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The kicker position was supposed to be a strength of Tampa Bay's heading into training camp. In addition to retaining veteran Matt Bryant, the Bucs signed former second-round pick Mike Nugent to compete with him.
The problem is that competition hasn't taken place due to a hamstring injury Bryant sustained and re-aggravated in training camp. The ailment has kept Bryant out of all three of Tampa Bay's preseason games and likely will keep him out of the fourth and final exhibition contest.
That would make Nugent Tampa Bay's undisputed kicker for the 2009 season, but the former New York Jet hasn't been perfect.
Nugent has made 4-of-7 (57.1 percent) field goal attempts through three preseason games this year. Of course, it's important to note that two of those three misses came from 50 yards out or more, and the other miss was no chip shot – it came from 46 yards away.
One of the reasons why the Bucs signed Nugent, 27, was because of the awful preseason Bryant turned in one year ago. How bad was it? Would you believe that Bryant, like Nugent, was 4-of-7 on field goal attempts heading into the fourth and final preseason game of the year?
Bryant found a way to finish the preseason on a somewhat positive note last year, drilling 3-of-5 field goal attempts to finish the preseason 7-of-12 (58.3 percent) overall.
To his credit, Bryant went on to have a good year for the Bucs in 2008, making 32-of-38 (84.2 percent) during the regular season.
The Bucs were close to signing a kicker to replace Bryant in preseason last year, which made it no surprise when the team opted to ink Nugent to a deal when the opportunity presented itself during the offseason. So with Nugent having made 4 of 7 field goal attempts like Bryant did one year ago, is the team considering signing another kicker?
“You always look to improve your roster anytime you can,” Bucs head coach Raheem Morris said when asked if he was considering signing another kicker. “I wouldn’t necessarily say Nugent wasn’t real strong. He was 4-of-7, and a few of his misses were long kicks. He’s missed a couple, but he’s made a few good ones. He’s had the opportunity to improve – yesterday in practice he was 6-of-6. You’re always looking to improve, though.”
Nugent has made 75-of-92 (81.5 percent) of his career kicks, but the Bucs were attracted to more than Nugent's youth and accuracy.
Bryant, 34, had trouble getting kickoffs in or near the end zone last year, and his leg strength has faded. While he was near perfect inside 40 yards, Bryant was not reliable from beyond that point.
Over the past three seasons, Bryant was just 1-of-8 from beyond 50 yards away, and just 2-of-10 for his career. Nugent, on the other hand, is 3-of-7 from 50 yards or more away over the past three seasons, and 3-of-9 for his career. Nugent even drilled a 51-yard field goal in Tampa Bay's preseason opener vs. Tennessee.
Perhaps the kickers' percentages between the 40- and 49-yard range is the most significant when comparing Bryant and Nugent.
Bryant has made just 16-of-24 (66.7 percent) of his field goal attempts from 40-49 over the past three seasons. During that same timeframe, Nugent has drilled 10-of-12 (83.3 percent).
Despite the fact that Bryant was a very unhappy camper when the Bucs signed Nugent, the team was justified in doing so based on a number of statistics and circumstances mentioned above, including the fact that Bryant has been sidelined so long with a hamstring injury.
So why wasn't Bryant part of Tampa Bay's first set of roster cuts on Sept. 1? The Bucs likely feel Bryant is a good insurance policy to have just in case Nugent sustains an injury between now and Saturday, which is when the final set of roster cuts will take place.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE LINE CALLS? Shortly after the Bucs began offseason workouts in the spring, center Jeff Faine disclosed to Pewter Report that he would no longer be responsible for making line calls at the line of scrimmage. The quarterback was going to be responsible for line calls and blitz protections in offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski's system.
But that isn't necessarily the case. The Bucs haven't completely removed Faine from the line call responsibilities.
"Both of them are still working together on it," Bucs quarterbacks coach Greg Olson said of the quarterbacks and Faine. "We've given a lot more of the responsibility to the quarterbacks this season, but Jeff Faine is still there and on the same page. They meet on Fridays and watch all the nickel blitz cutups and the base blitz cutups, and make the calls together so they're all on the same page. I always tell the quarterback, ‘If you're ever unsure, let Jeff make the call.' He's done it before and he's been in it. With a young quarterback like Josh Freeman, if he's ever to play then if he's unsure of the call then have Jeff make the call."
Faine was primarily responsible for the line calls under former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden. There are a few reasons why the Bucs want to keep Faine involved in those calls.
For starters, the three quarterbacks behind Byron Leftwich have combined for just seven starts in the NFL, and neither Freeman nor Josh Johnson has ever played in a regular season game.
That inexperience, along with Faine's knack for making good line calls, has influenced the Bucs to keep their center involved in those calls for the foreseeable future.
"I've done it both ways, and I think it works both ways," said Olson. "Jeff made the calls last year, and very rarely did something go wrong there. I can think of maybe two times when we had a free hitter come in and had we made the call we would have had the quarterback protected. That's pretty good based on my experience of coaching in college and the NFL. He did a phenomenal job a year ago, so there's no reason to take that away from him. The more the quarterbacks learn about protections and the more they understand protections the more comfortable they'll be. It takes away a lot of the anxiety for a quarterback when he knows exactly who is going where."
Faine has missed a significant amount of playing time in preseason and training camp with a groin pull. His absence allowed Sean Mahan to receive some valuable reps at center. Although Tampa Bay has surrendered eight sacks through three preseason games, including five taken by Leftwich and Luke McCown, Olson suggested not all of those takedowns can be attributed to poor line calls made by Mahan, who was released Wednesday, and the quarterbacks.
"[Faine's absence] was better for my quarterbacks, but Sean Mahan did a nice job," said Olson. "Sean does a good job, but it put more on the quarterbacks. They took more of the responsibility, and they wanted to do it. It was good for the development of our offense.
"The sacks have been oftentimes a lack of athleticism sometimes with Byron. We haven't had a lot of free guys, which is a plus. But it's still a work in progress. It's something you have to work on throughout the week. Teams have been doing a lot of their blitzes out of base, so we have to get ready for Dallas, who hasn't shown a lot in preseason."
While Faine still is involved in the line calls, the quarterbacks have taken on more responsibility in that regard. That was one of the reasons why Leftwich, who has 46 career starts in the NFL, won the starting quarterback job.
"There were a lot of factors that led to the decision to start Byron," said Olson. "Certainly experience was one of them."
ANOTHER PREMIUM DRAFT PICK BITES THE DUST Bucs ownership believed a regime change was necessary in January, which is when the Glazers fired head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen, and filled those vacancies with Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik, respectively.
Time will tell if Morris and Dominik are the right men for the job. However, one thing is certain – the Buccaneers aren't going to return to the Super Bowl if they don't draft better.
No one can argue with Tampa Bay's decision to release wide receiver Dexter Jackson, but people still are scratching their heads over the fact that the Bucs invested a second-round pick in Jackson last year.
Jackson, a former Appalachian State standout, played in just seven games before being benched. He never caught a pass and underachieved as a return specialist, especially as a punt returner.
With the exception of the New England Patriots, NFL teams will be hard pressed to hit on all of their draft picks, meaning the draft is not an exact science.
However, the Bucs haven't hit on enough pick, and Jackson is just one of many blown Bucs selections on the first day of the draft since 2004. The list includes linebacker Marquis Cooper (2004 – third round), tight end Alex Smith (2005 – third round), tackle Chris Colmer (2005 third-round), guard Arron Sears (2007 – second round) and Jackson (2008 – second round).
To their credit, the Bucs have found hidden gems in running back Clifton Smith and cornerback Elbert Mack – both undrafted free agent signings. And the Bucs deserve a pass on Sears, who was a solid player with plenty of potential before he left the team to deal with a personal issue that may end his NFL playing career. But that's two straight second-round draft picks that are no longer with the team.
Needless to say, the 2009 NFL Draft class is a big one for the Buccaneers, who invested a first-round pick in a quarterback (Josh Freeman) for the first time since 1994, traded their second-round pick for tight end Kellen Winslow and appear to have landed immediate contributors with some upside in defensive linemen Roy Miller (third round), Kyle Moore (fourth round), and tackle Xavier Fulton (fifth round).
If the Bucs are going to return to greatness, the team needs to start turning in some great drafts, and avoid the busts.