Last summer, rookie Matt Gay used a strong training camp to win a battle with veteran Cairo Santos for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' kicker job, even though the incumbent Santos had a good camp as well. This year, Gay once again is competing for the Buccaneers' kicking job, this time with first-year player Elliott Fry, and this time he's searching for consistency to hold off the latest challenge.
"I think the competition is close – I think it's real close," said Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong. "I think with Matt, the thing I learned is he's got to learn to be consistent. That's what we're looking for and that's hard to do. That's what wins and he's got to learn to be consistent. When I come away from last year, you can't make the 60-yarder and miss the 45. You've got to learn to be consistent – they all count."
The Buccaneers drafted Gay out of Utah in the fifth round in 2019 in an obvious attempt to end the turmoil the team has had at the position for most of a decade. After his impressive camp and 5-for-6 field goal performance in the preseason (including 55 and 53 yarders), Gay mostly carried that success over into the regular season. Outside of a disappointing miss of a potential Week Three game-winner against the Giants, Gay made 24 of his first 27 attempts through the first 13 games of the season. Then a late-season slump saw him miss five of his last eight.
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
The Buccaneers found Gay some competition when Fry was waived by the Panthers, claiming the former South Carolina kicker on May 1. Fry spent time with the Bears and Ravens as a rookie in 2019 and was given a tryout by 10 different teams during the fall before finally signing with the Panthers. He has not yet kicked in an NFL game but has shown off a strong leg on the Bucs' practice field. He is not making it easy for Gay.
"The competition is really tight," said Armstrong. "Both have good legs and [Elliott] Fry is giving him a run for his money. They're competing back and forth and it's a good competition."
Armstrong has no doubt gotten his message about consistency across to Gay because he knows it's what the head coach is focusing on. Without preseason games to test both kickers, they will have to show that consistency in practice, and perhaps in particular during a pair of intrasquad scrimmages at Raymond James Stadium. The first of those is on Friday.
"The most consistent guy [will make the team]," said Bruce Arians. "They both have enough leg strength. Fry kicked a 56-yarder with no problems. I don't think we're going to try too many longer unless it's at the end of the half. Leg strength is no problem, so it's just the most consistent guy, and if there's a disparity with who's the most consistent inside 35 [yards]."
Two of Gay's seven field goal misses last year came from 34 yards, which is almost identical to the depth of an extra point under current rules. Gay was 43 of 48 on extra point attempts last year.
While the kicker job is up in the air because the newcomer is holding his own against the incumbent, the kick and punt return assignments are still to be determined because there really is no incumbent. That became true when T.J. Logan suffered a season-ending knee injury last week. Logan had held the Bucs' kickoff return job through 12 games last year before fracturing a thumb in a December practice. He had also taken over as the punt returner after the release of Bobo Wilson, and proved to be a good option in that role, which was less familiar to him. Justin Watson,Spencer Schnell and Jaydon Mickens all got a couple of cracks at punt return after Logan went down, but not enough to call any of them the clear favorite.
However, Mickens might have another advantage in that he has a proven track record as an NFL punt returner. During the 2017-18 seasons, he returned 39 punts for the Jaguars, averaging 8.9 yards per attempt. Mickens also recorded eight kickoff returns with a 21.1-yard average. Armstrong mentioned a handful of potential return candidates on Wednesday but saved most of his analysis for Mickens.
"We've got Mickens here," said Armstrong. "Watson's been a good backup [who has] filled in for us. [Cyril] Grayson is a talented kid as a receiver – he can do it. Sean Murphy-Bunting can do it – he did it in college [and] did a nice job of it. [Antoine] Winfield actually has a touchdown in college as a returner. We've got some options with the returners. Right now, obviously, good competition. I like Mickens because he has some gameday experience. I think again, going into this season, the more vets on the field the better. But, I like what I'm seeing with Mickens right now."