After a tremendous 2010 season in which he caught 67.3% of the passes thrown at him and was arguably the best tight end in the NFC, Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Kellen Winslow turned in a horrible 2011 performance with a -0.51 WPA and a -13.0 EPA. Winslow had 75 targets, but he was also targeted 121 times- the sixth highest among all tight ends. He averaged a meager 6.3 yards per target, which was easily the lowest total for him while wearing a Bucs uniform.
Much has been made of Winslow’s future with the team, because the former Cleveland Browns tight end is slated to make $13.3 million in total base salaries until the end of the 2014 NFL season. Some fans believe that Kellen Winslow Jr. is no longer worth that kind of money at this point in his career, and this worry stems from the fact that he is a 29-year-old with knee problems. If the Bucs release Winslow, they would stand to save nearly $5 million in cap space for this season.
It is important to put statistics into context, and the first thing that comes to mind is the amount of targets that Kellen Winslow received last season. Josh Freeman had a down year, thus the receivers on the roster were negatively effected by this; especially those who received a large amount of targets. When a young quarterback is struggling, his first instinct is to throw it to his safety valve; the tight end. If you take a look at the advanced statistics, you will notice that he only went deep on 11.8% of his passes. Freeman saw that his go-to-guy was close to the LOS and decided to fire it off to him, even if Winslow was covered.
Not all the blame for Kellen Winslow’s lack of production last season can be blamed on the tight end himself, because relatively healthy players don’t digress from being one of the best receiving tight ends in the NFL to a tight end who can barely function on the field. This isn’t a case of regression, and it is a case of outside forces having a negative impact on Winslow’s play. Winslow managed to catch 62% of the passes thrown at him, but nearly all of them were short passes. He averaged just 10.2 yards per reception, and every Bucs receivers YPR totals were down in 2011. Lower YPR totals mean lower yards per target totals, which explains the decreased production for Winslow.
However, not all the blame can be placed on Freeman’s shoulders, because Winslow was less effective than he was in 2010. He was still solid as a receiver and was one of the only players in the passing game who could have been considered a factor. He didn’t blame as well as in seasons past and was disappointing, but it is imprudent to release your second best receiving threat on the basis of one season; especially when this player has been productive over the course of his career. He’s still under 30, so Kellen Winslow is not digressing due to age.
That will come later on in his career, but Winslow is still one of the better tight ends in football right now. He will bounce back as Freeman bounces back, and Winslow needs to receive some help. Defenses focused in on the middle of the field when facing the Bucs, because Freeman was targeting receivers in the middle of the field more (Winslow) and the receivers outside were also inconsistent.
The Tampa Bay Bucs don’t have an answer at tight end outside of Winslow, and they will be forced to pay more than what they gave Winslow if they decide to sign a tight end in free agency (assuming they are as skilled as Winslow). He has never been an average blocker and struggles in this regard, but he is one of the best ten receiving tight ends in the NFL and should be kept for another three years. He is the best they have right now, and he is a good tight end at that who makes an impact as a receiver. Keeping Kellen Winslow is also important for continuity on a roster and team that has been constantly changing this offseason, and it is important for Josh Freeman to have a few receivers who he is comfortable with. It is far too reactionary to be calling for Winslow’s release, because this team has $68 million and can afford to keep a tight end who should average about seven yards per target and catch about 65% of the passes thrown at him. Last season was an anomaly, and Kellen Winslow will certainly bounce back in 2012. However, the Bucs need to give him that chance and not make a poor decision by releasing him.
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.