The Buccaneers appear to be set at place kicker and punter going into the 2008 season. Kicker Matt Bryant had a solid campaign making 28-of-33 field goals in 2007. Punter Josh Bidwell averaged 43.9 yards per punt last season, and set a career high and tied the Buccaneers single-season record with 30 punts placed inside the 20-yard line. Tampa Bay has two reliable players in Bidwell and Bryant, but there are areas of need on the Buccaneers' special teams units.
Going into the 2008 season the only position that the Buccaneers do not have a set starter is the punt and kick returners. There are a few players on Tampa Bay's roster that have experience returning kicks, but none of them has earned the responsibility as the sole returner.
As it stands now, the Buccaneers have four players on their roster that returned punts for them last season. Those include: WR Ike Hilliard, WR Joey Galloway, WR Michael Spurlock, and CB Phillip Buchanon.
Buchanon returned the most punts for Tampa Bay last season. For the year, he brought back 16 punts for 55 yards (3.4 avg.) and a long of 24 yards. After Buchanon, Hilliard returned 15 punts for 92 yards (6.1 avg.) and a long of 20 yards.
Unrestricted free agent WR Mark Jones was having the most success for Tampa Bay's punt return unit before a knee injury ended his season at Detroit on Oct. 21. Prior to the injury, Jones was averaging 11.9 yards a return, and had a long of 35 yards. In all, he totaled 12 returns for 143 yards.
None of those players returned a kick for a touchdown. In fact the Buccaneers have not returned a punt for a touchdown since Galloway last accomplished that feat in the 2004 season. Returning a kickoff for a touchdown finally became a reality when Micheal Spurlock returned a kickoff 90 yards for a score vs. Atlanta, but there is not an assured player for that spot either.
The uncertainty for a kick returner can be seen in the 10 players under contract that returned kicks for the Bucs last season. Those 10 are: Spurlock, Buchanon, Hilliard, WR Michael Clayton, RB Earnest Graham, WR Brian Clark, CB Torrie Cox, RB Kenneth Darby, WR Chad Lucas, and WR Maurice Stovall.
Spurlock returned the most kicks and forever will be remembered in Tampa Bay for his 90-yard touchdown vs. Atlanta, which highlighted his 16 returns for 444 yards, for an average of 27.8-yards a return. While Spurlock made history for the Buccaneers, he will have to earn his roster spot and return duties in the preseason.
It looks like a good possibility that the Buccaneers will draft a player that has return capabilities. The team would like that player to be backup at their position that could be a starter in the future. This type of player would indicate that they would most likely play wide receiver, running back, or cornerback. In this draft there are numerous candidates for a player of that type.
First round options include Houston wide receiver Donnie Avery, and South Florida cornerback Mike Jenkins. The Tampa native Jenkins showed his blazing speed on seven kick returns for 213 yards (30.4 average), including a 100-yard touchdown return against Cincinnati. Avery returned 15 kickoffs for 424 yards and one touchdown (28.2 average) in his senior year. Both Avery and Jenkins would be valuable special teams players immediately, and in time would be starters for Tampa Bay.
In the second round East Carolina running back Chris Johnson and Kansas State's Jordy Nelson are options for the Buccaneers. Over his career at East Carolina, Johnson returned 115 kickoffs for 2,715 yards. He averaged 23.6 yards a return, and brought back two for touchdowns. Nelson has punt return ability, but did not have much of an opportunity as a returner due to the presence of star returners Yamon Figurs and Deon Murphy. In his career Nelson returned two of his five punts for touchdowns. A blocked punt returned for a touchdown contributed to his total of three touchdowns and a 44.5 average.
Virginia Tech wide receiver Eddie Royal is most likely a third-round pick that has made a name for himself as a slot receiver and return specialist. He is the Atlantic Coast Conference's all-time leader in punt return yards. Over his career he returned 111 punts for 1,296 yards and three touchdowns (11.7 average). On kickoffs Royal returned 59 kickoffs for 1,386 yards (23.5 average).
In the fourth or possibly fifth round the Buccaneers could select Utah State's Kevin Robinson. The receiver and returner was a consistent occupant of the end zone. Not only did he catch 21 touchdowns, he returned four punts and four kickoffs four touchdowns in his career. On 110 kickoffs Robinson averaged 24.8 yards a return. For punt returns Robinson averaged 14.15, bringing back 78 punts for 1,104 yards. Robinson has the ability to contribute as a receiver as well. He snared 178 passes for 2,485 yards in his career.
Robinson and Royal are perhaps the most complete return players in the draft. Robinson has great vision, shiftiness, and some strength to break tackles. He is not the Devin Hester type to beat a team with pure speed. In fact timed speed and playing at smaller program like Utah State is the reason for his mid-round status. Watching Robinson is very reminiscent of former Buccaneer Karl Williams.
It looks to be an excellent draft for Tampa Bay to select a dual-threat player that stars on special teams, and either offense or defense.
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