The Tampa Bay Buccaneers returned a total of 57 punts and kickoffs last season, and the men responsible for 31 of them are no longer on the team. At this point, their replacements are largely hypothetical.
Bruce Arians and the Buccaneers' new coaching staff likely won't have a firm grasp on who they want in those two roles to start the season until well into training camp, which is months away. By a strange little quirk in the offseason workout rules, they aren't even allowed to use the Jugs gun to simulate punts and kickoffs at this point. That means speculation as to the best returner options is currently based more on film study and scouting reports than practice-field reps.
Still, there appear to be some early candidates, starting with three men who returned kickoffs last fall: Bobo Wilson, Dare Ogunbowale and Shaun Wilson. None of those three will necessarily make the regular-season roster based solely on their return abilities, but that added value would only help their cause. Of the three, Bobo Wilson had the most success, averaging 28.4 yards on 10 kickoff returns.
Ogunbowale and Bobo Wilson are actually two-way special teams performers, which adds even more value. Wilson tied for second on the team with five kick-coverage tackles despite only playing in the last five games. Ogunbowale had one special teams stop in just two games, and on Thursday Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong named the running back (along with safety Jordan Whitehead) as a player who had already caught his eye.
Since they are technically still first-year players, Ogunbowale and Bobo Wilson are eligible to participate in the Buccaneers' rookie mini-camp at the end of next week. If they do get an opportunity to field kicks and punts, they'll probably be sharing the reps with at least one rookie, sixth-round wide receiver Scotty Miller. Miller logged 50 returns over four seasons at Bowling Green, most of them on kickoffs.
"Yeah, there's a couple guys we're going to bring in; obviously the Miller kid would be an option," said Armstrong of the return candidates. "You've got Bobo here, we've got Dare here as well. So we've got some options and we're going to look at that in the rookie mini-camp and once we can get the Jugs machine going and guys can start catching balls outside in the OTAs we'll get started with it."
As a wide receiver with 4.30 speed and great short area quickness, Miller seems like a clear choice to at least try in the return game, but there's another, less obvious member of the 2019 draft class who could get a crack at the job, too. Second-round cornerback Sean Bunting had a grand total of one kickoff return in his three years at Central Michigan but the Bucs think he could be a return candidate based on something he did before college.
We've got some candidates – a couple guys in this draft class are guys we hope can come in and show us they can catch punts," said Assistant Special Teams Coach Amos Jones. "Special teams guys, we usually ask the first question of: Who's a baseball player? And [Murphy]-Bunting is a baseball player. He was a centerfielder, which is usually a pretty good indicator of a guy that can track the ball in the air. And I think he [returned punts] in high school, he said. And obviously the Miller kid, he was more of a kickoff return guy from a statistical standpoint, so we've got to kind of see how he does."
The Buccaneers didn't draft Miller or Murphy-Bunting based solely on their return potential; few teams take that path these days. But special teams coaches do their homework and know when a newcomer might have the necessary talents for the task.
"It's generally a job that somebody has to be developed for nowadays," said Jones. "There's not really true punt returners drafted. In Pittsburgh we drafted Antonio Brown and we knew he caught punts; Patrick [Peterson] in Arizona. You've just got to develop that skill-set. You might find a diamond in the rough."
Brown returned punts and kickoffs early in his career for the Steelers but eventually dropped the latter job as he became more and more important to the offense. He made the Pro Bowl as a punt returner his second year. Peterson, the All-Pro cornerback, made the Pro Bowl as a return man in his rookie season and he still handles some of those duties in Arizona though his reps have gradually waned through the years.
Miller and Murphy-Bunting: a sixth-round wide receiver and a highly-drafted cornerback, just like Brown and Peterson. The Buccaneers certainly wouldn't compare their new rookies to those two all-world stars, but they wouldn't mind if one or both followed a similar path of winning a kick return job early in their careers.