In 2019 Tampa Bay’s punt return unit averaged the NFL’s fourth-lowest yards per punt return at 5.21 yards and their punt coverage unit landed in the league’s bottom third, allowing 8.88 yards per return.
Now heading into 2020, with both units being crucial points of emphasis for head coach Bruce Arians and his staff, Tampa Bay is still searching for answers.
The job for the Bucs’ primary punt returner remains up in the air. Running back T.J. Logan was the presumed front-runner as camp began, however leg injuries have landed both Logan and John Franklin III – another potential return man – on Tampa Bay’s injured reserve list.
“Punt returner is so much more important because they’re going to kick those [kickoffs] out of [the end zone],” Arians said earlier this week. “There are very few kickoffs returned anymore, but when they do it’s going to be a high pooch kick and you’ve got to get it out to the 25. That job is not as important as the punt return job.”
Running back Dare Ogunbowale and receivers Scotty Miller and Justin Watson all had opportunities to return punts last year as well, but it’s been Miller, Cyril Grayson and rookie Jaydon Mickens taking most of the practice reps in Logan’s absence. When healthy, fifth-round pick Tyler Johnson has taken some reps as well, as Arians’ and Co. have been working with a number of players to see who could fit best in that role moving forward.
“We’ve got Mickens here, Watson’s a good backup who has filled in for us,” special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong said. “The Grayson kid is a talented kid as a receiver, he can do it. You’re looking at Bunting, Sean Murphy-Bunting can do it. He did it in college, did a nice job. And then [Antoine] Winfield actually got a touchdown in college as a returner. So we’ve got some options with the returners. Right now it’s a good competition, I like Mickens because he’s got some game day experience. I think again, going into this season, the more vets on the field the better. So I like what I’m seeing with Mickens right now.”
Highlighted by former undrafted free agent-turned-starter Adam Humphries, and later Watson, special teams is the quickest and most effective way for a young player to make the Bucs’ roster if they aren’t starting. It’s equally important to be effective in multiple roles on special teams, as Arians noted earlier in the week.
Watson learned that early as he stepped into the Bucs’ locker room as a rookie and rapidly became an active participant in nearly all phases of Tampa Bay’s special teams despite having limited experience in those roles at Penn.
But unfortunately for Arians, he hasn’t found a young player who has caught his eye in that fashion thus far in camp.
“Nobody has [stood out on special teams] yet, that’s disturbing,” Arians said. “Some are good at one, some are good at others, but until I see them strike people, go run down the field, whip a blocker and make a tackle, which is hard to do right now… We’ll do some of it, but that’s the part you don’t know until you put the live bullets out there, which we’ll do Friday. It’s one thing to do it in a drill, to show that you have speed and can get in position, but it’s another thing to really do it.”
And unless you’re a Tristan Wirfs or an Antoine Winfield Jr., rookies primed for potential starting roles come Week 1, special teams reigns supreme.
“Is he going to start?” Arians replied rhetorically when asked about UDFA CB Parnell Motley’s chances of making the final roster. “If he’s not starting, then special teams takes precedent, it’s as simple as that. If you’re a backup, you may be the second-best corner, but [if] the third-best is a good special teams player, he’s going to take your job.”
Motley has surely stood out on defense thus far with a handful of interceptions in camp, including a pair off of Tom Brady, but with the abbreviated offseason, special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong believes that he’ll initially have to lean on a core group of veteran players to get the job done.
“Obviously [the shortened offseason] is going to slow [your evaluation process] down so you have to anticipate some things,” Armstrong said. “I think that really early on in the year you’re going to have to lean on your veteran players to be able to get this done. Going into that first game, maybe the second and third game as well, I think you’re really going to have to lean on a veteran group. So when I talk about the core group, I’m talking about the punt unit especially, you’re going to want to have some veteran players in there because of the lack of contact, the lack of preseason games and you don’t get a chance to see who can actually go play. So it does slow your evaluation down.”
However the Bucs are aiming to hold two intra-squad scrimmages inside Raymond James Stadium, including one this upcoming Friday, that will provide a much better opportunity for young players still trying to find their niche and the special teams unit as a whole to get live, full-contact reps in. And Motley will be one of those players looking to stand out in their limited live practices.
“He’s going to be the first gunner on Friday morning and we’re going to put guys on him,” Armstrong said. “And he knows it. Hopefully he can play gunner. He’s got the quickness to do it, he can run so you love the intangibles and that type of stuff so let’s go see if he can actually get that done. Then we’ll turn around and put him at the corner on punt return and see if he can hold up. Kickoff coverage-wise he’d probably either be a safety or a two and then probably play at tackle on kickoff return and see if he can fit some of those rolls.”
Armstrong also dove into where most of his primary evaluations come from with so few live special teams periods, pointing at two rookie linebackers, seventh-round pick Chapelle Russell and undrafted free agent Cam Gill, as guys that he’s excited about as potential impact players on special teams.
“A young guy that jumps out for us, I think, is Gill,” Armstrong said. “The kid out of Wagner, I like him. He’s got some power, he’s got punch, he’s been really receptive, a fast learner and he’s shown some speed, some burst. He’s got the ability to escape some blocks, that type of stuff. He’s the guy that really excites me out of that outside linebacker/inside linebacker crew of these young guys.”
“[No.] 53, a very talented kid, Chapelle Russell. He can run, he’s got instincts. We want to see how physical he is, hopefully, in this scrimmage. I actually watch the offense and defense and when we do these mini scrimmages I try to give my evaluations out of that because it’s the one time that you can see a guy hitting downhill. Can you escape a block and make a tackle, do you play with energy, will you run to the ball? All that type of stuff.
“So all of these little 10-play scrimmages, I’m trying to get as many reps [as I can]… and I can’t wait to see the twos. Everybody else wants to see Brady, but I’m like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, alright let’s get to the twos and threes’. I’m getting a lot out of that from the scrimmages and I think that [Friday] will be big for us as far in terms of scrimmaging in the morning.”