For NFL hopefuls around the league, time to impress coaching staffs and front-office personnel is running out quick. Preseason rosters cut down from 90 to 75 by 4 p.m. on Aug. 26, and from 75 to the final 53 active/inactive players by 4 p.m. on Aug. 30.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Solomon Patton, an undrafted free agent out of Florida, entered training camp as one of those bubble guys fighting for a spot on this team. Stacked up against 10 other wideouts currently in the locker room, chances of the 5-foot-9, 177-pound Patton sticking around simply as a pass catcher are shaky at best.
At times like this, special teams become a fringe player’s best hope.
Heading into Tampa Bay’s third preseason game Saturday in Buffalo, that’s where Patton– for now, at least – has best demonstrated his value to the 2014 Bucs. The coaching staff recently elevated him to No. 1 on the depth chart for returning kicks and punts.
“It’s based a lot on what happened last week as much as anything,” head coach Lovie Smith said about Patton currently leading the race to line up deep this season. “We’ve been taking a look at a lot of different guys and the ones that made something happen get another look. It’s kind of simple as that with him. We plan on giving him a couple of looks this week on both returns – kickoff and of course punts too.”
While two preseason games worth of stats aren’t much to go on, Patton has been able to make the most of his opportunities while gaining some separation from his competitors, like last year’s lead return man WR Eric Page, RB Bobby Rainey, RB Jeff Demps and RB Mike James.
Patton’s averaged team-highs of 30.5 yards on four kick returns and 10.7 yards on three punt returns. Rainey’s picked up 10.0 yards on three punt returns and Demps has brought back two kicks for 20.0 yards.
Jumping to the top of the depth chart caught Patton by surprise, but he said he trying to keep the same level of focus that got him there in the first place.
“I didn’t (know), but I was hoping like anybody else would,” he said of the promotion. “But I was definitely excited when I found that out. I’m just trying to stay focused and every day go out there with the mindset that you’re going to get better and make sure you catch all your punts and all your kickoff returns.”
While bringing back kickoffs is a skill Patton has plenty of experience executing, returning punts is a new endeavor. In Gainesville last year, Patton finished with the fifth best kick return average in the nation, picking up 29.2 yards on 22 attempts. That included a 100-yard touchdown during the Gators’ 36-17 loss at Missouri.
“In high school and college I really only did kickoff returns,” Patton said. “In college I caught punts in practice but other than that I did kickoff returns. This is really my first year doing the punt returns, but I definitely think I’m doing a good job at catching my punts and looking them in and making something happen.”
The biggest difference between the two return types, Patton said, is the point of reception. And that’s been his primary focus – making sure he has the football secured prior to making a move and taking off.
“You have to look the ball all the way in and then try getting those 10 yards like the coaches talk about,” Patton said. “They preach on looking the ball in and getting the first down, and then make somebody miss after. I just focus on doing that.”
The “first down” Patton cited is how Bucs special teams coaches refer to the minimum 10-yard goal per punt return. Last season the NFL standard was 9.4 yards and Tampa Bay returners (primarily Page) finished eighth overall with an 11.2-yard average. That was the first time Tampa Bay punt returners averaged at least 10 yards per attempt since finishing fourth in the league with an 11.6-yard average in 2009. The Bucs, led primarily by Clifton Smith, Sammy Stroughter and Michael Spurlock, also finished first in the NFL in kick return average that year, at 26.3.
Tampa Bay ended last year 13th in kick-return average (23.9 yards), slightly above the league mark of 23.2. Page’s 24.9 yards per kick return ranked him 10th in the NFL, but this year’s new regime is hoping Patton and his 4.38-second 40-yard dash speed can add a little extra explosiveness.
“Obviously I’m not the biggest guy out there but I know that I have speed and I try to use that to my advantage,” said Patton, as he prepares for his next opportunities in Buffalo. “I’m just excited and ready for that chance to get out there and perform again.”