The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a highly-respected special teams coordinator in Keith Armstrong. They also have two defensive/special teams assistants in Cody Grimm and Keith Tandy, and they even employ Specialists Coach Chris Boniol, a former NFL placekicker, to work specifically with kickers. Before last season, the Buccaneers dipped into free agency for a new punter and used a fifth-round draft pick on a kicker. The one player they claimed off waivers during the final league-wide roster cuts in September was a return man with whom Head Coach Bruce Arians was familiar.
The Buccaneers care about special teams and are willing to devote significant time and resources to making that crew one of the best in the NFL. It didn't quite happen in 2019, but 2020 could be different.
The selection of strong-legged Utah product Matt Gay in the 2019 draft was an effort to end the revolving door at kicker that turned for much of the Bucs' previous decade. At punter, Tampa Bay the Bucs went for a veteran in Bradley Pinion, as they previously had done with Bryan Anger and (with one Jacob Schum season in between) Michael Koenen. The Bucs also specifically targeted Pinion because he could take the kickoff duties off their placekicker's plate, which he did to great effect.
As for the return game, the Buccaneers mostly went with former Cardinal T.J. Logan, previously drafted by Bruce Arians, until Logan missed the last four games with a thumb injury. Running back Dare Ogunbowale took over the kickoff return during that stretch. Before his injury, Logan had added punt return duties upon the release of Bobo Wilson and, though he had little previous experience with that job, looked like he could be a long-term option at that spot. Arians' comments during the 2020 offseason have made it clear that he has a lot of confidence in Logan.
Though they won't be listed below in the additions and departures section, there is also a core of young players whose main job in 2019 was on cover teams. Those include cornerback Ryan Smith, wide receiver Justin Watson and defensive lineman Patrick O'Connor. All of those players return in 2020, as does inside linebacker Kevin Minter, who refused to relinquish his special teams snaps last season even when he spent a month filling in for injured starter Devin White. The Buccaneers' long-snapper, Zach Triner, also remains on the roster, so far unopposed after his first NFL season went well.
Over a six-week span in May and June, we have been going through the Buccaneers depth chart to see where each position stands now that the draft and most of free agency are in the rear view mirror. We now reach the end with a look at the specialists. Some positions needed more attention in the offseason than others after the 2019 season, but almost every spot on the depth chart has already seen some turnover or addition.
Roster Review Schedule:
· Monday, May 18: Quarterbacks
· Wednesday, May 20: Running Backs
· Monday, May 25: Wide Receivers
· Wednesday, May 27: Tight Ends
· Monday, June 1: Offensive Tackles
· Wednesday, June 3: Guards & Centers
· Monday, June 8: Defensive Linemen
· Wednesday, June 10: Outside Linebackers
· Monday, June 15: Inside Linebackers
· Wednesday, June 17: Cornerbacks
· Monday, June 22: Safeties
· Wednesday, June 24: Specialists
The NFL's schedule-makers put Tampa Bay in New Orleans in Week One, surely to spotlight the battle between new Buccaneer Tom Brady and the Saints' Drew Brees, the two leading passers of all time. Those two may indeed engage in a memorable showdown, but starting the season with the Saints also made Arians think about the importance of improving his club's special teams.
"Oh, definitely," said Arians when asked if improvement in the kick-and-return game in 2020 was critical. "Definitely…and our return game also. T.J. Logan was making great progress until he broke his thumb last year as a returner. I thought Keith did a great job. That's one of the areas I'm really concerned with, missing practice, because of the few reps that they're going to get, and then to have to open up with a team as good as the Saints are on special teams, because that can decide the outcome of the game."
Most of that improvement will have to come from the same group of players that handled kicking and covering kicks last season. The only addition the team made to any of the three positions that are solely specialists – kicker, punter and long-snapper – was first-year kicker Elliott Fry, who will give Gay competition in training camp. Pinion and Triner remain the only punter and long-snapper, respectively on the roster. While Gay's results dipped in the last month of 2019, Arians felt like the team was making progress in special teams overall before the season ended.
"I thought Bradley was an outstanding punter and a great kickoff guy; he set a record for touchbacks," said Arians. "Our coverage units got better and better. As injuries occur, it affects your special teams more than anything. I think our return game can get better. Obviously Matt, up until November, was doing an outstanding job and then kind of hit the rookie well, as a kicker, going down through December. We'll have strong competition in camp for that and we'll have to see how we can get better."
The Buccaneers hope to open training camp in July, and they still could bolster their special teams ranks before then. The team has three or four spots on the 90-man roster that it has purposely not filled with undrafted rookies because it might be able to find some experienced veterans who can fit in quickly. Though those won't necessarily be specialists, they likely will be players who will be expected to perform on special teams.
""Probably more so special teams guys – inside linebacker, outside linebacker, a defensive lineman or a safety who can play special teams," said Arians of the targeted players for the open roster spots. "A running back who can play special teams, maybe. It's more guys that can plug in and play because they're smart and they're going to help us on special teams right away."
View photos of wide receiver Mike Evans in the new Buccaneers uniforms.
· K Matt Gay…Entering second year of four-year rookie contract; As a rookie made 27 of 35 field goal tries, including five of eight from 50 yards and beyond, and 43 of 48 extra point attempts
· RB T.J. Logan…As a waiver claim last September, is entering last year of original four-year rookie deal with Arizona; Averaged 20.8 yards on 13 kickoff returns and 9.5 yards on 13 punt returns.
· RB Dare Ogunbowale…Entering second year of two-year contract signed after 2018 season; Averaged 18.6 yards on 12 kickoff returns
· P Bradley Pinion…Entering second year of four-year deal signed as unrestricted free agent in 2019; Compiled gross average of 43.2 yards and net average of 38.3 yards on 57 punts, with three touchbacks and 19 inside the 20; Also handled kickoffs and set an NFL single-season record with 88 touchbacks
· LS Zach Triner…Entering second year of two-year deal signed in 2019; Saw first NFL regular-season action and handled all of Bucs' long-snapping duties
· K Elliott Fry…Claimed off waivers from Carolina after signing new one-year deal with Panthers after 2019 season; Split 2019 preseason between Chicago and Baltimore after signing as an undrafted free agent with the Bears
· RB Raymond Calais…Seventh-round draft pick out of Louisiana-Lafayette; Averaged 25.2 yards on 99 collegiate kickoff returns
· S Antoine Winfield…Second-round draft pick out of Minnesota; Scored on one of three kickoff returns for the Gophers
In addition to specialists, we included in the list above players who had a significant number of kick returns in 2019 or who have specifically been mentioned in connection with the return game by Arians or General Manager Jason Licht this offseason. One of those is Calais, the second of two running backs the Buccaneers chose in April's draft. While Vanderbilt's Ke'Shawn Vaughn, a third-round pick, is more likely to share the backfield load with incumbent starter Ronald Jones, Calais could become something of specialty weapon, in and out of the backfield and on special teams.
Calais returned kickoffs during all four of his seasons at Louisiana-Lafayette.
"He's one of those guys – he runs 4.33 and he's a running back/receiver/kick returner. – just one of those guys I love to play with," said Arians. "I think both of those guys are going to find a role on our ball club."
View photos of tight end Rob Gronkowski in the new Buccaneers uniforms.
Meanwhile, Winfield only had a brief cameo as a punt returner for Minnesota but he took one of his three opportunities 75 yards for a touchdown with an impressive tackle-breaking jaunt. General Manager Jason Licht said that Winfield would be one of the players who would get a look in the return game whenever the Buccaneers can return to the field.
"Absolutely – yes to both," said Licht. "We like some of the players that we have that have been contributing in the return game, but he's going to be added to the mix there. He's extremely smart, he's fast, he's got great burst and acceleration and he's a really good foot athlete, and super instinctive."
Commonly, players taken on the third day of the draft need to find a role on special teams in order to stick on the roster and be active on game days early in their careers. Calais may do so by winning one or both of the return jobs, but the Bucs' other seventh-round pick, Temple linebacker Chapelle Russell has the right size and speed combination to be a real asset in coverage. He also may have the right type of mental makeup to be a standout in that phase of the game.
"He's an aggressive player," said Licht. "He has an aggressive mindset and he's an instinctive player. He's tough [and] he can run. He was a guy we had targeted, fits what we're trying to do, and we're trying to bolster our special teams. We feel like that's what he can do first and foremost, but we do see a big upside in him."
Smith tied for the team lead in kick-coverage tackles in 2019 despite missing the first four games, and the Buccaneers showed that they valued that type of contribution by re-signing Smith to a new one-year deal this offseason after he had completed his original four-year rookie contract. Ogunbowale served as the Bucs' special teams captain while also emerging as the primary third-down back. A rash of injuries gave Watson a chance to play more receiver snaps near the end of his second year but before that he was primarily a core special-teamer. He tied Smith for that tackle lead.
The Buccaneers saw their placekicking results improve from 2018 to 2019, but not by as much as they had hoped. Tampa Bay was 29th in the NFL in 2018 with a field goal success rate of 74.1%, which in itself was slightly better than the 73.5% mark the team posted in 2017. Last year, with Gay taking over, the Bucs got that average up to 77.1%, which ranked 22nd in the NFL.
The issue was a final-month slump for the rookie, which Arians attributes to the "rookie wall," as noted above. Other than a misfire on a potential game-winner against the Giants in Week Three, Gay was outstanding through the first 13 games of the season, making 24 of his 27 field goal tries. At that point, the Buccaneers ranked eighth in the league in field goal percentage, notably one spot ahead of the Saints. Then Gay missed or was blocked on five of his last eight attempts.
Pinion's 43.2-yard gross average and 38.3-yard net average put the Buccaneers at 29th in the league as a team in both categories, but the coaches appreciated the veteran's situational and directional punting. He also only suffered three touchbacks while dropping 19 punts inside the 20, and he was not blocked on any of his 57 attempts. Where Pinion shined in particular was on his kickoffs. All but four of his 97 kickoffs made it to the end zone on the fly, and 88 of them resulted in touchbacks. Pinion's kickoff percentage ranked second in the NFL to that of Carolina kicker Joey Slye.
Though Logan provided a spark in November, the Buccaneers' punt return average as a team was just 5.2 yards, which ranked 29th in the league. The team's seasons-long struggles on kickoff return continued, though that part of the NFL game has been significantly diminished. Tampa Bay only had 25 kickoff returns on the year, averaging 19.8 yards to rank 28th. Opponents averaged 8.9 yards per punt return, which put the Bucs' cover units at 24 in the league rankings, while the opposing kickoff return game was essentially eliminated by Pinion.
Three Key Questions:
· Assuming he holds off Fry for the job, will Gay prove that the first 13 games of his rookie season were the true measure of his NFL abilities?
Again, had the season ended after 13 games, the Bucs would be certain that their draft investment in Gay was an unqualified success. Gay had already made four field goals in Week Three against New York before missing the final 34-yarder, helping give the Bucs stay in the game to the end. He then missed just one time over the next 10 games. He also made four of his first five tries from 50 yards and beyond, giving Arians a long-range option he could trust. And while his five extra point misses in 48 tries were a few too many, all five came in just two games. Arians' notion of a rookie wall is a reasonable one, and Gay never seemed to suffer any crisis of confidence. The addition of Fry could help him get his second season off to a good start; the battle with veteran incumbent Cairo Santos last summer brought out the best in Gay. The Buccaneers have been near the bottom of the league rankings in field goal percentage for close to a decade and have tried many ways to solve that problem. The Matt Gay of the first three months of 2019 would be an excellent answer.
· Will there be new blood in the punt return game?
The Buccaneers spent the first half of the season with Bobo Wilson returning punts but he was released in October. Rookie Scotty Miller, one of the Bucs' fastest players, spent all season taking practice reps at the position but the job went to Logan after Wilson's departure and Miller never returned a kick in a regular-season game. While Logan was an improvement with a 9.5-yard average, that was on a fairly small sample size and he hadn't previously returned punts. Watson and undrafted rookie Spencer Schnell got two chances each on punt returns after Logan broke his thumb in practice. It would not appear as if there is a true favorite heading into training camp, which gives newcomers like Calais and Winfield a larger chance to seize the job. Both will have to first prove they are sure-handed, and then that they can add a spark as return men that the team has been lacking.
Which young player or players will be the first to join the team's core of special-teamers?
Provided they are all still on the roster, the foursome of Minter, Watson, Smith and Ogunbowale are likely to remain the team's most active special teams players. Those were the only four who were on the field for more than half of Tampa Bay's kick-and-coverage snaps in 2019. Linebacker Noah Dawkins was not far down the list with 37.9% of the snaps, but he also played in just 10 games after joining the team in October. Assuming he returns from his 2019 elbow injury, third-year linebacker Jack Cichy could be expected to play a lot in the third phase of the game, too. Will any rookies or newcomers push their way into that group or even replace one of those core special-teamers on the roster? Russell seems like the best bet and that would be a way for him to contribute while the team figures out if he is a bitter fit at inside or outside linebacker. The Bucs like it when their running backs contribute on special teams, like Ogunbowale, and Vaughn is both fast and tough, which is a good start to a cover-man profile.