How much will a transition to a run-first system affect Vincent Jackson's fantasy value with the Bucs?
Vincent Jackson's huge pact with the Buccaneers this past March made him a lot of dollars, but for many fantasy football analysts and fans, it didn't make much sense. The general take was that it can't possibly help that Jackson left a potent and proven San Diego passing attack for a middling Tampa offense coming off of an extremely disappointing 2011 season. Another drawback for Jackson's fantasy prospects seemed to be that the Bucs' offseason overhaul of their coaching staff saw former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano take over the franchise with an expected offensive focus on a physical run-first scheme. There is no doubt that Jackson got quite rich, but major doubts seem to persist over his potential to flourish in pewter.
While we have a pretty strong idea of what kind of talent Jackson is, we've never seen what a Schiano-led NFL team looks like, so we'll have to lean on the early indicators we've been afforded this offseason. Talk of revamping the running attack has been steady since Schiano took over, but there has also been an equally explicit agenda to talk up a newfound dedication to taking shots down the field. It seems to only make sense after investing in an elite big-play threat like Jackson to the roster. The new head coach spoke to the Tampa Bay Times about the risk/reward nature of the deep passing game. "Your return on those shots is not going to be nearly as high as it is on your intermediate and shorter passing game. You'll hit some, and he's hit a couple," Schiano said of quarterback Josh Freeman so far this offseason. "Then he's missed a couple. That's really the risk and return on shot plays. As I always talk about with our team and our staff, one of those plays takes away the need for a lot of plays, a lot of execution, a lot of mistakes. You don't have to deal with the rest of it."
For a team looking to improve its vertical passing game, there are few better wideouts than Jackson for the job. According to ESPN Stats & Information, on throws of 21 or more yards last season, Jackson had 12 catches for 451 yards and five touchdowns. The entire Tampa receiving corps combined for 14 catches for 459 yards and four touchdowns on such throws last season. More than 44 percent of Jackson's career targets have been 15 yards or farther down the field, and since 2010, the average depth of targets to Jackson has been 17.1 yards. As a comparison, Tampa's Mike Williams has an average depth of target of 12.2 yards since joining the league in 2010. The major question is whether Freeman can deliver him the ball down the field after a disappointing 2011 that saw the signal-caller regress in nearly every sense.
Schiano tabbed former Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan as his offensive coordinator. Sullivan spent the past two seasons helping Eli Manning dramatically cut down on his interceptions from 2010 (25 picks) to 2011 (16 interceptions, a second Super Bowl ring and nearly 5,000 yards passing). So while there will be a rededication to the run in Tampa this season –- especially after the Bucs ran the ball just 346 times last season, last in the league and the lowest attempt total in franchise history for a full season -– Sullivan does have a pedigree of working with an impressive passing attack in New York. While Freeman was abysmal for much of 2011, there is some buzz rebuilding as he came to camp in great shape and is routinely hooking up with Jackson for big plays. Sullivan also has significant experience working with wideouts, as he was the Giants' receivers coach for six seasons before taking over as QB coach.
While Jackson is often deemed as an enigma of sorts given how maddeningly inconsistent his production has been on a week-to-week basis, his numbers are actually quite consistent when considering the year-end totals. Outside of his holdout-shortened 2010 season, Jackson has averaged 62 receptions, 1,123 yards, 8.3 touchdowns and 107 targets a season since his breakout in 2008. That's an elite 18.1 yards per catch. His reception totals have been 59, 68 and 60, in 2008, 2009 and 2011, respectively, while his yardage totals have been 1,098, 1,167 and 1,106. Jackson hauled in nine scores in both 2009 and 2011 and seven touchdowns in 2008. So the knock on Jackson as a fantasy commodity isn't as much about his numbers at the end of each season, but the wild fluctuations in production throughout a given season. Just last season, more than 51 percent of Jackson's fantasy points came in his top three outings, while just over 43 percent of his total yardage came in those top three games, as well as six of his nine touchdowns. Jackson scored double-digit fantasy points six times, but had nine games with six or fewer fantasy points. In those top three outings in Weeks 2, 9 and 11, Jackson averaged 27.6 standard fantasy points. In the following three weeks after each gem, he averaged just 2.3 fantasy points. That's about as boom-or-bust as it gets.
Much like Freeman, after a breakout 2010 effort, Williams had a disappointing 2011 campaign. But we can look to learn from how Williams was used as the team's top target the past two seasons in an attempt to approximate Jackson's usage going forward. Williams averaged 126 targets the past two years, good for 26 percent of all of the targets in the passing game. Jackson, meanwhile, faced steeper competition for attention in San Diego and averaged 115 targets, just over 21 percent of the targets there since 2008, again dismissing his abridged 2010 season. If Jackson can take over the lead as the premier red zone target for Freeman, it could be a big boon to his fantasy prospects, given that Williams saw 29 red zone targets over the past two years while Jackson tallied 23 between his 2009 and 2011 seasons. It's safe to assume that given the steep investment and the talk of opening up the vertical passing game, Jackson will at least match the share that Williams had as the top target in Tampa. But what we are most concerned with is the quality of these targets. It's undeniable that a deep ball from Philip Rivers has proved to be a more accurate and productive attempt than from Freeman, but it's possible that this gap can be mitigated by a greater volume of opportunities for Jackson in Tampa. Jackson is expected to be the premier focus in the passing game, particularly down the field, where he's literally made his money.
In speaking with ESPN's NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas recently, he explained how Jackson might be used in Tampa this season: "The team lacked a clear-cut No. 1 option at receiver, and with the money they spent on Jackson, they have big plans for him. They'll run the ball much more, but it doesn't have to be at the expense of Jackson, who could become a major red zone weapon for them. Freeman has a big arm; I'm just not sure he's been able to use it yet with the talent there."
Check out the tables below to get a better idea of how Rivers and Freeman have fared passing the ball 20 yards or deeper down the field since 2009, as well as Jackson's consistency.
Philip Rivers, Pass Attempts of 20+ Yds, Since 2009
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
Josh Freeman, Pass Attempts of 20+ Yds, Since 2009
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
Vincent Jackson Since 2007 (minus 2010 season)
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
The cost for Jackson in fantasy drafts last season seemed to have factored in an expected breakout, with him vaulting from a valuable, if inconsistent, deep threat into the realm of true superstar. While the breakout has never really materialized -- whether on account of a series of lingering injuries or simply because of the nature of a player who makes his plays far down the field, where success rates deflate -- Jackson is no longer priced to be a No. 1 fantasy wideout. Heading into 2012, he's priced and projected as the 19th wide receiver, with an ADP of 54.6.
Some are down on Jackson in Tampa, while others -- me included -- think the reasonable expectations for increased work could more than buffer the costs of transition. The inconsistencies could persist, but at least the price finally factors into this element of his game. It's simply a part of his profile that Jackson will win you some weeks, while in others leave you wanting. Everything from the team, scheme, quarterback, coaching staff and contract is different for Jackson, but for him to provide a reasonable return on investment this season, he simply needs to do what he's always done.