The Buccaneers' 53-Man roster.
Bold prediction: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will select a kicker earlier than they have at any time in their four-decade history.
Oh, wait, that already happened. The Buccaneers traded up from the third round into the bottom of the second to get Florida State's Roberto Aguayo, who they hope will be a once-in-a-decade type of talent at the kicker position. As far as bold outcomes on special teams go, it will be hard to top that one.
But let's try. Joe Kania, Andrew Norton and I have already spent a couple days making wildly hopeful guesses for the Buccaneers' offense and defense, so now it's time to give the underappreciated third phase of the game it's due. Joe, it's finally your turn to go first.
Joe Kania Prediction #1: Roberto Aguayo stays perfect inside 40 yards.
As Scott mentioned above, the Buccaneers made a bold move of their own when they traded back into the second round to snag Aguayo. My bold prediction: Aguayo won't miss a kick of 40 yards or closer this year. That's not too bold of a prediction given his history, though.
During his college career, Aguayo was the most accurate kicker in college football history, connecting on 96.7% of his kicks (field goals and extra points combined). Where he was at his best, though, was on kicks of 40 yards or less, where he didn't miss one in any of his three seasons. That included extra points, which are now essentially 33-yard field goals in the NFL.
For draft picks like Vernon Hargreaves and Noah Spence, the transition to the NFL could take time. They are competing against bigger, stronger and faster players, many of whom have a significant advantage having already accrued experience in the NFL. Aguayo's competing, for the most part, against himself. I believe he will continue to be the player he was in college and will stay perfect inside 40 yards, in addition to nailing all of his extra point attempts.
Scott Smith Prediction #1: Kenny Bell will score a touchdown on a kickoff return.
One might react to this prediction by saying, "Wait, so Kenny Bell has been named the kickoff returner?" Well, no, no he has not. That's what makes this prediction mega-extra-bold – first he has to win the job and then he has to break a long one for me to look good.
The Buccaneers have not had a kickoff return for a touchdown since 2010, when Micheal Spurlock broke off an 89-yarder in Atlanta. Oh, they've tried to find that special teams spark since, but to no avail. The team has had plenty of steady returners, and that's not the worst thing in the world, but big plays on special teams can help you steal a game here or there, and that's what Tampa Bay really needs.
Is Kenny Bell the guy to provide that? I don't really know but I'm banking on it here for my bold prediction. He's certainly fast and a dynamic athlete, and I know he's willing to do the job. He'll have plenty of competition, and the job may go to the man who shows off some big-play ability in the preseason. I'm betting on Bell to be that guy.
Andrew Norton Prediction #1: Adam Humphries finds pay dirt as a return man
It's not cheating if I haven't had a chance to pick yet… I'm going to piggyback on Scott's claim that a Tampa Bay Buccaneer will score a return touchdown. I'm just calling that Adam Humphries is the man to do it.
Bold prediction number one would be Humphries winning the job. I think he will be the Bucs man back on both kickoffs and punts. He's looked great so far in the offseason, the next step is winning the job with pads on, but I have confidence.
Next would be the task of scoring a touchdown, I'd say that a punt return TD would be most likely, but don't count out the kickoff. To support that claim, and add some support to Scott's as well, the NFL has instituted a new rule moving the touchback starting point from the 20-yard line to the 25. This could incentivize coaches and kickers to try to kick high and land the ball in play, leading to more returns than in previous years, and in turn more touchdown chances.
Where there have been four kickoff return touchdowns in Bucs history (one per year from 2007-10), there have been 11 punt return touchdowns in team history. However, that drought is even longer than on KOs, with the most recent occurring in 2009, again by Micheal Spurlock. I think it is overdue, and Humphries is the man to make it happen.
Joe Kania Prediction #2: Bryan Anger narrowly wins the punting job.
This is about as lukewarm of a bold prediction as they come, but I'll submit it anyway. With just one kicker on the roster, Roberto Aguayo has solidified himself as the Bucs' starter. But there are two punters heading to camp, Jake Schum and Bryan Anger, competing for one spot when the regular season kicks off.
Schum, who was the Bucs' starter a year ago, averaged 41.9 yards per punt with a long of 60. Schum also landed 15 punts inside the 20-yard line. On paper, Anger was much more successful a year ago, averaging 46.3 yards per punt with a long of 63 and 26 kicks inside the 20.
Anger is a former third-round pick and was a notable pickup for the Buccaneers during free agency, but I think Schum will make it a much closer competition than some think. Anger averaged nearly five yards more per punt, but 2015 was Schum's first NFL season as a starter. I think he'll be much improved with the experience, but Anger will eventually take the job.
Scott Smith Prediction #2: Russell Shepard cedes his tackles title.
Russell Shepard was an offensive jack-of-all-trades at LSU, but he has hit on one particular job to become a successful NFL player: special teams ace. The Buccaneers picked Shepard up off waivers just before the start of the 2013 season, knowing he was a bit of a project as a wide receiver. It didn't take long to discover that their new acquisition was a fantastic special teams player, however, and in fact that skill has kept him on the Bucs' roster for three years running. Nobody has more kick-coverage stops for Tampa Bay over the last three seasons than Shepard, with 30.
Shepard has led the Bucs in special teams stops the last two years after finishing third in his first season. In both of those seasons, he actually had a narrow lead over teammates at the linebacker position, and in 2013 he was trailing a pair of LBs on the list. I anticipate the Bucs having a lot of new contributors on special teams in 2016, from Devante Bond to Ryan Smith to Danny Vitale to some potential undrafted free agents on the roster, and one of them will unseat Shepard at the top of the tackles list. To be clear, this is not any slight to Shepard, who should remain one of the league's best in the kick-and-return game. I just think one of the Bucs' linebackers ascends back to the top this year.
Andrew Norton Prediction #2: Special teams shifts momentum to the Bucs
Over the past two seasons, 10 Buccaneers losses have been decided by six points of fewer. I say the tables turn this season, and a key attribute to that prediction is the play of the Buccaneers special teams.
While the offense and defense get the glory, special teams can dictate the momentum of any game, as many Bucs fans know. If even one of our special teams bold predictions come true, that could be enough to shift those one-score-decision games in the Bucs' favor. From increasing overall field goal percentage to making the sub-40-yarders automatic, from pinning opponents inside their 20 to putting up some return touchdowns, these field-position shifts or key plays are often the hidden turning points in NFL games.
Many analysts agree that the Buccaneers are a young team to watch, so inevitably, there are going to be some close ones in the 2016 season. But with strong play from Roberto Aguayo and company, the Buccaneers will win many more close contests than they have in years past.