When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin their 2016 offseason training program in April, they'll have a clear idea of the starters at some positions and a head-to-head (or head-to-head-to-head) competition at others. For instance, in addressing the offensive line earlier in the week, Head Coach Dirk Koetter tabbed Demar Dotson as the starter at right tackle but said the center job would open up as a competition between Joe Hawley and Evan Smith.
However Koetter and his staff have the preliminary depth chart arranged on the whiteboards in their offices, there is at least the opportunity for a hotly-contested competition at both kicking spots. At both punter and kicker, the Buccaneers have a returning incumbent as well as a competitor with significant NFL regular-season experience.
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That became the case on Tuesday when the Buccaneers added former Jacksonville punter Bryan Anger, an unrestricted free agent, on a one-year contract. Anger, who ranked sixth in the NFL in gross punting average (46.8 yards per kick) during the past four years in Jacksonville, joins holdover Jacob Schum on the Bucs roster and, soon, on the practice field.
"Like every position, [we're] trying to create competition for the position," said Koetter of the signing of Anger. "That was another example of that."
In terms of sheer NFL experience and strength of career numbers, the punter competition is the reverse of what the Bucs have set up at placekicker. Anger is a former third-round pick by the Jaguars who has put up good numbers, including a 40.1-yard net average, over a total of 360 punts, the most in the NFL over the last four years. Schum, a former undrafted free agent, is coming off his first regular season, in which he proved he belongs in the league with a 41.9-yard gross, a 38.0-yard net and a 4-15 touchback-to-inside the 20 ratio.
At placekicker, it is incumbent Connor Barth with the overwhelming weight of experience. He has eight years and 164 field goal attempts under his belt – including six seasons and 136 three-point tries with the Buccaneers – and since 2011 he's been the eighth-most accurate field goal kicker in the league at 87.6%. Murray is also an incumbent of sorts, in that he was the Bucs' kicker in 2014 before landing on injured reserve last summer due to a knee ailment. In the summer of 2014, Murray won the job from Barth, who was trying to return from a season missed due to an Achilles tendon tear and who would eventually end up kicking for the Denver Broncos. Murray made 20 of his 24 field goal tries in 2014 (83.3%) including five of six from 50 yards or further.
Murray will get a chance to compete with Barth again because he is very close to moving past the injury that cost him a shot at holding onto his job in 2015. (Kyle Brindza actually won the job from both Barth and Murray at the start of 2015 but the team eventually turned back to Barth when Brindza struggled.)
"Patrick Murray has been in our training room almost every day this offseason," said Koetter, who had hip replacement surgery after the 2015 season and has been making a recovery of his own. "The reason I know that, I've been rehabbing my hip and when I'm going out he's coming in. He's been in there a lot. The last report I got is that he was going to be ready to kick – he can't do it at our field – but he was going to be ready for kicking any day now."
This is not the first time the Buccaneers have dipped into unrestricted free agency in order to address their punting situation, and they've actually had some good results in those efforts in the past. They got one decent year out of former Dolphin and Redskin Reggie Roby after signing him in 1995, but really hit the jackpot about a decade later when they swiped Josh Bidwell from the Packers. Bidwell held down the Bucs' job for five years and is the team's all-time leader in gross average (44.0) as well as the only Tampa Bay punter ever to make the Pro Bowl (in 2005).
In 2011, the Buccaneers signed punter Michael Koenen away from Atlanta on a rather large five-year deal. Team management envisioned Koenen being a two-way field-position threat, given that he was also one of the league's best kickoff men and the NFL had just moved the kickoff line from the 30 to the 35, which would spike touchbacks. Koenen's deal was a little unwieldy by the end of his run, but he played four seasons in Tampa and it's worth noting that he is the franchise's all-time leader in net punting average at 38.2 yards per kick. He was also as good as advertised as a touchback man on kickoffs.
The Bucs' initial commitment to Anger is a lot shorter, but they do hope to get the same sort of success out of free agency that they've had in the past at the punter position. At the very least, the team now has a strong competition in the kicking game…at both spots.
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As far as special teams goes, it appears there will also be a healthy battle for the punt and kickoff return jobs.** In this case, however, the field of competitors is probably not completely set as the offseason begins. There is a chance the Buccaneers will add kick-return options in the coming months either through the draft or free agency. In the meantime, Koetter touched on a couple of existing options for punt returns, including one young receiver and one veteran cornerback.
"That's another position that's going to be open to consideration," he said. "We still have some guys that we have in mind. Guys on our current team right now, Adam Humphries would be a candidate for that. Brent Grimes is a guy that can go back there and catch it in a clutch. We'll still be adding to that as we go along."
Second-year wide receiver Kenny Bell last his rookie season to injured reserve but is hoping to carve out a role on offense in 2016. He might help his chances at being active on game day but proving useful in the return game, too.
"We're thinking of Kenny more as a kickoff return guy," said Koetter. "Kenny…maybe Charles Sims in that role, get him more touches."
Of course, the newly-adopted rule that gives the offense a starting point of the 25-yard line rather than the 20-yard line after a touchback on a kickoffs may make that job a little less important.
"With the rule passed [Tuesday] where the ball can come out to the 25, I think you're going to see a lot less kickoff returns," said Koetter. "If you're strictly playing the percentages, the average kickoff return last year came out to the 23. So, you get the ball at the 25, you're two yards farther ahead. Going on that score-chart percentage, you're two yards closer. I think the main thing on that is that the kickoff-slash-kickoff return has proven that it's the most dangerous play in football. I think it's a player safety issue. It's the highest-percentage concussion play in football."