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When Tampa Bay general manager Bruce Allen was hired a little over a year ago, one of his first priorities was upgrading the Buccaneers’ special teams coverage units, which had played poorly in 2003.
Many believed special teams coach Richard Bisaccia would lose his job because the special teams coverage units had several mishaps that year, but after further review, Allen and Bucs head coach Jon Gruden determined that it was the players, not the coach, that needed to be upgraded.
So, Allen signed players who could fill holes on special teams while competing for backup and starting roles on offense and defense.
In fact, nearly every player Tampa Bay signed as a free agent in 2004 had the ability to make an impact on special teams. Although players like running backs Brandon Bennett and Jamel White didn’t exactly pan out, others, like linebackers Keith Burns, Ian Gold and Jeff Gooch, all of whom were highly regarded as special teams aces, did.
And when the Bucs attempted to trade disgruntled wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, Allen and Co. once again had special teams in mind, which was one of several reasons why the Bucs were so intrigued by the notion of trading for Dallas wide receiver Joey Galloway, who had significant experience and success as a punt returner.
And when Tampa Bay lost punter Tom Tupa to Washington in free agency, the Bucs signed a capable veteran in former Green Bay punter Josh Bidwell, who averaged 42.3 yards per punt and dropped 23 of his 82 attempts inside the 20-yard line last season.
The Bucs didn’t just use free agency to address their needs on special teams. The 2004 NFL Draft also produced some special teams contributors, namely third-round pick linebacker Marquis Cooper and fourth-round selection safety Will Allen.
The addition of those key players along with the decision to have wide receiver Frank Murphy and cornerback Torrie Cox (ranked third in the NFC in kickoff return average, which helped the Bucs have average starting field position at the 30.7-yard line) return kickoffs, helped the Bucs dramatically improve their special teams play last season.
But just one year after Tampa Bay’s special teams unit took a step in the right direction, with the exception of kicker Martin Gramatica, whose untimely misses caused the Bucs to finish two straight seasons ranked dead last in field goal percentage, the team’s salary cap challenges appear to be causing this unit to take a dramatic step backwards.
The Bucs have lost Gold, Burns and safety Dwight Smith in free agency, and they have not re-signed Murphy, safety John Howell or cornerback Corey Ivy.
While Gold didn’t have a huge impact on special teams due to his status as a starting linebacker, the loss of Burns, who re-signed with Denver last week, is significant seeing as he led the team in special teams takedowns (23) and forced one fumble last season.
In fact, Tampa Bay’s three leading special teams tacklers, Burns, Howell (19) and Ivy (17), are not under contract with the Buccaneers. Despite recording 17 special teams tackles last season, being named the special teams MVP in 2002 and notching a total of 56 special teams tackles over the past three seasons, Ivy, a a restricted free agent, wasn’t tendered a contract.
Howell, who is an unrestricted free agent, hasn’t received much interest. The Bucs are believed to be interested in re-signing Howell, who has notched 50 special teams takedowns during his four-year career.
Smith didn’t play as much special teams last season due to his role as a starter, but he notched 59 career special teams takedowns during his four-year career and was considered a solid player in that regard.
Despite not having their three leading special teams tacklers from last season under contract, the Bucs still have some players to build around, including Gooch, who had 15 special teams tackles in 2004 and has notched 164 tackles during his nine-year career.
Bucs third-year linebacker Ryan Nece, who was a restricted free agent, was signed to a five-year extension shortly after inking that RFA deal. That was a key signing for the Bucs, who have watched Nece excel on special teams since entering the NFL in 2003 as an undrafted free agent out of UCLA. He notched 16 special teams tackles in ’04 and has totaled 36 in three seasons.
The Bucs will be relying even more on second-year players like Cooper, who notched 11 special teams tackles, and Allen, who recorded eight, but both players could earn starting jobs this season, which could make it dangerous to play either one of them on special teams.
It’s no secret that Tampa Bay must come away with two or three starters in this year’s draft, and one of those starters could be a field goal kicker. Allen regrets not bringing in competition for Gramatica last year. That’s why the Bucs have three kickers – Matt Bryant, Jay Taylor and Todd France – under contract and are seriously considering taking one in the draft. Should the Bucs select Ohio State kicker Mike Nugent in the third round, he’ll essentially be their kicker in 2005.
Finding starters on the first day of the draft is a priority, but the Bucs will also have to take special teams into consideration with most of its 12 draft selections.
Depending on which players they come away with in the draft, the Bucs could also be forced to turn to some veteran players to help fill holes on special teams. That list could include Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber, who has recorded 42 career special teams tackles, middle linebacker Shelton Quarles (77 career special teams takedowns) and safety Jermaine Phillips (30 career special teams tackles).
Although he’s probably too valuable to play on special teams on a regular basis, rookie sensation wide receiver Michael Clayton was one heck of a special teams player at LSU and would be a willing participant should he back asked to contribute in this particular area next year. However, the Bucs would like to prevent that from happening due to the important role he plays on offense.
The more key special teams contributors the Bucs can land with their 12 draft picks in April, the less they’ll have to play valuable starters, and like every year, players like running backs Ian Smart and Earnest Graham, wide receiver Edell Shepherd and cornerback Blue Adams can help themselves secure 53-man roster spots by making a significant impact on special teams in training camp and preseason.
2004 SPECIAL TEAMS LEADERS:
LB Keith Burns – 23 tackles. One forced a fumble.
S John Howell -19 tackles
LB Ryan Nece -16 tackles. One recovered fumble.
LB Jeff Gooch -15 tackles
LB Marquis Cooper – 11 tackles
S Will Allen – 8 tackles
CB Ronde Barber – 6 tackles
S Dwight Smith – 6 tackles
CB Torrie Cox – 6 tackles
FB Greg Comella – 4 tackles
LS Dave Moore – 4 tackles
S Jermaine PHillips – 4 tackles
RB Ian Smart – 2 tackles
CB Mario Edwards – 2 tackles
WR Frank Murphy – 2 tackles
P Josh Bidwell – 1 tackle
TE Ken Dilger -1 tackle
CB Torrie Cox – 26.2 yard kickoff return average
WR Frank Murphy – 26 yard kickoff return average
WR Joey Galloway – 7.1 yard punt return average. Had two 59-yard returns and one score.
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