simply a possession guy. The bottom line, though, is I think Freeman will be hard-pressed to come close to a 60 percent completion rate even in a shorter-passing offense. That spells fantasy feh for everyone here but Winslow.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy and follow him at www.twitter.com/writerboyESPN.