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The Bucs are a .500 team in real life. In fantasy it’s another story

TAMPA — Ask any NFL player and they will tell you that success is about wins and losses. Putting up big numbers is great, but it doesn’t win championships or secure jobs.

Still, players are well aware of how today’s football fan values those numbers, and how there’s a ever-increasing area of fandom that has more invested in the individual player’s performance than the team because of one thing— the domination of fantasy football.

“Without the fans, this really wouldn’t be a fun game,” Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston. “So we’ve got to love our fans, and stats do matter in one area. But in this business, if we don’t win games, we are out of here, so no matter how good we’re doing on fantasy, we still have to execute as a team and win to keep our jobs.”

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The Bucs enter Sunday’s game in Cincinnati as a 3-3 team. Their season can still go either way. What they have established so far this season is a passing game that those playing fantasy football can’t ignore.

In terms of total yards, the Bucs have the NFL’s best offense, and with title that comes lots of weapons. Whether it’s been Winston or Ryan Fitzpatrick earlier in the season, the have shown a consistency for piling up yards through the air. For Bucs players, this might be the best way they get known on a national scale.

“For sure, being a small market team like Tampa, you don’t necessarily have all the Sunday night games or something like that,” said tight end Cameron Brate. “And so it definitely helps gets our names out there for sure.

“I feel like even with the rule changes, the way the NFL is kind of shifting,” he added, “I think it’s super important to the NFL to promote the fantasy aspect of the game because that’s what the people are interested in.”

Players are now commodities in ways they’ve never seen, and they are all too aware of it from the way fans and friends interact with them.

“Last year, I was getting it all the time,” Brate said. “Sometimes they’ll ask me about other people who play and try to get a little inside information. Especially like the Sunday night or Monday night game. They’re like, ‘Hey man, I’m down three points, I need you to do something for me.’ “

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Two years ago, Mike Evans became a household name on a 9-7 Bucs team because he emerged as the top-ranked receiver in fantasy football. And now, his consistency is probably best appreciated by fantasy players. Brate was a top-eight fantasy tight end for two straight years entering this season. Fellow tight end O.J. Howard now ranks seventh among tight ends in standard-scoring leagues. Receiver DeSean Jackson ranks 12th among wide receiver in standard-scoring leagues, but his .37 points per snap, according to Pro Football Focus, leads all wide receivers.

Evans, Jackson, Howard and Winston are all owned in at least 70 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues this week.

Big offenses are the trend in this year’s NFL —- whether it’s because of the rule changes that favor offense or the implementation of high-powers offenses — the Bucs are included in that trend, and that’s no matter who is running the offense.

Fitzpatrick’s early season success in Winston’s absence made him a hot addition to fantasy football rosters, and in average fantasy points per game, he’s still up there to Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, the NFL’s top fantasy quarterback. When Winston returned, the Bucs continued to put up big numbers, and he’s now ranked a top-10 quarterback. ESPN fantasy football expert Matthew Berry put Winston’s success in context this week, pointing out that Winston’s 905 passing yards in 10 quarters of play projects out to 5,792 over a full season, which would surpass the single-season mark of 5,477.

Yes, that’s hypothetical, and it’s difficult to project, but in fantasy land, fans aren’t as concerned with the turnovers Winston has made as they are with him consistently throwing for nearly 400 yards.

Brate said he used to play fantasy football before he became a pro, but gave his team to his brother once he was drafted. That doesn’t mean his friends aren’t trying to get inside information from him.

“I’m still in the group chat with everyone so I still get hit up all the time about who’s playing and who’s prominent in the game plan,” Brate said. “But I think it’s part of our contract not to disclose any inside information.”

An hour and a half before kickoff last Sunday, Winston’s Twitter time line clogged with mentions from an account for a daily fantasy site called Playline soliticiting predictions on whether Winston or Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield would throw for more yards and how many, offering a $5 prize to the winner.

During last season, Winston’s Instagram was flooded with comments from fans telling him he needed to get the ball to certain pass catchers more, whether it was Evans or Brate or Howard.

“I’m sure if I check my Instagram messages, there will be a lot of those unknown people threatening me to get the ball [to their fantasy player],” Winston said.

After Howard’s eight-catch, 72-yard game in a Week 3 Monday Night Football loss to the Steelers, fans his Twitter mentions fill up with fantasy football love. And at that point, he’s the top fantasy tight end in the NFL.

The following week in Chicago, Howard was catch-less before injuring his knee. After the adoration turned into disappointment in his zero-point day, his mentions were a mix of angry fantasy owners and fans concerned about the injury that ended his day.

@LOUisButIsnt tweeted: “Shout-out to [Bears running back Jordan Howard] and @TheRealOjHoward for being complete NO SHOWS in fantasy I’m losing by 40 ya BUMS.”

@1broskeetah tweeted: “Can’t wait to drop @TheRealOjHoward off my fantasy team…big trash”

Howard said he gets it the mixed messages from his friends, too, who are trying to find out his health status on a regular basis.

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“They all are about their team,” Howard said. “They’re about their fantasy league. If you get hurt, they’re like, ‘Hurry up and get back. They’ll say, ‘Man, get well soon but I need you back on the field for my team. I need those fantasy points back.’ “

That focus is lost on some players, like receiver Adam Humphries, who said he’s seen his friends value their fantasy players more than their favorite team. It seems odd to Humphries, even if it’s his friends telling him he’s the one their counting on to provide fantasy points.

“A lot of times in the offseason,” Humphries said. “I’ll hear a friend or a friend of a friend say, ‘Hey man, I had you in fantasy last year, or ‘I’m going to pick you up in fantasy this year.’ I’m just like, ‘Why tell me that? ‘It’s almost like putting more pressure on me to go out and get fantasy points.

“These are my friends, I’m like, ‘Dude, don’t do that.’ They love it and it’s fun for them, and I’ve never played it but maybe one day I’ll play it and I’ll be able to relate. But I just see the game of football as a team sport and ultimately it’s about getting a win with your team.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected] Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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