As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prepared to trim their roster from 80 players down to the regular-season limit of 53 earlier this week, there was only one spot on special teams that was up for grabs. Punter Jake Camarda and long-snapper Zach Triner were both one-of-one on that roster so, barring a very unexpected waiver claim, they were clearly going through to the 53. However, the Buccaneers did have to make a final decision between kickers Ryan Succop and Jose Borregales.
Head Coach Todd Bowles hinted before Tuesday's 'final' round of cuts that the veteran Succop had held onto his job, and indeed the team waived Borregales to make that official. However, while all three specialist spots on the 53-man roster have been decided, some questions still remain about the Buccaneers' special teams overall. The roster may be set, but there are still jobs to be one within the kick-and-coverage game. Let's take a quick look at some of those pressing questions.
1. Will the Buccaneers be comfortable trying more long field goals?
Succop is the most accurate kicker in Buccaneers franchise history, and the 11th-hour decision to bring him in at the beginning of the 2020 Super Bowl season paid off in a big way. For one thing, he was nine-for-nine on field goal attempts during that four-game playoff run to the top of the hill.
As part of Jason Licht's hugely successful effort to "keep the band together" during the 2021 offseason and make a run at a second straight title with the same group, Succop got a new three-year contract. However, within his team record-setting 86.9% field goal success rate, it's worth noting that it dropped from 90.3% in 2020 to 83.3% last year. In addition, Succop had a long of 48 last year and only attempted eight field goals of 43 or more yards, making four of them.
It was for that reason that Succop had competition for the job in 2022, even as he entered the second-year of his contract. Borregales has a very strong leg and if he won the battle might have given the Buccaneers more of a long-distance weapon. Succop was up for that competition, though, kicking nearly flawlessly throughout training camp practices and then making all three of his placekicks, including an encouraging 52-yard field goal. Borregales did hit a 55-yarder in the first preseason game but then missed his next two tries from 49 and 52. With Succop looking like he did in 2020, the Buccaneers chose to stay with the proven incumbent.
"Consistency," answered Bowles when asked what the deciding factor in the battle was. "Obviously, Borregales had his chances; he missed two in the ballgame. [Ryan]'s been more consistent. [Borregales] has got a great leg and he has a chance, but consistency usually wins."
So with Succop still the kicker, the question is whether the decision-making outside the red zone will be different in 2022 than it seemed to be in 2021. The Buccaneers only tried 11 field goals of 40 or more yards last year and occasionally seemed reluctant to risk the longer attempts. Of course, there's a new man making those decisions this season, with Bowles replacing Bruce Arians, so that could impact the situation regardless of who is kicker. Bowles was asked on Thursday if he would be aggressive on fourth downs or not.
"It all depends on the situation," he replied. "I could sit here and tell you pluses for both ways, but until you get into that situation, and you understand how your team is playing, you look at the percentages of what is being said and then you look at how your team is playing and you make an educated decision. So, sometimes you go with the data, sometimes you go against the data. It all depends on the situation."
Succop's 52-yarder in Indianapolis last weekend and some additional long-range shots during training camp may have given Bowles confidence that the veteran kicker can be called on more often beyond 40 yards in 2022. We'll soon find out if that is the case.
2. Will someone give the return game a spark?
The Buccaneers last had a kickoff or a punt return for a touchdown in 2010. Remember Micheal Spurlock? (And, yes, I'm spelling his first name right.) Tampa Bay is the only team in the NFL that has not scored on a punt or kickoff return over the last 11 seasons. Additionally, the Bucs ranked 29th in punt return average and 26th in kickoff return average in 2021.
Obviously, the team would love to get a few more splash plays out of the return game and overall get their return averages up, closer to 10 yards on punts and 25 on kickoffs. Can someone on the roster provide that spark?
Second-year wideout Jaelon Darden was drafted in the fourth round last year in part because the Bucs thought he had the potential to be that big-play return man. His rookie season was a little up and down but he is likely to get another shot at the return job, particularly on punts. The Bucs also took a long look at rookie running back Rachaad White on kickoffs and could give him first crack at that job. White has shifty open-field moves and home run speed and might prove harder to tackle with his size, compared to a small receiver.
Obviously, not all of this falls on the return men. There needs to be some sort of efficient blocking up front to create some long-return chances. That, too, is something the Buccaneers must sort out after trimming the roster down to 53 players. Which players are going to form the core of what is hopefully an improved special teams corps in 2022?
3. Who will be the punt gunners?
The Buccaneers looked at a lot of different options at the two gunner positions during the preseason. They also instructed the strong-legged Camarda to bomb away, going for long distance kicks that would almost surely be returned and not fair-caught in order to give those auditioning on the coverage team a chance to show what they could do. It did not always go well – with Camarda out-kicking his coverage on multiple occasions, the Bucs ranked 17th in gross punting average but 32nd in net average – but that was with a constantly rotating cast of characters and an untypical strategy.
There are a lot of possibilities for the two punt-gunner roles. The Buccaneers specifically mentioned that job as something rookie cornerback Zyon McCollum could excel in when he was drafted in the fifth round. However, McCollum is currently sidelined by a hamstring injury and may be one of the few players not cleared for the season opener on September 11.
Bowles also made it clear that special teams ability factored into the decision at the final three receiver spots, with Darden, Scotty Miller and Breshad Perriman getting the call over Tyler Johnson. Miller is a reserve option at both return jobs but has also seen some time as a gunner. His blazing speed is obviously an asset there and he put on 10-15 pounds of muscle during the offseason, making him potentially a more rugged tackler.
The Buccaneers are also yet to name the starting corner opposite Carlton Davis. Whether that ends up being Sean Murphy-Bunting or Jamel Dean, the other one is likely going to be asked to have a significant role on special teams. Dean, in particular, is extremely fast and has great size, which is a nice profile for a gunner, particularly when he has to beat double-team blocks at the snap.
The Buccaneers drafted cornerback Ryan Smith in the fourth round of the 2016 draft and kept him around for five seasons even though he only sparingly found work on defense. What he did prove to be was a superb gunner, known for frequently downing punts inside the five-yard line. Smith's tenure with the team proved that if a player could stand out from the crowd in the gunner role he would be considered quite valuable. A few Buccaneers have a chance to follow in that path in 2022.