The competition for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' punt and kickoff return jobs in 2020 was essentially decided on August 20 in a Thursday afternoon training camp practice, and it wasn't during a special teams rep. Running back T.J. Logan, who had held both return jobs for much of 2019, suffered a knee injury during an offensive drill that would prove to be season-ending. That cleared the way for Jaydon Mickens to win the sixth receiver spot so that he could handle punt and kickoff returns.
It's fair to wonder how that competition would have shaken out had Logan not been injured because there was one complicating factor in the summer of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic had wiped out the entire preseason schedule, which left Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong and the Bucs' decision-makers without the most useful piece of evidence to judge the candidates. Mickens would end up doing a fine job as the return man, averaging 6.2 yards on punts and 24.3 yards on kickoffs and adding a couple key returns in the playoffs.
This year, the preseason is back, if shortened by one game, and that's particularly useful because this year the Buccaneers' competition for their return jobs is expected to include a rookie. When the Buccaneers drafted shifty North Texas wideout Jaelon Darden in the fourth round a month ago they made it clear that his potential on special teams was one of the reasons. Darden and Mickens figure to be the top two candidates for the punt return job and the rookie could factor into kickoff return as well despite his relatively diminutive size.
"I think he has an opportunity," said Armstrong. "Obviously, I think he can be a punt returner, and I think he can also be a kickoff returner. You know, there's different types of kickoff returners. There's devil-down-and-kick-out power runners and then you have more of a splatter or a zone type of returner where you're more of a speed guy. You can always fit your return to the player."
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Armstrong said Darden has already shown in practice that he has soft hands and catches the ball well on punts, with sudden movements as soon as he has the ball in his hands. The rookie won't get either return job by default, though; he'll have to beat out at least Mickens and potentially some other candidates. But the return of the preseason makes that a more reasonable possibility because the Bucs will be able to see how he handles live situations…all kinds of situations.
"You have to make decisions and you have to manage the game and we'll practice that as much as we can," said Armstrong. "We'll put them in those situations. We'll be in plus-50 punt. He'll have to put his heels on the 10-yard line. That ball is coming down at the eight – do you step back and fair catch that ball at the eight or do you let it hit the ground and roll into the end zone? Those type of decisions have to be made by him. Just little things like that. We'll have to create those situations in practice, and we will and we'll put them in those situations. He'll be prepared for them, it's just a matter of how he reacts to them in a game."
Armstrong also brought up the specter of short or shanked punts and how to deal with them when they're on the ground. Darden does have a good amount of experience returning punts from his college career, but punts are executed differently in the pros which means he'll have to adjust his decision-making to some extent.
"So situations like that, that we're going to talk about with him and put him in those situations in practice, but he's going to have to be able to make those decisions in a game," said Armstrong. "It'll take some time to develop him, but that's everybody. We'll hit enough situations that he should be prepared."
Darden isn't the only member of the Bucs' 2021 draft class who has a path to playing on special teams on Sundays this fall. In fact, Armstrong has his eye on almost all seven players for some kind of role in the kick and return game. That even includes first-round outside linebacker Joe Tryon…if he's allowed to get his hands on Tryon.
"You love everything about Joe – great athlete, smart, can run, [has] size, physical," said Armstrong. "I remember years ago in Chicago I had a guy by the name of Brian Urlacher. They let me use him for four weeks in training camp and every preseason game. Then right after that fourth preseason game, they're like, 'Hey, he's no longer covering kicks.' You love everything about [Tryon]. He's a really sharp kid. I think that he could fit in punt, punt return, kickoff coverage, field goal block, etc."
Third-round offensive lineman Robert Hainsey would likely be on the placekicking unit if he's active on game days because that crew usually uses all the backup linemen. Sixth-round cornerback Chris Wilcox was mentioned by Armstrong as a candidate to play gunner on punt coverage, and the Bucs have an opening there with the departure of Ryan Smith. And linebackers K.J. Britt and Grant Stuard are already accomplished special-teamers who almost surely play in that phase of the game if they're active on game days.
"Out of the two young linebackers, both do a nice job," said Armstrong. "They have their own particular assets. One is really fast and can run in Stuard. Then K.J. will hit you dead in the mouth. They both play with a lot of energy, tough kids. I like what I see there. They're doing a really good job."
Like Darden, Britt and Stuard should be happy that there is a preseason this year, because it also gives them an opportunity to show what they can do against an actual opponent.
"The biggest thing is you've got to get into live action," said Armstrong. "Those three preseason games will be great to find out who those guys are because that's when we'll rotate them. It's a special teams nightmare, but you've got to find out in those preseason games who can play. We've got to get all those guys out there and give them a chance to rotate and find out what's going out with that."