- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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Hey, didn't you used to be Jon Gruden?
Orange-streaked Chucky dolls are settling in naphthalene, articles hailing the coach's 3 a.m. workdays are yellowing in scrapbooks, and a once-proud defense is going the way of the offense, which is to say: south. The Buccaneers were dreadful last season, scoring just 13.2 points per game (second-worst in football, behind only Oakland), and allowing 22.1. Their 8.9-point scoring gap was also second-worst in the NFL (again, only the Raiders were worse). What seemed ridiculous just a couple of seasons ago -- that the Super-Bowl-winning head coach could find himself in serious job-security trouble -- is now taken as an article of faith.
Gruden may be cooked. He spent far too long hailing then-rookie Bruce Gradkowski as an adequate NFL quarterback after Chris Simms went down. Even after it was clear Gradkowski was in over his head, Gruden continued to call pass plays when games were close early (hey, every game starts 0-0, right?), and on the season he called more passes than runs inside the opponent's 10-yard line. Was part of that due to an injured and inefficient offensive line? Maybe. Was part of that due to the continued struggles of Cadillac Williams? Maybe. But would you have thrown so much to the ugliness that is Michael Clayton and Ike Hilliard?
A 4-12 season doesn't have many bright spots. At age 34, Joey Galloway played all 16 games, topped 1,000 yards and scored seven times. Alex Smith showed flashes, though his receiving skills have yet to catch up to his Madden video game chops. And Simms proved he's tough, continuing to play after rupturing his spleen. But the disaster was otherwise complete. Let's see if there's any hope, fantasy or otherwise, here in '07.
Key Backups/Position Battles
The Bucs got off to a bang-up beginning this winter when they traded for Jake Plummer, who subsequently decided he'd rather practice growing patchy facial hair than play by the Bay. The team now seems convinced that the Snake is retired, at least for this season, so the backup battle is between Simms and Gradkowski. Each of these guys has started, and neither has shown a whole lot of ability: Simms threw one touchdown and seven picks in his three '06 starts, and Gradkowski posted a robust 65.9 rating during his rookie campaign. The guess here is Simms gets the backup nod, but you don't want either player on your fantasy team.
Cadillac continues to be the man, and Pittman continues to be his third-down understudy. Pittman is just unproductive enough to be of no use whatsoever in standard fantasy leagues: he carried it 50 times for 245 yards and a score last season, and caught 47 passes for 405 yards and no scores. Those in point-per-reception (PPR) leagues can do better, though if Caddy gets hurt, Pittman can have value in PPR leagues. Mike Alstott* flirted with the Great Unknown of retirement this offseason, temporarily backed away from the abyss, returned for his 12th season then subsequently announced he'd go on IR for the year with a neck injury. Alstott vultured three scores last year, which doesn't sound like a lot until you realize the entire team rushed for six. Fortunately, he won't be a nuisance for fantasy owners this year. Rookie sixth-rounder Kenneth Darby out of the University of Alabama, once considered a very good college rusher, probably won't be a factor this year. He's just not fast enough.
Notre Dame product Maurice Stovall, last season's third-rounder, is currently listed ahead of Clayton on the receiving depth chart. It remains to be seen if that'll last, but Stovall did an acceptable job (remember, this is Tampa) after finally climbing out of the rookie receiver doghouse in Week 13 last season, logging seven catches for 102 yards in the season's final four games. Considering Clayton caught only 33 balls all season, the sure-handed Stovall really might be a better option. Re-re-retread David Boston didn't play in '06 after getting cut by the Bucs during training camp, but now he's back and reportedly has a better shot at a roster spot, agreeing to play special teams if it helps him survive the Turk. Boston's just 28, but considering he hasn't had a good season since 2001, you can safely avoid him. I'm assuming Hilliard doesn't do much to excite you.
It's interesting, and not exactly a vote of confidence for Alex Smith, that Tampa signed chronic offender Jerramy Stevens this winter. Stevens was arrested for DUI in March, and was also caught in possession of marijuana, causing the Seahawks to cut him. By himself, Stevens shouldn't be much of a fantasy story this season, but it's possible he cuts into Smith's receiving production, which would be a shame. Anthony Becht is also on this roster, but he's mostly a blocker who'll struggle to catch 10 passes this season.
Week 5 @ Indianapolis Colts
Week 6 Tennessee Titans
Week 7 @ Detroit Lions
Week 9 Arizona Cardinals
Week 10 Bye
Week 14 @ Houston Texans
Week 15 Atlanta Falcons
Week 16 @ San Francisco 49ers
Week 17 Carolina Panthers
What to Look for in 2007
Three men are worth considering for your fantasy team: Garcia, Williams and Galloway. Let's take a look at each.
Garcia was terrific playing for Andy Reid in Philly last season after Donovan McNabb got hurt. He posted a 95.8 QB rating, which was reminiscent of 2000 and 2001, his two great seasons in San Francisco. He threw 10 TDs and just two picks, evinced great toughness and helped lead the Eagles to within a few heartbeats of the NFC title game. And for all that, even with McNabb's health continually in question, Philly let Garcia go. Garcia is 37 this season, and you can say all you want about how much tread he's got left on his tires: 37 is old for the NFL. What's worse, Garcia just doesn't have anything approximating the offensive weapons (or offensive line) he had in the City of Brotherly Love. Sure, Gruden's West Coast attack suits Garcia's short game, but the truth is that Philly succeeded under Garcia last season because of how well he threw deep. Four of his 10 touchdowns went for 20 yards or more, and he sprinkled in several non-scoring pass plays over 50 yards. He'll have Galloway as a deep threat in Tampa, but not much else, and besides, Gruden is promising to go back to the run more. My memories of Garcia in Cleveland and Detroit are still fresh enough. Garcia is a bye-week quarterback in '07, and nothing more.
Williams was a stud at Auburn and looked great during his rookie season, accumulating 1,178 yards rushing and six scores, but there were warning signs even then. Caddy suffered through a four-game midseason stretch in '05 in which he logged games of 13, 20, 29 and 20 yards, sandwiched around a couple of weeks he missed entirely because of injury. In '06, that cautionary tale quickly transmogrified into a torpedo headed for your fantasy ship. Incredibly, Williams carried it 225 times last season and rushed for exactly one touchdown. His 3.5 yards per carry was downright Jamal Lewis-esque, and he ceded third downs to Pittman all too often. Williams has tremendous athletic ability, but he's just got so many factors against him. First there's the offensive line, which was awful last year, and is only marginally better in '07. Luke Petitgout was overrated in New York, but he'll improve the left tackle slot, and getting another year under the prodigious sophomore belts of right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and right guard Davin Joseph helps. But former tackle Anthony Davis has to beat out rookie Arron Sears at left guard, and center John Wade has seen better days. Next, there's the fact that Gruden only gave Williams four goal-line carries last season. And finally, there's Caddy's own troubling injury history. Last season, he missed time with foot problems. Williams should be owned in all leagues, and I view him as a possible sleeper. But the days of counting on him to be your No. 1 running back or even a great No. 2 running back are, for now, a memory.
At age 36 (he turns 37 in November), Galloway has pretty much shaken the injury-prone label that dogged him in the middle part of his career; he's played 15 or more games in five of the past six seasons. The still lightning-fast receiver wasn't able to match his terrific 2005 last season, catching 21 fewer balls for 230 fewer yards and three fewer scores. He also continued his trend of completely disappearing for a few games each season, which can be real fantasy poison; in '06, he had three games with fewer than 10 yards receiving. Still, he's a terrific deep-play threat, and in Garcia, he does have a quarterback who showed last season he's got the arm and inclination to keep defenses honest. Secondaries will still be crazy enough to let one man cover Galloway on regular occasions, which will mean several long scores. We've all been burned enough over the past couple years by Clayton to assume he won't be much of a threat to Galloway's production, but you should keep an eye on Stovall, who doesn't have Galloway's speed, but has the potential to be a very good possession and red-zone guy. Still, Galloway is a top-20 receiver, should start in most leagues and as such, he's the best fantasy entity on Tampa Bay's roster.
And that includes the fantasy defense, which had been such a reliable option for so long, but which no longer resembles the Super Bowl championship defense of 2003. Ronde Barber is still here (and is still a decent cornerback for individual defensive player leagues), and Derrick Brooks has slowed down a little, but will still get his tackles. But Simeon Rice was dreadful last season and got released this summer, Dewayne White wasn't that much better rushing the passer and left for Detroit, and Shelton Quarles retired. The Bucs picked off only 11 passes last season (ranking 30th in the NFL), generated only 25 sacks (tied for 30th), and scored just three defensive touchdowns. At this point, they're probably not even a bye-week fantasy defense.
Galloway is really the only sure fantasy starter on Tampa Bay's roster, and even he comes along with great risk, in the form of both his age and his offensive teammates. Garcia's heavenly two months in Philly don't persuade me he's ready to party like it's 1999. Cadillac will bounce back and can be an interesting sleeper, but be sure not to take him in the first couple of rounds of your draft. Stovall is worth a later-round gamble, kicker Matt Bryant did make a 62-yarder last season, and tight end Alex Smith has scads of athletic potential. But in what may prove to be Gruden's last roundup in the Pirate Ship, it's hard to imagine this team poking its head above .500, or producing any individual with superstar fantasy numbers.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
*Editor's Note: This preview originally appeared Wednesday, August 8, prior to the announcement that Mike Alstott would not play this season. It has since been updated.
33mMichael C. Wright