One of the most disappointing parts of Lovie Smith’s two-year tenure in Tampa Bay was his mediocre-to-bad special teams units. Special teams were a staple of Lovie’s Chicago teams; reliable kicking from Robbie Gould, and a play-making return unit headlined by Devin Hester. This combination helped swing momentum and win many of the low-scoring games that Chicago played in. The availability of these assets helped propel Lovie to the playoffs and a Super Bowl appearance in Chicago, and the absence of them helped get him fired after only two seasons in Tampa Bay.
Bucs fans have become accustomed to missing the playoffs to almost the same degree that they’ve become accustomed seeing miserable special teams play, and I believe these two things are directly correlated. The Bucs will struggle once again in 2016 to make the playoffs if they don’t invest adequately and wisely in re-building their special teams unit. We’ll go over how they went wrong in 2015, who to keep for 2016, and where to look for possible upgrades, both on and off the roster.
Amidst my pining for Roberto Aguayo I went into some detail about the failings of Buccaneer kickers in 2015. Whether it be extra points, kicks from range, chip-shots, or lackluster kickoffs, the combination of Kyle Brindza and Connor Barth just wasn’t good enough last year for sustained winning.
Top flight or even solid veteran options to fix the issue are slim, but Giants kicker Josh Brown stands out, only missing 2 kicks last year and displaying capable range in the process.
2014 surprise Patrick Murray is set to return from injury this year, and will almost certainly get the first shot at the job if the Bucs miss out on Aguayo, or choose not to go the veteran route. No complaints here. Murray was iffy in two 2015 preseason games, but was rock-solid in 2014, and if a second straight coaching staff believes he’s worth a shot, we should too.
The Bucs punting game is a little more tricky to evaluate and solve, because of a shockingly small sample size. Of the 32 starting punters in the NFL, Jacob Schum was tied for last in number of punts, with 56. This is undoubtedly a good thing, and a testament to how good the Bucs offense was. Schum wasn’t great in any particular punting category, and very much is in what I call the “meh” zone. The Bucs could certainly survive 2016 if they ride with Schum again, but a proactive team would definitely be searching for an upgrade.
Unfortunately for the Bucs, the available veteran punting upgrades are even more thin than the the kicking crop. Marquette King from the Raiders is the top option, but will likely get paid more than the Bucs are willing to match. The teams best option is probably to ride with Jacob Schum for another season, and let a larger sample size paint a more clear picture of what they have.
It is much easier to evaluate the Bucs punt and kick return game. Like the majority of Buccaneer seasons before 2015, the Bucs return units were absolutely dreadful. Sixth-round rookie Kaelin Clay flamed out quickly, and Bobby Rainey took over as the primary guy on both kick and punt returns. Rainey had a couple of good returns but as a whole was not effective enough not good enough in either role, ranking dead last in punt return yardage, and fifteenth in kick return yardage. They didn’t score a touchdown in either facet. It’s unlikely that Rainey returns to the Bucs in 2016, so the team really has no choice but to look elsewhere for options in 2016.
Pending free agents like Travis Benjamin, Marc Mariani, or Percy Harvin are tempting targets to fill this role, but it will be tough to find roster space for them. The team already has 5 or 6 wide receivers set to return from last year, and most likely won’t invest much in the position this off-season. Like the punting and kicking positions, it’s very possible that the Bucs best and most realistic option is already on the roster.
Wide receiver Kenny Bell is set to return after missing his entire rookie season, and returned 51 kicks during his career at Nebraska. It’s less clear how capable he is as a punt returner (only returned 3 in college), but his speed and agility will tempt the Bucs to give him a chance there, too. Bell should be penciled in as at least the day-one kick returner, with a strong possibility to get a shot at punt return duties as well.
The Bucs are going to improve in a big way on offense and defense in 2016, but a repeat performance from their returning and kicking units could render that meaningless in their hunt for a playoff spot. While it’s unlikely that we see a complete turnaround, it’s equally unlikely we find ourselves in another Kyle Brindza/Bobby Rainey quagmire, thanks to players returning from injury and a slew of money to spend just in case.