SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. Winston Is Better, More Accurate
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are supposed to make the playoffs this year.
Because Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston is supposed to have a big season entering his third year.
Why is Winston going to have a bigger season – a season that will be so much better that it will catapult Tampa Bay into the postseason for the first time since 2007?
What exactly is the empirical evidence that suggests this will be the case for Winston and the Bucs in 2017?
“Not only do they make the playoffs, I would put Jameis in the MVP conversation, I think he has a chance to have a huge year.”
— Mike & Mike (@MikeAndMike) August 30, 2017
Winston improved his completion percentage, his yardage and his touchdown production from his rookie season to his second year. In 2015, Winston made the Pro Bowl as an alternate completing 58.3 percent of his passes for 4,042 yards with 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Last year, Winston completed 60.8 percent of his throws for 4,090 yards with a franchise-record 28 touchdowns and a career-high 18 interceptions.
But just because he showed progress from his first year to his second doesn’t automatically mean that Winston’s third year will be even better. Look at Jacksonville’s beleaguered quarterback Blake Bortles for example.
The third overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Bortles passed for 2,908 yards with 11 touchdowns and 17 interceptions as a rookie, before throwing for 4,428 yards with 35 TDs and 18 interceptions. But Bortles regressed last year, passing for 3,905 yards with 23 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, his QB rating dropping from 88.2 to 78.8.
A big reason for Bortles’ inconsistent play has been the fact that has completion percentage hasn’t improved. He hit on 58.9 percent of his passes as a rookie, 58.6 percent of his throws in 2015 and completed 58.9 percent of his passes last year.
Winston’s growth can be attributed to increased accuracy, and that’s the biggest reason why he will make the necessary jump statistically that will carry the Bucs to the playoffs.
In parts of three preseason games, Winston has completed 47-of-69 passes for 495 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. But the key thing is his 68.1 percent completion percentage. If Winston can improve from 60.8 percent a year ago to even 63 percent the Bucs could be on their way to the postseason. A 68 percent completion percentage – if Winston could somehow maintain that over the course of a season – could lead to even bigger than simply making the playoffs as a wild card team.
“I think it speaks to Jameis and what he’s wanted to do in terms of improving his accuracy and being detailed in terms of ball placement and putting it on the receiver the right way to let the receiver turn and get yards after the catch,” Bucs tight end Luke Stocker said. “He’s putting it in front of guys or where guys won’t take hits. He’s done a great job.
“He’s had another year in the NFL, so he understands the athletes, the speed and the timing and when to take the chance to squeeze the ball in those tight windows. He knows the throws he can make and the ones he has to save for later. As he gets older he’s only going to get better.”
It wasn’t like Winston completed a bunch of check-down passes to boost his preseason completion percentage, either. He had a 7.17-yards per pass average in August that compares favorably to his 7.6 mark from his rookie year and his 7.2 mark from last season.
Unlike Bortles, who regressed from 7.3 average yards per pass in 2015, which was his best season, to 6.2 last year, which was almost identical to the 6.1 figure from his rookie year.
As HBO’s Hard Knocks series has revealed for the nation to see, Winston has put in the work to get better and become more accurate, and it clearly showed in training camp and the preseason.
“I’ve been with him since 2015 – we came in as rookies together,” Bucs wide receiver Donteea Dye said. “To see him grow like this is crazy. To see him work hard and come in at 5:00 a.m. shows the type of person he is. He’s always continuing to work, so I’m excited to see what this year is going to bring.”
Winston knows he has to greatly reduce his number of turnovers from a year ago when he threw 18 interceptions. He only had one INT in the preseason, which came against Cleveland, although Winston was bailed out on another one in Jacksonville when the refs said he was in the grasp and whistled the play dead as he heaved an ill-advised pass into the end zone where it was picked off.
Yet the interceptions in practice have been fewer and far between, which is an encouraging sign.
“In terms of his progress, the first thing is the number of ‘Wow’ throws I’ve seen from him,” Tampa Bay safety Keith Tandy said. “It’s not unusual to see a ‘Wow’ throw from a quarterback every couple of days in practice. But it’s getting to the point where it’s every day and it’s three or four throws a dau where you go, ‘Wow.’ On some of those throws there is nothing a defensive back could do about that. He’s gotten to the point with his consistency where he doesn’t have the throws that get away from him and are easy interceptions like in the past. I’ve definitely seen a huge difference in him this training camp.”
Although Winston didn’t throw a touchdown pass and led Tampa Bay to just one touchdown drive in the preseason, Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter isn’t worried. He’s seen Winston account for 57 touchdowns (50 passing, seven rushing) in his first two years in the league.
His August slump aside, the first overall draft pick in 2015 didn’t forget how to get the ball in the end zone.
“I think Jameis has done fine, minus a couple of plays, but you could say that for the best of the best and every player out there,” Koetter said. “I think Jameis has worked hard on the things that we wanted him to improve on. I think his accuracy has been better, throwing the games in with the practices. We didn’t really throw any deep balls with him [Saturday] night. I think Jameis is where he needs to be. It’s time for him to play a real game.”
Not only has Winston become a more accurate passer in general during the offseason, training camp and the preseason, he’s also become more accurate with his deep balls. Perhaps his best pass of the preseason was a 43-yard strike to Mike Evans, who dropped a perfectly thrown ball at the goal line in Jacksonville. Winston also threw a great touch pass to Dye at the front right pylon against Cleveland, but Dye couldn’t fully secure the ball all the way to the ground and it was ruled incomplete.
“If he has time in the pocket he can deliver a good ball every time,” Bucs wide receiver Adam Humphries said. “He’s putting the ball on the money. He’s done well the past couple of games from that standpoint. Also with Jameis you have a guy that will hang in the pocket or scramble, too. He’s a tough guy. As receivers we’re always ready for whatever he’s going to do. Every single week he’s doing something like that.”
In an effort to increase the team speed on offense, Bucs general manager Jason Licht and Koetter added three new weapons for the passing game. Speedy receiver DeSean Jackson, who led the league with a 17.1 yards per catch average last year, was signed in free agency, and the Bucs drafted tight end O.J. Howard, who ran a 4.51 at the NFL Scouting Combine, in the first round, then selected wide receiver Chris Godwin, who has sub 4.5 speed, in the third. Winston spent training camp working on the timing on deep routes with those new additions.
“That’s probably the biggest area he’s improved and made those ‘Wow’ plays,” Tandy said. “You see DeSean Jackson running full speed and it hits him right in stride. Whenever you are running as fast as DeSean, I imagine it’s hard to catch the ball if it’s not thrown right in stride. I wouldn’t know anything about that. Jameis has put the ball right over his shoulder, and you’ll see a DB with his arms stretched out and the pass goes right over the DBs’ fingertips by inches to DeSean. That happens almost every single day.”
Humphries marvels at how much Winston’s deep ball accuracy has improved.
“That’s awesome to see because we have three guys now with Chris and DeSean coming in that can go and get it,” Humphries said. “Obviously with guys like that it’s good seeing him be accurate with those balls. He just gives guys a chance, and that’s all you can ask for with your quarterback. He’s done really well with that.”
With Koetter lamenting the fact that the Bucs didn’t have enough explosive plays last year on offense, Winston had to become more accurate downfield in order to change Tampa Bay’s fortunes and he’s done just that.
“We’ve got a lot of deep threats now – one specifically in DeSean Jackson – so we have to work on the specific ball placement with him so we can sync up and produce more touchdowns,” said Dye, who also runs a sub-4.5 time in the 40-yard dash. “He works hard, DeSean works hard and all of our receivers work hard to be on the same page. I think we’ve all done a great job.”
Ask his receivers and they’ll tell you it wouldn’t surprise them a bit if Winston lived up to the preseason hype and won NFL MVP honors this year.
“That’s the kind of guy he is,” Humphries said. “He’s going to get better each year he’s in the NFL. He’s more confident. He’s always been confident, but you can just tell by the way he’s running things in the locker room and the offense. This year is different. He’s a lot more confident in general. He’s making really good throws.”
The last two NFL MVPs happened to be quarterbacks from the NFC South in Cam Newton (2015) and Matt Ryan (2016), who happened to lead Carolina and Atlanta, respectively, to the Super Bowl over the past two years. Will Winston improve enough to return to the Pro Bowl this year and perhaps become the league MVP?
“I actually think he’s going to be a Hall of Famer,” Dye said. “I can see him in the Hall of Fame in the next few decades. I really can. I’m sure he can see himself there, but he probably won’t tell you because the dude is so humble. That’s how good he is. That’s how good he’s going to be.”
Accuracy is of utmost importance. We’ll see how accurate that statement will be in time, and just how accurate Winston will be in leading the Bucs to the playoffs in 2017.