PANTHERS // BUCCANEERS OVERVIEW
The Buccaneers will keep the shootout circus at home this week, welcoming a Panthers team that ranks 10th in the NFL in points per game on offense (one spot behind the Bucs). Eleven games into the season, no team in the NFL has more passing yards per game than the 4-7 Bucs, while only the Rams and Chiefs are averaging more yards per pass attempt. On the other side of the ball, only five teams have allowed more passing yards per game than Tampa, while no team has allowed a higher red zone touchdown rate. Incidentally, the team that ranks 31st in red zone touchdown rate is the Panthers. The Panthers rank seventh in red zone touchdown rate on offense. The Bucs rank 16th. Each of these teams also ranks bottom eight in drive success rate allowed and top eight in drive success rate on offense. When these teams met in Carolina in Week 9, the Panthers won 42-28.
This game opened with a timid Over/Under of 55.5 and was quickly bet up to 56.5. Currently, this stands as the highest mark on the slate, so “timid” is not the word that would typically come to mind first — but four of the Panthers’ last five games have gone over 55.5, while seven of the Bucs’ 11 games on the year have passed that mark. This should be a strong game for offense, with several players to consider on either side of the ball.
PANTHERS PASS OFFENSE
The Buccaneers’ pass defense has been slowly improving, as they have held steady at a league-average aDOT allowed — and while they have still allowed the highest catch rate in the NFL, this number has been trickling down over the last few weeks. The Bucs continue to do a good job after the catch, shaving an impressive 5.6% off the league-average YAC/R rate. This is still a very attackable defense (allowing the highest catch rate in the NFL will do that), and this is still a team that ranks 28th in drive success rate allowed and 32nd in red zone touchdown rate allowed — but they have not been getting blasted out of the water the way they were early in the season.
Volume is unlikely to work heavily in favor of the Panthers’ primary pass catchers, as the Buccaneers are allowing the eighth fewest opponent plays per game, and the Panthers run the seventh fewest plays per game while ranking 11th in rush play rate. Cam Newton has gone north of 30 pass attempts only once in his last five games — and 36 of his 150 passes in this stretch (24%) have gone to Christian McCaffrey, leaving an average of only 22.8 targets to go around behind him.
The most locked-in player behind CMC has been D.J. Moore, who has recent target counts of 6 // 2 // 5 // 8 // 9. His two targets came against the Bucs in Week 9, but that was an outlier, and Moore should bounce back to the five to eight target range in this one. This is the case regardless of whether or not Devin Funchess plays, though these targets become even more solidified if Funchess misses. With a possession-like aDOT of only 8.1, Moore could have a tough time reaching the higher end of his production range against a team that tackles well after the catch — but the floor should be solid, and the upside obviously remains.
Curtis Samuel played the exact same number of snaps as Moore last week (54 out of 59) and ran the exact same number of pass routes as Moore and McCaffrey (31), causing his two targets to stand out as an outlier after he saw target counts of 4 // 4 // 7 heading into last week’s game (while playing well under 50% of the team’s snaps). Across his previous four games, Samuel had seen 18 targets to Moore’s 21, and his 69.6% catch rate across his last five games is not far behind the incredible 83.3% catch rate Moore has posted in this stretch. Samuel is a strong bet for four to six targets in this spot.
Torrey Smith started last week but ended up playing only 13 snaps. He should see his role increase this week, but he’s nothing more than a dart throw until we see him get involved above his younger teammates.
Greg Olsen has been locked into four to six targets per game since returning from his foot injury, and he has a quality matchup against a Bucs squad that he pasted for a 6-76-1 line on six targets in Week 9. The Bucs have allowed the seventh most catches, the most yards, and the eighth most touchdowns to the tight end position.
PANTHERS RUN OFFENSE
The Buccaneers’ train-wreck of a defensive season has carried over to their once-stout run defense, with this injury-ruined unit ranking 22nd in yards allowed per carry and giving up more running back touchdowns than any team in the NFL. With Tampa’s attacking style on offense and their poor pass defense, they are facing a below-average number of rush attempts each week, but rush attempts are only part of the package for Christian McCaffrey, who has topped 17 carries only one time all season, but who has added recent reception marks of 6 // 4 // 5 // 5 // 6 // 11. In five of CMC’s last six games, he has produced a floor of at least 6-50-0 through the air — giving him one of the highest floors on the slate, in spite of only two games all season north of 80 rushing yards. Volume in this slow-it-down attack for the Panthers is the only concern for CMC, as he has only two games in his last seven with more than 19 touches — making it tough for him to produce elite scores at the same rate as the players priced around him; but as he has shown a few times this year, he has the ability to post monster games, and his elite floor makes him a strong player to bet on in any matchup, with the strength of this bet increased in an above-average spot such as this.
BUCCANEERS PASS OFFENSE
The Panthers’ defense has been extremely strong after the catch this season, allowing the second lowest YAC/R rate in the NFL — but they have paired this strong tackling with an aDOT that is 6% deeper than the league average, and they have allowed a tidy 2.3% increase on the league-average catch rate. This has led to the Panthers ranking 19th in yards allowed per pass attempt, and their inability to stop opponents in the red zone (31st in red zone touchdown rate allowed) has led to them allowing the second most passing touchdowns in the NFL.
“Tampa QB” remains one of the most attractive weekly options on the slate, with the attached pass catchers benefitting as well from an attack that ranks second in the NFL in pass attempts, first in passing yards, third in yards per pass attempt, and fourth in passing touchdowns.
The most dominant source of upside in this passing attack has been Mike Evans, though his recent target counts of 6 // 7 // 8 introduce floor concerns for a player who already carries a high-variance style of play in this offense, with an up-and-down connection with his quarterbacks. On a more positive note: Evans ranks eighth in the NFL in yards per reception, at 17.3, and he has topped 100 yards in six of the eight games this year in which he has hauled in at least six receptions. Evans posted a back-breaking 1-16-0 dud against the Panthers in Week 9 on 10 targets — due partly to solid coverage from James Bradberry, but due more to poor quarterback play from Ryan Fitzpatrick. Evans is a good bet to push for five to seven receptions in this spot.
Joining Evans in the top eight in the league in yards per reception is DeSean Jackson, who ranks first in the NFL in average depth of target and has the ability to score from anywhere on the field. DJax has disappointed lately — failing to crack even 40 yards in four of his last six games, and failing to crack 70 yards in any of his last six games — but he does have recent target counts of 8 // 4 // 8 // 7 // 8, opening the door for him to pop off at low ownership. The risk on this play is heightened a bit by the poor connection that Jameis Winston has shown with DJax over the last two seasons.
Connection is not a concern for Jameis and security blanket Adam Humphries, who has seen target counts in Jameis’ starts of 4 // 9 // 10 // 6. Humphries’ targets rarely result in big gains (only one of his targets last week came more than six yards downfield), but on an offense that consistently sends Evans and DJax downfield, Humphries’ role underneath provides him with locked-in looks.
Chris Godwin unexpectedly saw more snaps last week than Humphries and DJax after playing behind the former all season and playing behind both guys the last several weeks. It appears that this was largely for his run-blocking abilities, as he ran the same number of pass routes as DJax and ran only one more than Humphries. Godwin sees four to six intermediate targets most weeks and has a shot to become relevant when he scores, though his red zone role has grown much smaller with Jameis under center.
This passing attack wraps up with Cameron Brate, who trailed only Evans in routes run last week, but who saw only four targets — right in line with what he saw last year when O.J. Howard missed time. Brate should continue to see four to five targets down the stretch, though it won’t be surprising if he spikes higher than that in one game along the way. He’s a bet-on-touchdown play in an above-average matchup.
BUCCANEERS RUN OFFENSE
The Panthers have been solid on the ground this year, with only eight teams allowing fewer yards per carry to enemy backs, and with only eight teams facing a lower opponent rush play rate. Tampa, of course, has the seventh lowest rush play rate on offense, as this team prefers to open up the field when they have the ball — relentlessly attacking downfield. Tampa ranks bottom five in adjusted line yards on offense. Carolina ranks top five on defense.
On a more positive note for upside hunters: Peyton Barber has 18 carries in back-to-back games, and against the Giants in Week 11 he topped 85 rushing yards for the first time all season. With only one game all year of more than two catches or more than 16 receiving yards (4-24-0 against the Falcons defense that filters passes to running backs), Barber is a true yardage-and-touchdown back. He does rank 11th in the NFL in red zone carries (10th in carries inside the 10), and the Panthers continue to struggle in the red zone, opening an outside-shot opportunity for Barber to matter from a point-per-dollar perspective this week.
Cam has thrown for 300+ passing yards only two times all season, and he has topped 256 yards only once in his last five games — limiting his chances of popping off for a truly big game through the air. Of course, Cam’s floor is aided by his rushing upside (29 or more rushing yards in nine of 11 games this year; four touchdowns on the ground) and by his streak of 10 consecutive games with multiple touchdown passes. This matchup throws little in his way, and game flow could lead to him scoring toward the higher end of his range, making him a safe, high-upside play. Alongside Cam, I like all of Moore, Samuel, and Olsen. With targets being spread around in this offense and none of these guys bankable for a spiked-target week, none of these three pop off the page, but at least two of them (and possibly even all three) should post a respectable game. All three carry nice upside as well.
With CMC’s price creeping up into Gurley territory, it’s not typically my style to bet on his likely 19 or fewer touches — but as is the case almost every single week, he is very much in play. He carries one of the highest raw floors on the slate, and it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibilities for him to pile up elite yardage and multiple touchdowns along the way.
As always: I like Jameis, with fringe interest in Evans. Both guys will make my early-week list, to be weighed and balanced against the other players available around them. DJax is a “bet on big play” option — with his chances of hitting dented a bit by his poor connection with his quarterback, but with his recent target counts certainly giving him a shot at production. Humphries has been one of the best ways lately to gain affordable exposure to the upside of this offense, and he remains underpriced on DraftKings and FantasyDraft (while carrying an appropriate price tag on FanDuel). Godwin and Brate are also viable as “bet on touchdown” plays, though neither should be counted on for floor.
In the Bucs’ backfield, I’ll probably set aside Barber as a viable tourney option, though I doubt I’ll actually use him. As a yardage-and-touchdown back whose usage evaporates when the Bucs fall behind, he’s a risky play in a game the Panthers should ultimately control.
FRIDAY MORNING UPDATE // Full “Updates” List
DeSean Jackson will miss this week’s game for the Bucs, opening a full complement of snaps for Chris Godwin and Adam Humphries.
Last year, DeSean (and O.J. Howard) missed Weeks 16 and 17. In Week 16 against the Panthers, Jameis threw the ball only 27 times, with targets breaking down as follows :: Evans — 8 // Godwin — 6 // Humphries — 3 // Brate — 4.
Here were the stat lines in that game:
:: Evans — 6-107-0
:: Godwin — 3-98-0
:: Humphries — 3-51-0
:: Brate — 3-13-0
In Week 17 against the Saints, Jameis threw 51 passes, with targets breaking down as follows :: Evans — 13 // Godwin — 12 // Humphries — 11 // Brate — 5
:: Evans — 5-55-0
:: Godwin — 7-111-1
:: Humphries — 7-102-0
:: Brate — 3-37-0
Something in the range of 35 to 40 pass attempts for Jameis is a reasonable bet, putting him in between those two games last year. This should give you a good feel for how targets are likeliest to be distributed, with room for small shifts from there.