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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Three Ways the Bucs' Kick-and-Return Game Can Improve in 2023

From further evolution in the kicking of standout young punter Jake Camarda to a better shot at adding points from long distance, the Bucs have several clear ways they can get better on special teams this season

jake camarda

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had their highs and lows on special teams in 2022. Rookie Jake Camarda had a very promising debut, finishing fifth in the NFL in gross punting average and 11th in net punting average. The punt return crew finished 10th in the league in average return and got a late-season spark from undrafted rookie Deven Thompkins. Rookies Ko Kieft, Zyon McCollum and Cade Otton all made immediate and heavy contributions to the special teams unit and look like they could be core players in that group for a while.

On the other hand, the Bucs finished in the bottom four in terms of covering both punts and kickoffs and the team's field goal success rate came in 23rd. There wasn't much production in the kickoff return department, either, though that is of ever-diminishing importance under the current set of rules.

After the recent NFL Draft, Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong said he envisions Thompkins doing a "much better job" as he gets more accustomed to being a return man, and that Thompkins could also be pushed by rookie wideout Trey Palmer. Perhaps the Bucs will get more bit plays out of their return game in 2023, but they've been searching for exactly that long enough now that it would be aggressive to make that assumption at this point.

However, there are some specific areas in the kick and return game in which one can easily envision a step forward this coming season. Here are three of them:

1. More effective directional punting

Camarda gave the Bucs everything they were hoping for when they used a fourth-round pick – at number 133 overall the second highest selection the franchise have ever spent on a punter – to bring him aboard a year ago. There's no questioning the strength of his leg after he broke the Bucs' single-season gross punting average standard (48.8) by a margin of almost three yards and hit a team-record 15 punts of 60-plus yards. The former Georgia standout looks like a future Pro Bowler in the NFL.

But he can be even better in 2023, and Armstrong knows how. If Camarda can sharpen his already decent placement skills and combine that with his top-notch hang time, he could make things very difficult for opposing return units. Note the gap in his gross and net rankings – the difference between fifth and 11th highlights the need for the entire punt team to tighten up its coverage. Camarda can be a big part of that by, when it's the right time strategically, having the ball come down closer to one of the sidelines. Camarda saw improvement in that area as his rookie season progressed but can get even more used to the NFL's field setup in his second season.

"The biggest thing is that he really got good at turning the ball over and placing the ball outside the numbers," said Armstrong. "It's hard for college punters to transfer to the NFL and directionally punt and be able to place the ball outside the numbers. You say, why is that? Well, when you think about it, the hashes in college are almost on the sideline. So, their directional punting at the time the ball is snapped – now, they actually have to take an angle.

"I think he'll get better going both ways, in terms of what he has to work on. He'll get better at being able to go both right and left and I think he's a guy that can dominate. He does a hell of a job."

2. Attempt and make more long-distance field goals.

Ryan Succop is the most accurate field goal kicker in franchise history and the Bucs might not have a second Lombardi Trophy if he hadn't arrived right before the start of the 2020 season. Over three seasons in Tampa, Succop made 84.8% of his field goal tries and was even better in the playoffs, where he went 12 for 13, including a perfect nine for nine on the way to the Super Bowl LV championship.

In 2020 in particular, Succop gave the Bucs just what they were seeking at the time: a proven veteran who would make all the "gimmes." He was 20-for-20 on attempts inside 40 yards that season, and 55 of 58 in that category over his tenure in Tampa. What Succop was unable to give Buccaneers coaches – and was seldomly asked to provide – was the long-distance success that has gradually become relatively common in the NFL. He only tried three field goals of 50-plus yards in the 2020-21 seasons, making one, and was two for seven in that category last year.

Enter Chase McLaughlin.

The Buccaneers released Succop on March 23, in part for salary cap reasons but also because they had another path in mind for that position. There were 154 successful field goals of 50-plus yards in the NFL during the 2022 season, which is nearly five per team. There were 15 different kickers around the league who made at least five 50+-yarders. One of those, very near the top of the list, was McLaughlin, who impressively was good on nine of 12 tries from that deepest range while with the Colts. In his career, he has succeeded on a stunning 81.0% of his tries (17 of 21) from 50-plus.

McLaughlin has already played for six different teams over four seasons but has settled in the last two years, with 16 games played in Cleveland in 2021 and another 16 last year for Indianapolis. He had his best season with the Colts last fall, making 83.3% of his field goal tries overall and 36 of 37 extra point attempts. The Bucs' field goal success rate last year was 81.6%, so even if McLaughlin merely stays as good as he was last year that will be a slight improvement for his new team.

It's that added punch of the long-range accuracy that has the Bucs' thinking of a more robust kicking game in 2023.

"I think Chase has done a nice job – 83% last year," said Armstrong. "He was nine-of-11 from 50-plus, which is pretty good, 81%. You take that every time with a long of 57. [He is] a very dialed-in, mature guy. He's obviously played in games and been in some tight situations – game-winners, that type of stuff. [I am] really happy with him, glad we got him. [He has] good handle, good height on his ball, consistent."

3. Get more sound blocking on kickoff returns.

McLaughlin will have some competition in replacing Succop, as the Bucs also signed first-year kicker Jake Verity back in February. Armstrong says Verity has evident talent, though he has been set back at times by injuries while spending time in Baltimore, Indianapolis and Jacksonville. The Buccaneers are also expected to add a third kicker, Arkansas' Jake Bates as an undrafted free agent but he is not likely to compete for the placekicking job. However, he could help the Bucs improve in 2023 while he works on his own development as a potential NFL player.

For now, Bates is a kickoff specialist to the extreme. He led the nation in touchback percentage last season but never attempted a field goal in his four seasons at Texas State and Arkansas, and he started his collegiate athletic career as a soccer player at Central Arkansas.

While Bates is obviously a long shot to make the active roster, he could stick around as a developmental player on the practice squad. In the meantime, there's a specific way he can help the Bucs' special teams units: He can hit a whole lot of kickoffs in the offseason and in training camp.

Coaches don't like to use their projected starting kickoff man – whether it's the punter or the kicker – very often in practice because they don't want to put a lot of wear and tear on their legs. They can let the Jugs gun do the work, but it's not an exact simulation of a like kickoff. With more kickoffs, and specifically ones designed to be run back, the blockers on the return team have a better chance to come together as a more seamless unit. Generally, a lot of that work comes in the preseason games, of which there are now only three.

"If you think about it: preseason, there are no touchbacks – you're trying not to kick touchbacks," said Armstrong. "If a guy kicks a touchback, it's actually by mistake because you're trying to find out who can cover, so you're kicking the ball in play. Then everybody's game starts to develop because you're getting better at blocking. So, you've got guys that are going to execute the single blocks and taking care of business there because you're getting constant work at that – playing in space."

Bates can help the Bucs get more of that work outside of the preseason games, and that could make a big difference in the long run.

"If you don't do it live, it's hard to get good at," said Armstrong. "What you're seeing is when you have all these touchbacks, what happens is you don't have the opportunity to get good at kickoff return. So, [Bates], the kickoff specialist…you also don't see the live foot in practice or you're going to wear your kicker out. So, if you bring a guy in that's a young guy that's a kickoff specialist, he can come in and kick off and now that gives you a chance to develop on your kickoff return."

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