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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers set out to accomplish several things this offseason, including upgrading their pass rush and bolstering their quarterback position.
But one particular area the Bucs want to address that has been somewhat lost this offseason is the team’s return game, which has struggled mightily in recent years. In fact, their return game woes date back to their first year of existence.
In 31 seasons, the Bucs still have never returned a regular season kickoff for a touchdown.
Tampa Bay’s punt return game hasn’t been much better. Mark Jones has averaged 8.3 yards per return. Despite having 105 career punt returns, Jones has yet to score a touchdown or catch a pass as a receiver.
In 2006, Tampa Bay ranked 30th in punt returns (6.5 avg.) and 25th in kickoff returns (21.5 avg.). Only nine teams had worse starting field position (26.3 avg.) than the Bucs last season.
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden is determined to address and improve this particular area of his team. That was made apparent in January when the team signed return specialist Chad Owens to a contract.
Owens didn’t pan out in Jacksonville, but he had an impressive collegiate career at Hawaii, where he averaged 29.4 yards per kickoff return and scored two touchdowns. He also averaged 11.9 yards per punt return and scored a school-record six times.
The Bucs have some doubts whether the 5-foot-7, 188-pound Owens can become a productive receiver at the NFL level, and he has to prove himself as a return specialist in the NFL an is not guaranteed to make Tampa Bay’s 53-man roster.
Tampa Bay isn’t interested in keeping Jones around if he can’t become a kickoff returner or contributor on offense. Dedicating a 53-man roster spot to a punt returner and a player who hasn’t shown the ability to cover kicks and punts is not ideal and something the Bucs won’t do in 2007. Jones is essentially a one-trick pony.
A few weeks ago, Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver/return specialist Dante Hall’s name surfaced on the trading block, which piqued the Bucs’ interest.
Hall, who entered the NFL in 2000 as an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M, has established himself as one of the league’s most dangerous and explosive return men.
He has returned 360 career kickoffs for 8,644 yards (24.0 avg.) and scored six touchdowns. Hall has played an integral role in helping the Chiefs offense establish favorable starting field position, evidenced by his 32 career kickoff returns that have produced 40-plus yards.
The 5-foot-8, 187-pound Hall has also been a human highlight reel as a punt returner. He’s returned 188 career punts for 1,882 yards (10.0 avg.) and five touchdowns. Hall has had 23 punt returns that produced 40-plus yards.
In 2003, Hall earned the nickname "The Human Joystick" by setting an NFL record by scoring touchdowns in four consecutive games on returns.
So why would the Chiefs want to trade such a unique talent?
Well, Hall’s production has dropped off a bit over the past few seasons. He averaged just 22.8 yards per kickoff return and failed to score a touchdown in 2006. And over the past two seasons, Hall has averaged 6.6 and 8.9 yards per punt return and scored one touchdown.
Despite his size, or lack thereof, Hall has shown the ability to contribute as a receiver. He’s caught 145 career passes for 1,615 yards (11.1 avg.) and nine touchdowns. Still, Hall isn’t considered an elite receiver.
The Chiefs are said to be looking for a second day draft pick in exchange for Hall. At first glance, that might appear to be a small price to pay for such a productive player. However, a closer look at the situation explains why some teams, including the Buccaneers, have some reservations about trading for Hall.
Hall is 28, and the final two years of his contract call for him to earn base salaries of $1.5 million and $2 million, respectively. That could be considered a steep price to pay for a player who is no longer in his prime and turns 29 in September.
The Bucs also feel they might be able to land a return specialist in the 2007 NFL Draft.
Some of the players the Bucs will target as return specialists in the draft include Kansas State’s Yamon Figurs, UTEP’s Johnnie Lee Higgins, Clemson’s Chansi Stuckey, Florida State’s Lorenzo Booker, Miami of Ohio’s Ryne Robinson and Michigan’s Steve Breaston.
Figurs, who ran the fastest time of any player at the NFL Combine in February, is considered the best return man in this year’s draft. The Bucs likely will take a hard look at him on the second day of the draft.
As of right now, the Bucs have little to no interest in trading for Hall, and that probably won’t change between now and April 29, which is the second day of the draft.
However, if Figurs, who returned two punts and one kickoff for touchdowns during his collegiate career, and some of the other return specialists Tampa Bay likes are off the board on the second day of the draft, the Bucs could make a play for Hall and offer a fifth- or sixth-round pick to Kansas City for the record-setting return man.
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