To many, the first practice of training camp marks the start of football season.

For me, the season starts a few days earlier, when Football Outsiders releases its annual preview book featuring 500 pages of commentary and statistical analysis on all 32 NFL teams. It’s an essential resource for any self-respecting football fan.

What does the Football Outsiders Almanac 2018 say about the Buccaneers? Here are some takeaways:

The Bucs will be better than last season, but the playoff drought is likely to continue.

Football Outsiders’ mean projection for the Bucs, calculated after simulating the season 1 million times, is … seven wins. The Saints had the highest projection in the NFC South at 9.4 wins, followed by the Falcons at 8.1 wins and the Panthers at 7.5 wins.

Football Outsiders gives the Bucs a 22.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, a 2.0 percent chance of reaching Super Bowl LIII and an 0.8 percent chancing of hoisting their second Lombardi Trophy.

The Patriots have the highest odds of reaching the Super Bowl (24.3 percent), but the Steelers have the best odds of winning it (13.8 percent). The Saints (14.3 percent) and Rams (13.5 percent) are the favorites to win the NFC.

Jameis Winston’s 2017 season was underrated.

The Bucs’ decline from 9-7 in 2016 to 5-11 in 2017 has fed a perception that Winston, who is entering his fourth season, is not improving. Several metrics, both traditional and advanced, show otherwise. Football Outsiders notes that last season Winston set career highs in completion percentage (63.8), interception percentage (2.5), yards per attempt (7.9), passer rating (92.2), passing yards per game (269.5), passing Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (779) and passing Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (14.3 percent).

Season DYAR (rank) DVOA (rank)
2015 467 (16) 2.1% (16)
2016 556 (15) 3.6% (16)
2017 779 (11) 14.3% (12)
2018* n/a 7.9%

*Projection for 16-game season

RELATED STORY: Ranking the best passing seasons by Bucs quarterbacks

The Bucs should petition the NFL for a move out of the NFC South.

“The 2017 NFC South was the first division since 2002 to feature three starting quarterbacks that had won an MVP and/or Super Bowl in their career prior to that season. No other division even comes close. All told, the NFC South has had 489 regular-season starts since 2002 by quarterbacks who have won an MVP and/or Super Bowl. That far outpaces the rest of the divisions: the AFC North (385), NFC North (290), AFC East (253), NFC East (253), AFC South (196), NFC West (185), and AFC West (142).”

Those 253 starts in the AFC East? Tom Brady’s responsible for 237 of them. Brett Favre, who played for the Jets in 2008, started the other 16.

Winston and Cam Newton are remarkably similar passers.

“They both absorb a lot of contact by holding the ball longer than average in an effort to make plays down the field. ... They also have a tendency to be erratic passers and benefit from having tall receivers.”

Quarterback Comp.% Yards/pass Yards/catch TD% INT% Rating
Jameis Winston 60.8% 7.5 12.4 4.5% 2.8% 87.2
Cam Newton 58.5% 7.3 12.5 4.6% 2.7% 85.3

Winston moves the chains.

Since Winston joined the NFL in 2015, he has been among the leaders in first downs per pass attempt. In 2015, 37.6 percent of his passes resulted in a first down, which ranked 10th. He increased that rate in 2016, to 37.7 percent, and again last season, to 40.7 percent, which ranked third.

Overall, Winston’s 38.5 percent rate ranks second among all quarterbacks since 2001, according to Football Outsiders. No. 1? Peyton Manning at 39.6 percent. Ben Roethlisberger ranks third, followed by Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees.

The Bucs' inability to break off explosive runs wasn’t just a blocking problem.

The team’s running backs struggled even after getting past the line of scrimmage, breaking only 50 tackles, a league low. According to Football Outsiders, the Bucs gained the second-fewest second-level yards per carry and the third-fewest open-field yards per carry. (Second-level yards are yards gained between 5 and 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, and open-field yards are yards gained 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.)

The hope, of course, is that second-round pick Ronald Jones II will be the home-run threat the Bucs have so sorely lacked. In 13 games for USC last season, he had 32 runs of at least 12 yards. The Bucs had 19. Only the Cardinals had fewer.

RELATED STORY: Bucs rookies who could have the biggest impact in 2018

The analytics nerds aren’t making it up: The Bucs have a problem at left tackle.

When Pro Football Focus hands out a grade to a player that a fan or coach doesn’t like, the rebuttal often looks something like this:

“Really? (Demeaning snicker or laugh here.) They don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know the blocking scheme. I don’t care what they say. They probably never played the game anyway. (Some derogatory insult about analytics here.)”

In left tackle Donovan Smith, the Bucs see a Pro Bowl talent. PFF disagrees. The website ranked him 73rd out of 76 qualifying offensive tackles in 2015, 70th out of 76 in 2016 and 73rd out of 83 last season. Based on Football Outsiders data, those rankings have some validity. Smith allowed 7.5 sacks last season, one short of a tie for the league lead.

The pass rush was bad, but it was even worse than you thought.

The Bucs sacked Josh McCown six times and everyone else 16 times. Of those 22 sacks — the fewest in the league — only 13 were the result of pressure. That means the other nine were coverage sacks or failed quarterback scrambles.

Do you remember the last time the Bucs returned a kick or a punt for a touchdown? Neither do I.

Football Outsiders informs me that it was in 2010, an 89-yard kickoff return by Michael Spurlock. Teams that had some type of return touchdown last season (kickoff, punt, interception or fumble) won nearly 70 percent of the time.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.