2019 Roster Reset: Specialists

190605_KZ_MiniCamp_076

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers just concluded their offseason program last week with a three-day mini-camp, which followed three weeks of OTA practices. In addition to holding 13 practices behind the AdventHealth Training Center (one of them quite brief), the Buccaneers also had plenty of time to get the players into meeting rooms for playbook lessons.

Most of those meeting rooms, which are broken up into the various positions on the depth chart, featured a mix of returning players and newcomers. The Buccaneers have a new reserve quarterback in Blaine Gabbert, for instance, but still have the same starter in Jameis Winston. Rookie Devin White shared the linebacker room with one of the Bucs' most established players, Lavonte David. And so on.

There is one group of players, however, that could see 100% turnover from 2018 to 2019. If rookie Matt Gay comes out of his preseason competition with incumbent veteran Cairo Santos in possession of Tampa Bay's placekicking job, the Bucs will go into the season with a new player at each of the three specialist positions. There aren't a lot of players to discuss as our Roster Reset hits the specialists, but there is going to be a lot of change.

In fact, it is rare for that room to undergo so much change in one offseason. The last time the Buccaneers started one season with a different punter, kicker and long-snapper than the ones they employed at the end of the previous campaign was in 1992. That was so long ago that most NFL long-snappers were still listed at other positions. The Bucs' long-snapper in 1991 was linebacker Sam Anno, but linebacker Ed Brady came in to handle that job in 1992. Meanwhile, the kicking duo of Steve Christie and Mark Royals morphed into Ken Willis and Dan Stryzinski. (Willis was later replaced at midseason by veteran Eddie Murray.)

This last look at the players specifically on the team for their special teams capabilities concludes the Roster Reset series. Earlier this week, we concluded the defensive positions, which started on the defensive linemen and then ran through outside linebackers, inside linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties. Prior to that, we ran through the offensive positions, starting with quarterbacks and then hitting the running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive tackles and interior linemen. The final installment: Specialists.

Addition(s): K Matt Gay (fifth-round draft pick), P Bradley Pinion (unrestricted free agent), LS Zach Triner (free agent)

Subtraction(s): P Bryan Anger (released), LS Garrison Sanborn (unrestricted free agent, remains unsigned)

Returning Players: K Cairo Santos

If we wanted to expand the idea of "subtractions" a little bit, we could include Chandler Catanzaro in that category. Catanzaro was signed in 2018 after three seasons with the Cardinals and one with the Jets as the Buccaneers tried again to stabilize their troublesome placekicker position. However, Catanzaro struggled much more than expected and was waived after nine games, to be replaced by Santos. The Buccaneers initially signed Santos just to finish out the 2018 season, but then gave him a new deal this past March.

More directly, the Bucs moved on from their punter of the past three seasons, Bryan Anger, and their long-snapper of the last two campaigns, Garrison Sanborn. The former has been replaced by a player with somewhat similar NFL experience – Bradley Pinion has played four seasons to Anger's seven – but the same is not true of the latter. Sanborn has played in every game the past 10 seasons, including eight in Buffalo, while Zach Triner's next regular-season snap will be his first.

The Buccaneers brought in competition for Triner after the draft, signing rookie free agent Dan Godsil, widely considered the top available long-snapper in this year's field. However, that competition didn't last long, as Godsil was waived after the rookie mini-camp. The Buccaneers signed Triner to a reserve/futures contract in early January after giving him a tryout in mid-December. A lot of NFL teams actually kicked the tires on Triner after he was released by Green Bay in September; the Bucs were the sixth of seven teams to try him out last fall. Triner went to camp with the Packers last year and was with the Jets for a portion of the 2017 offseason.

Tampa Bay took a look at undrafted rookie punter Mac Loudermilk on a tryout contract in that camp but as of now have no competition on the roster for Pinion. Pinion will face some competition for part of his job, however, as fifth-round draft pick Matt Gay, a placekicker out of Utah, is a good kickoff man. When the Buccaneers signed Pinion in March, they understandably highlighted his very good work on kickoffs during four seasons in San Francisco. Pinion would almost surely handle kickoffs if he's paired with Santos, but if Gay wins the placekicking competition he could also get that part of the job as well.

But, of course, Gay is more directly in a battle with Santos. The job won't be handed to the rookie but the Bucs obviously thought very highly of the former college soccer player to use the 145th overall pick in the draft on him.

"There's competition," said Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong. "It's what Coach [Bruce] Arians said when we came in. The best way for us to get better is to create competition. I can yell and scream until I'm blue in the face. Until I bring somebody in, standing right next to him, now let's go.

"You've got to go prove it. Whether you're a free-agent kicker, seventh round, fifth round, second round, first round, it doesn't matter. You've got to prove it."

We could also slip in one more "addition" to the specialist group, though it isn't a player. Obviously, the Buccaneers have a new coordinator in Armstrong, and he is assisted by Amos Jones, but the team created a new position by hiring Specialist Coach Chris Boniol. Boniol had a six-year NFL career as a kicker, including some very good ones in Dallas, and he has subsequently coached kickers for the Cowboys and Raiders and on the collegiate level. Whoever wins the kicking job, the Bucs believe Boniol will be able to help him with the mental aspect of the game.

"[I will be] helping them be in front of things," said Boniol. "Prevent fires before you have to put out fires. You talk about things snowballing and getting out of control…how you respond to adversity, how you respond to a bad day is a big deal. You're going to have a bad practice. You may even have a bad game at some point. You hope those bad games don't cost your team, but when you do have that bad day or that bad kick, then what? How you respond is very important."

Notable 2018 Numbers: Catanzaro and Santos combined to make 20 of 27 field goals for Tampa Bay last season, resulting in a 74.1% success rate that ranked 29th in the NFL. That was actually slightly better than the team's rate from the year before, a mark of 73.5% that ranked 28th in the league. In 2016, that rate was 72.5%, 30th in the league. Obviously, this problem has been plaguing the Buccaneers for some time, so much so that 2019 could mark the seventh straight season the team will open with a different kicker than the one with which it finished the previous campaign.

Of course, Santos could keep that from happening. He made nine of 12 field goal tries and all 17 of his extra-point attempts in his seven games with the Buccaneers, the latter a big improvement after Catanzaro had missed four extra points. His competitor, Gay, made 56 of his 65 field goal attempts (86.2%) and all 85 of his PATS over two seasons at Utah. That included an eight-of-11 mark from 50 yards or further.

"I'm aware it's been a tough few years here in the kicking department, for whatever reason," said Boniol. "That's what we're here to do, try to get better through competition, through practice habits, whatever we have to do to get the [right results]. It's an end-result game. You're judged on your results and that's what we're here for."

Tampa Bay's two kickers produced touchbacks on 60.7% of their kickoffs last year, which put the team 20th in the league rankings in that category. As an individual, Pinion tied for 13th in the NFL in that category in 2018, with a rate of 67.5%. His average kickoff distance of 64.5 yards was fourth-best in the NFL among all players with more than one punt.

Anger and Pinion had fairly similar punting numbers in 2018, though the newer Buccaneer added the kickoff value. Pinion's net average of 39.1 yards was a bit better than Anger's 38.9, while Anger had the slight edge in gross average, 45.0 to 43.7. Pinion placed the ball well for the 49ers, recording 22 punts downed inside the 20 versus just four touchbacks.

Key Question: Will the long-term answer at kicker finally be found?

This question is not worded in a way that's meant to slant the answer toward Gay. Santos is still just 27 years old and could have many years left in the NFL, particularly after he got back on track with the Buccaneers after a groin injury derailed his first good run in Kansas City. He could even end up with a long run in Tampa, much like Matt Bryant left Tampa after his seventh season and landed in Atlanta – working with Armstrong – for a solid decade.

For his part, Cairo has welcomed the competition from Gay.

"Cairo's a pro and he's a tough kid," said Boniol. "He's a competitor, and I have no doubt that he's going to show up and do his work and compete the best he can. It will be a very interesting competition."

Still, it would certainly rank as a much-needed success story if the Buccaneers turned a fifth-round draft pick into a kicker who can hold down the job for the foreseeable future. Gay was the first kicker drafted this year, but another one followed 25 picks later, and the Bucs didn't own another selection for another 38 spots after that one. There's a very good chance they would not have landed Gay if they had waited one more round.

"He's obviously a talented kid," said Armstrong. "He's got a big leg, very accurate. He can make the long ball. I think the thing we liked about him was he was consistent with his field goal percentage. We thought that he did a nice job with the kickoffs and he was probably the best [kicking] prospect in the draft."

Gay is 6-0 and 232 pounds, compared to 5-8 and 160 for Santos. Obviously, size is far from the most important aspect of an NFL kicker, but Gay has a very strong leg that would be an advantage if he can continue to show the accuracy he had at Utah.

"The thing I like about him is you hear the thud coming off it," said Armstrong. "That thing is thumping. He's hitting the ball. And it's windy here, so you've got to play the wind, so you'd better be able to do what? Drive that ball sometimes, and still get it up to get it high. With a smaller guy, sometimes they have to drive the ball. Well, now you're putting yourself in position where you get the blocked. This kid, he's going to drive it, but he can still get the thing up in the air."

If Gay seems to have the advantage of a bigger leg and potential value on kickoffs, Santos obviously has an experience edge. He has a career field-goal percentage of 83.2% (104 of 125) and he successfully handled a handful of game-winning kicks during his initial three-year run in Kansas City. The Buccaneers believe they drafted a mentally-tough kicker in Gay, but of course he'll have to prove that on the field. Armstrong thinks that Gay has "intangibles" that make him a good bet to handle that part of his job. 

"It's a big part of it," said Armstrong. "A lot of its not physical. A lot of is because of the mental aspect of it. The ability to kick and stay present – I know it's a cliché but the most important kick is the one that's up, and you've got to be able to get over the last shot.

"That's what we see in Gay – there's something else about him. He's got a strong personality. Sometimes you're going to curtail something or tell him, 'Hey, dude, we need to slow down here.' But he is a tough guy, relative to his position. I think you have to look for some type of personality. In my experience over the years, those are the guys who have had success."

The question at the top of this section won't be fully answered in 2018. Someone is going to win the Bucs' job, and that kicker will hopefully fare better than the ones who have tried but failed to lock down the job over the past seven years. That would be a good start, but it might be a couple seasons to know if the Bucs have a long-term solution. That said, it begins now, and the Bucs' coaching staff is counting on competition to produce a good answer for 2018 at the very least.

"When we came here, we said we were going to create competition," said Armstrong. "So we feel like, if we have two kickers, and one that can kick off really well, and we have a punter that can kick off, that's competition. How do you make people better? Competition. Well, we've got competition.

"We're trying to create competition, we're trying to create toughness. So now we've got a punter that's got to prove that he wants the kickoff [job]. It's not just his job anymore. We want competition. It's going to make everybody better."

Advertising