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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Deven Thompkins, Trey Palmer Strong Options in Return Game

Rookie sixth-rounder Trey Palmer is likey to be among those battling incumbent Deven Thompkins for the Bucs' punt and kickoff return jobs, as long as he learns not to let "the rooster get loose"

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Utah State's Deven Thompkins made the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' roster in 2022 thanks to an impressive training camp in which he showed off speed, great hands and a surprisingly wide catch radius for a 5-8 receiver. He started off on the practice squad, got elevated to active status for a couple games, then was promoted to the 53-man roster after taking over the punt and kickoff return jobs.

The Buccaneers still see plenty of promise in Thompkins as a receiver but he's definitely high on the list of candidates to win those return assignments again in 2023.

"You've got Thompkins out there right now," said Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong. "We've also brought in a young guy, but I think Deven will get better. I think after [last] year – that was really the first time he's really caught punts and kickoffs in consecutive games. The arrow is pointing up with him. I'm very pleased with him. I think he'll do a much better job this year."

Thompkins averaged 10.2 yards on six punt returns and 21.9 yards on 12 kickoff returns last year, including a 54-yarder at San Francisco in Week 14. He also averaged 11.3 yards on three punt returns in the playoff loss to Dallas.

Thompkins will have competition, likely from several young players but almost certainly from sixth-round wideout Trey Palmer, who had a pair of return touchdowns for LSU before transferring to Nebraska in 2022. Armstrong notes that Palmer has the type of speed that can't be coached.

"Yeah, he's going to get a chance," said Armstrong. "A 4.31 [40-yard dash time] and he's returned in college. He's actually done it, so it will be a good competition. Size – he's got good size. I think he's a willing guy – he can be physical. But you love the speed. I can't make a 4.6 guy run a 4.3, but I can sure work with a 4.3 guy."

Armstrong knows that Palmer has some experience in the return game from his college days but has to work with him directly to see if he can learn the nuances of the job.

"What I'm going to try to do is help him with, okay, this is how you set a return up, as far as how to set blocks up and how to play penalty-free football," said the coach. "Sometimes you hear me say, 'The rooster is loose,' with a returner – in other words, his guys don't know how to block for him because they don't know where he's going. Whereas, if you get a feel for what a guy likes to do, now your players can react and start blocking better for you."

Thompkins definitely showed promise after taking over for Jaelon Darden, who was released in early December. Still, the Buccaneers have been looking for a bigger spark from their return game for several years now and they will be looking for the player with the right combination of physical tools and situational awareness to get the job done.

"You've got to have vision, you've got to be able to set it up, you've got to have patience, you've got to have lateral quickness," said Armstrong. "Then, on top of that, you've got to manage the game. Are you fair catching? Are you petering people away from the ball? Are you playing it off the first bounce? A lot of situational things will come up in terms of that."

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