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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

One Buc Mailbag: Good Returns

This week's mailbag touches on homecoming players, the hopeful return of Tampa Bay's offensive backfield to elite status and the anticipation of more Kenny Bell news.


*Each week during the offseason, Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith will dip into the inbox to answer questions from  Buccaneer fans.  This week, Tampa Bay fans want to know if the Tim Wright trade-and-return situation is common in franchise history, if the Bucs' offensive backfield can be a top producer this year and why there hasn't been much news on rookie WR Kenny Bell of late.

Fans can submit questions for upcoming mailbags via Twitter to @ScottSBucs (#BucsMailbag), through a message on the Buccaneers Official Facebook Page or via email at **.  The One Buc Mailbag runs every Thursday and is not necessarily meant to reflect the opinions of the team's management or coaching staff.

*1. Trade Returns

I wrote a story about this topic, sort of, on Monday. Check it out – I highlighted players like Warrick Dunn, Dave Moore and Steve DeBerg who had separate stints in Tampa sandwiched around time with other teams. I chose just five but could have also mentioned such players as Micheal Spurlock (who had a kickoff return for a touchdown in his first Buc season of 2007, then a punt return for a score immediately upon returning in 2009), Mark Royals and Chidi Ahanotu.

I say "sort of" because that story isn't exactly on point in regards to Martin's question. He sent it in on Thursday after the New England Patriots had released tight end Tim Wright, probably anticipating that the Buccaneers would use their pole position on the waiver wire to claim their former rookie standout. After a 54-catch season in 2013, Wright was traded along with a fourth-round pick to the Patriots last August for guard Logan Mankins.

The Bucs did indeed claim Wright, which means he fits into the construct described by Martin above: a player the team traded away that at some point came back to make an impact. Or, I should say, Wright has the opportunity to do that; at the moment, he is one of 90 men fighting for a spot on the 53-man roster and a helmet on game day.

Well, it turns out that, while a returning player like Dunn isn't all that uncommon, a player coming back to the Bucs to make an impact after being traded away is quite rare. Of the five players I highlighted in the aforementioned article, only DeBerg was traded by the Buccaneers. He played four seasons in Tampa (1984-87), then got traded to Kansas City, where he had the best four-year run of his 17-season career. In 1992, Tampa Bay re-signed DeBerg as a free agent, but he mostly backed up Vinny Testaverde and Craig Erickson, respectively, in '92 and '93.

While DeBerg ranks sixth in franchise history in passing yards, most of that came during his run in the 1980s. It would be stretching it to say he made a huge impact in his second Buc stint, though he was a well-liked player in the locker room.

I went back through the four decades of Buccaneer football so far and really only found one example that fits in with what Martin is asking. And, even in that case, the traded player returned without actually playing for the second team.

In 1976, the expansion Buccaneers signed an undrafted defensive back out of Kent State by the name of Cedric Brown. Brown was one of the many, many, many unheralded rookies and end-of-the-line vets the franchise churned through in (mostly unsuccessful) attempt to field a competitive team in an era not very friendly to expansion teams. He didn't immediately look like he'd be of much help, as he was released during the preseason.

Check out photos from the second day of mini-camp at One Buccaneer Place.

The Buccaneers eventually re-signed Brown in December and he played in one game. The following April, Tampa Bay traded the young safety to Oakland for sixth and ninth-round picks. The Raiders cut him in late July and the Bucs swooped in with a waiver claim. This time, Brown stuck and in fact became one of the stars of the Bucs' first era of success. He settled in at free safety, for the most part, and played through the 1984 season, appearing in 100 games with 95 starts. At the time he retired, and until he was passed by Donnie Abraham and then Ronde Barber many years later, Brown was the Bucs' all-time interceptions leader with 29.

As an addendum, the two players the Buccaneers selected with the picks they got in the trade with Oakland were quarterback Gary Huff and wide receiver Larry Mucker. Neither one was anywhere near a star for the Buccaneers, but they most made the team and contributed a little, which isn't terrible for sixth and ninth-round selections. Huff played in 14 games with six starts over two seasons while Mucker lasted for four years and made 11 starts among his 53 appearances.

Similarly, but to a potentially greater degree, the Buccaneers could now benefit from both ends of their 2014 deal with the Patriots. Mankins started all 16 games at left guard for Tampa Bay last season, despite arriving about 12 days before the opener, and is likely to be the anchor of a developing young line in 2015. Wright is now his teammate and is part of a rather deep and interesting corps of tight ends headlined by 2014 second-round pick Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

2. Top Backfield?

Casey and I didn't elect to answer this one in this week's series of video mailbags, but that's okay because it started a little conversation on Twitter anyway. Some of the responses were a little pessimistic, a viewpoint I don't share (as you'll see) but they do hit on a valid point:

Setting aside a little bit of hyperbole from Mr. BucHead here, the sentiment is fair: The Bucs believe they've assembled a pretty good stable of backs, but those runners won't have a chance to put up big numbers if the offensive line struggles as much as it did in 2014. Ah, but there we have the counterpoint, as advanced by Freeze:

I do, too, Freeze. Time will tell if our optimism (I would prefer to call it "informed optimism," but I also concede that the opinions of June don't always match up with the realities of September) is correct or if BucHead's pessimism is warranted. But that's really the answer to the original question, isn't it? Tampa Bay's backfield will be seen as one of the league's best if and only if the offensive line is significantly better this year.

Why should we be optimistic? Well, Mankins was a good addition last year who is likely to be even better this season after a year to get acclimated to his new teammates. Demar Dotson is moving back to right tackle, where he was a bright spot for the team not only in 2014 but over the last three years combined. Then you have the two 2015 draft picks who have a good chance at earning starting spots: Donovan Smith, who is ticketed for left tackle, and Ali Marpet, who could grab the right guard position.

It's difficult to project how much impact a rookie can have right away, but of course Smith and Marpet will almost have to make a big impact – for better or worse – if they are starting on the offensive line. Chances are, even if they aren't immediate superstars, they will represent upgrades at those two positions. In any case, that's the plan that Jason Licht and Lovie Smith obviously followed, as they focused on defensive depth in free agency knowing they would be able to address the O-Line on Day Two of the draft.

Let's say, for the sake of this argument, that Tampa Bay's offensive is improved by some significant degree in 2015. If that's the case, could we be talking about the Bucs' running backs as one of the best groups in the league by season's end? To that question, I think there's reason even for the more pessimistic among us to feel good.

First off, if Doug Martin is healthy and running like he did as a rookie in 2012, he alone would move the Bucs toward the upper echelon. That's a significant "if," of course, given the injuries that have held him back the last two years, but he's healthy now and, from what I can tell, feeling confident. Take it with a grain of salt because of the lack of pads and contact, but word from the practice field this offseason is that he looks great. Explosive again.

Then you have Charles Sims, who is surely going to try to challenge Martin for the starting job and who at the very least is probably going to be the primary third-down weapon thanks to his pass-catching skills. Sims missed the first half of last season with an injury, which didn't help, so it was only at the end of the year that Martin and Sims got into a groove as a tandem. They combined for 177 yards on 37 carries in the season finale, averaging 4.8 yards per tote.

There is depth, too. Depending upon who the Buccaneers choose to keep in their backfield stable, you have Bobby Rainey and Mike James, two tailbacks who have each posted 100-yard rushing games when given a chance to play. Rookie Joey Iosefa could give the Bucs a presence at fullback, which isn't easy to find. Undrafted rookie Dominique Brown could stick as a big-back option who helps move the chains in short-yardage situations, leading to more chances for everybody on offense. Oh, yeah, to that point, by the way:

Yeah, I wrote about that just the other day. He has looked good so far and could add another dimension to the running back stable, but we really won't get a good feel for it until the pads go on. Running Backs Coach Tim Spencer has been impressed with Brown so far, though.

3. Scott….how come no Kenny Bell news in awhile? I loved when the Bucs picked him and it seemed like he was making a splash early but I haven't heard anything in weeks. What gives? Can you update Bucs and Huskers fans on how Afro Thunder is doing? Is he going to be a big part of the offense this year. Go Bucs! Go Big Red!
Tim ClayWell, it's simple, Tim. He's been hurt.

Now, don't worry. He's not bad hurt. He's it's-the-offseason-and-let's-not-take-chances hurt.  He tweaked a hamstring ("tweak" and "hamstring" seem to go together like "ensuing" and "kickoff," I've noticed) during an OTAs practice and the team has been purposely cautious with him for a couple weeks since. Bell has still been coming out to the field for the entirety of every practice, following his fellow receivers around and getting mental reps as the offense is installed. He's easy to find in a crowd without his helmet on. There's the hair, of course, but he also seems to be smiling most of the time. Missing time right now is not ideal, but it's not the end of the world. He should be fine by training camp, and that's when the actual competition for jobs begins.

I'm not surprised that you heard a lot about Bell in the weeks after he was drafted. He was widely regarded as a steal in the fifth round of the draft and he looked good on the practice field almost immediately. Bell's speed and numbers suggest he could be a legitimate deep threat in the NFL but he also looks sharp running short and immediate routes. That should bode well if he ends up competing for the slot receiver job between Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans.

It's too early for me to say definitively that Bell is going to have a big role in the offense this year. I would say that Jackson and Evans are the only sure things, barring injury, but we shouldn't forget that Louis Murphy is back after a promising first season as a Buccaneer in 2014. On the first day of this week's mini-camp, with Evans also being rested for most of the practice, Murphy joined Jackson in the "starting" lineup (that term is a little tenuous during an offseason practice) and made a couple notable catches. A number of other young newcomers have had impressive moments, as well, including Rannell Hall, Donteea Dye and Adam Humphries.

I should note that Bell tweaked that hamstring on a kickoff return rep. While fellow 2015 draftee Kaelin Clay may be the front-runner for that job, Bell appears to be in the mix. That, too, could help him make an early impact.

Otherwise, we're in wait-and-see mode. Ask me again a few weeks into training camp. I'm guessing you're not going to have to worry about a shortage of Kenny Bell news during August.

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