The last installment of our six-week series of pre-camp positional reviews is necessarily going to be the most succinct one. There simply aren't many specialists to discuss on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' roster, and not likely much change to occur from last year's group.
Obviously, the Buccaneers employ dozens of players on special teams across such units as punt return and coverage, kickoff return and coverage and placekicking, but we have covered the potential special teams contributions from those players in previous installments. In some cases, how young players fare on special teams in training camp and especially the preseason games will determine whether or not they make the roster and get a helmet on game days.
In this case, however, we are looking at just the players whose duties will by definition be confined to special teams – the kickers, punters and long-snappers. At the moment, that's a grand total of four players on the 90-man roster, with rookie kicker Jose Borregales joining last year's efficient trio of kicker Ryan Succop, punter Bradley Pinion and long-snapper Zach Triner.
Given Succop's strong work in 2020 and his new contract signed in March and the lack of any current competition for Pinion and Triner, it appears highly likely that the Buccaneers will roll with the same trio of specialists in 2021. And that in itself is noteworthy, at least when it comes to the placekicking position.
The Bucs have actually enjoyed a good amount of stability at punter over the last decade, with Pinion, Bryan Anger and Michael Koenen accounting for 10 of 11 seasons (including 2021). And the team has only had to employ four long-snappers since 2006, with Triner, Garrison Sanborn, Andrew DePaolo and Andrew Economos all enjoying multi-season stints.
The placekicking situation has been, well, quite a bit different. The 2020 season marked the ninth straight one that the Buccaneers had started the season with a different kicker than the one before, and Succop could be the first kicker to hold that job in Tampa for two consecutive seasons since Connor Barth in 2011-12. This churn at the position didn't stop until Succop's 11th-hour arrival last summer despite the Buccaneers using second and fifth-round draft picks on kickers in a span of four years. It is no wonder that the team consider the re-signing of their veteran kicker a priority in March even while they were trying to deal with potential free agents like Chris Godwin, Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David, Ndamukong Suh and so on.
The end of our Roster Review series brings us to within 23 days of the start of training camp. While there is currently little competition for the Bucs' returning specialists, they will still need to perform as expected in training camp to retain their spots. We know that to be true after the team made a late call to Succop near the end of camp last year and eventually gave him the job over incumbent and second-year player Matt Gay. We conclude our series with a look at the kickers and snappers, and below is a full list of the positions we examined along the way:
- Tuesday, May 25: Quarterbacks
- Friday, May 28: Running Backs
- Tuesday, June 1: Wide Receivers
- Friday, June 4: Tight Ends
- Tuesday, June 8: Offensive Tackles
- Friday, June 11: Guards & Centers
- Tuesday, June 15: Defensive Linemen
- Friday, June 18: Outside Linebackers
- Tuesday, June 22: Inside Linebackers
- Friday, June 25: Cornerbacks
- Tuesday, June 29: Safeties
- Friday, July 2: Specialists
Gay, a fifth-round pick out of Utah in 2019, had a mostly promising rookie season, particularly in terms of his ability to hit from long distance. However, he hit a bit of a slump at the end of that campaign and was then a bit too erratic in training camp in 2020 for the Bucs' comfort. After signing Tom Brady and re-signing several key veterans, the Buccaneers believed they had a Super Bowl-caliber roster and didn't want to see its efforts derailed by uncertain kicking.
That led to the signing of Succop on September 1, just four days before teams were due to reduce their rosters to 53 players. The late addition only left a few days of practice and no preseason games for Succop and Gay to compete, but it was clear that the Buccaneers mainly needed to know if the veteran was back to the form that made him one of the league's most reliable kickers from 2009-18. A knee injury had derailed his sixth and final season in Tennessee in 2019 but before that he was especially automatic on what Bruce Arians called the "gimme" kicks. Succop had previously set an NFL record with 56 straight successful field goal tries from closer than 50 yards.
Succop, of course, delivered spectacularly in that regard and then was perfect in the team's long postseason run. He has, in fact, yet to miss on 13 career playoff field goal attempts. Still, the team did bring in a second kicker for training camp, luring Borregales upstate from Miami and the undrafted rookie looked sharp during OTAs and mini-camps.
Prior to the draft, Borregales was considered a possible Day Three selection after his excellent 2020 season with the Hurricanes. After he instead went undrafted, it was a surprise to some that he chose to sign with the Buccaneers, who appear to have all the confidence in the world in their current veteran kicker. Of course, Borregales can audition for all 32 teams in Tampa Bay's camp, and Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong believes Succop's presence was actually part of the draw in Tampa for the rookie hopeful.
"I think that's probably why he came," said Armstrong. "What better way to learn than to come in and kick behind a guy that's done well for years. And then you have Chris Boniol here who kicked in the league and was an established kicker for years. You've got two guys there that he can learn from, so if you're going to go to camp you might as well go to camp somewhere where you can learn."
- Bradley Pinion (punter)…Entering the third season of the four-year contract he signed with Tampa Bay in 2019; Punted 55 times in 2020 for a gross average of 45.2 and a net average of 40.2, with 19 kicks placed inside the 20, none blocked and only two going for touchbacks; Also handled kickoffs, leading the league with 85 touchbacks and ranking third with a touchback rate of 85.0%.
- Ryan Succop (placekicker)…Re-signed with Tampa Bay to a three-year contract on March 25 after playing his first season with the Bucs on a one-year deal; Made 28 of 31 field goals during the regular season and broke the team's single-season record with 136 points scored; Also made all nine of his postseason field goal attempts and, combined, did not miss on 27 attempts from inside 40 yards.
- Zach Triner (long-snapper)…Re-signed to a one-year deal as an exclusive rights free agent on March 9; Handled the snaps for all 68 punts and all 110 placekicks (postseason included) without incident and added two kick-coverage tackles.
- Greg Joseph (placekicker)…Signed with the Vikings on February 11 almost immediately after his practice squad contract expired; Spent the entire 2020 season on Tampa Bay's practice squad; Has played for Cleveland and Tennessee and has made 17 of his 20 career field goal tries.
- Garrison Sanborn (long-snapper)…Was not re-signed after practice squad contract expired in February; Was on that practice squad for the last seven weeks of the season, including the playoffs; Previously held Bucs' long-snapping job in 2017 and 2018.
- Matt Wile (punter)…Was not re-signed after practice squad contract expired in February; Spent last five weeks of 2020, including playoffs, on that practice squad; Has previously played for Atlanta, Arizona and Minnesota.
- Jose Borregales (placekicker)…Signed with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent on May 13; Won the Lou Groza award as the nation's top collegiate kicker in 2020, making 20 of his 22 field goal attempts and all 37 of his extra point tries for the University of Miami.
Due to the revisions made to some of the league's roster rules last July that were designed to help teams navigate the season during a pandemic, the Buccaneers got to play with 16 practice squad spots throughout the year. The early iteration of that squad was heavy on receivers and offensive linemen but the Bucs were eventually scared into a revised approach late in the season. After Succop, Pinion and Triner were all briefly placed on the COVID list at the same time (they would be cleared and returned to the active roster without missing a game), the Bucs immediately devoted three of those 16 spots to a second trio of specialists.
The Bucs kept that backup group on the practice squad throughout the playoffs, too, but never had to turn to any of them. With the pandemic still not completely a past consideration, the team could start the 2021 season with that same approach, particularly if the 16-man practice squad rule is retained.
That would obviously give Borregales another avenue to remain with the Buccaneers past the preseason. If he fails to make the 53-man roster and is not immediately picked up by another kicker-needy team, he could serve as that extra practice squad kicker until a bigger opportunity comes along. The Buccaneers actually already had a second kicker on the practice squad before the COVID scare but that man, third-year player Greg Joseph, signed with the Vikings after the Super Bowl.
"I think he's a heck of a kicker," said Arians of Borregales. "Whether or not he can supplant Ryan [Succop], we'll see. We had a really good kicker on our practice squad last year, so if that's his opportunity, we'll be really happy with him."
As noted above, Succop only needed one season in Tampa to put up more points than any Buccaneer ever had in a single campaign. That was due in part, of course, by the Bucs fielding the most prolific offense in team history, led by Tom Brady's 40 touchdown passes. But Succop took advantage of all the opportunities, putting up 136 points on 28-of-31 field goal kicking and 52-of-57 extra point kicking.
Succop finished as the league's sixth-leading scorer and he was 11th in the league in field goal percentage. His very first field goal attempt as a Buccaneer was unsuccessful but he later ran off a streak of 21 straight successful three-pointers from Week Four through Week 15. He also made his last 12 attempts, including all nine in the playoffs.
Pinion punted 55 times for 2,486 yards and a gross average of 45.2 that ranked 19th in the NFL. His net average of 40.2 yards per punt ranked right in the middle of the league but the Buccaneers were pleased with his situational and directional kicking. That is reflected in his low total of touchbacks (2) against punts placed inside the 20 (19). Pinion was stronger down the stretch, averaging 47.3 yards per kick over the last six regular-season games and hitting at least one over 50 yards in four straight contests.
For the second straight year, Pinion was also one of the league's best kickoff specialists. He blasted exactly 100 kickoffs in 2020 and 85 of them were good for touchbacks, the highest number in the NFL. Only four of those 100 kickoffs failed to reach the end zone.
Three Key Questions:
· Can Ryan Succop deliver another season of very high-percentage kicking, particularly on what Bruce Arians calls the "gimmes"…including extra-point attempts?
The Buccaneers had to be thrilled with their late decision to bring in Succop and give him the job over Gay. With the playoffs included, Succop made 37 of his 40 field goal attempts, a success rate of 92.5% that was the best ever for a Bucs kicker combined over a regular season and postseason. Most critically, he made all 27 of his tries from inside 40 yards, something no Bucs kicker had done over a full season since Barth in 2011.
However, Succop did not nail every single kick he tried from 39 yards or close. He was 52 of 57 on extra point attempts, which under the new rule is the equivalent of a 33-yard field goal. So the Buccaneers didn't quite get the "gimme" perfection Arians was looking for. Part of the reason for that was some uneven work in getting the kicks off and past the front line of the defense.
The first two extra points that Succop missed were blocked. In addition, his very first Buccaneer field goal try, from 54 yards out in New Orleans in Week One, was also blocked. Two of the other three missed PATS came in Detroit and the Bucs left that game believing the artificial surface at Ford Field was the problem for Succop. The Bucs can't do much about that latter issue but they can improve their field goal protection. That's one goal for Armstrong in 2021.
"In every phase you're always looking for somewhere you can improve," he said. "I thought we did a nice job in punt protection; I think we can be better in coverage. I thought we did a really good job in punt protection. … Field goal protection-wise, we can improve on that. A lot of that, it comes from both the kicker and the protection. We've got to get that cleaned up. We had a couple mishaps early in the year and I think we just need to get that stuff cleaned up and end up finishing the year the way we did."
· Will the Buccaneers continue to emphasize touchbacks on kickoffs?
In the two years that Pinion has handled the Bucs' kickoffs, Arians has chosen to take full advantage of his powerful leg. The Buccaneers have virtually always chosen to try for the safety of a touchback over trying to induce a return and then pinning the opposition farther back than the 25-yard line. That decision is understandable given that Tampa Bay ranked last in kickoff return average allowed (33.6 yards per runback) when the opposing return man chose to run it out.
That is another area that Armstrong pinpointed as a target for improvement in 2021, and the Buccaneers made a point of drafting a handful of players they believe can make an immediate impact on special teams. If Armstrong can mold that unit into a much more effective coverage team, might the Buccaneers occasionally change up their strategy and go for the "pooch" kickoff?
· Will the Buccaneers keep a redundant set of specialists on the practice squad for all or most of the season?
From the very beginning of the COVID-altered 2020 season, Arians was concerned about the possibility of suddenly being left without a kicker on game day. Due to the rules regarding the process of signing any new players, a late-week positive test for Succop would have almost certainly put the Bucs in that situation. The solution was to keep a second kicker in house and ready for immediate promotion from the practice squad.
As mentioned earlier, the Buccaneers eventually devoted a practice squad spot to a punter and a long-snapper as well, not wanting to be caught short-handed at either of those spots as well. At the time that Succop, Pinion and Triner all made their brief trip to the COVID list, the Buccaneers were steaming towards the playoffs and couldn't afford to drop a game due to a missing specialist.
The Bucs could choose to guard against that problem all throughout the season this time around. The alternative is to cross-train another player, such as a linebacker or tight end, to perform the long-snapping duties and trust Succop and Pinion to do the best they can at the other player's job. The Buccaneers might also have less far of that doomsday situation if the rules for signing players go back to more like what they used to be prior to 2020.
"There's a good chance we'll keep a punter and a kicker possibly, depending on the protocols," said Arians. "Who knows what they're going to be."