BUCS’ SPECIAL TEAMS FREE AGENCY PREVIEWWith free agency scheduled to begin at 4:00 p.m. on March 11, PewterReport.com beings you our annual free agency preview by position. Starting Monday, we will take a look at what Bucs will become free agents at each position, who the Bucs have under contract at the previewed position, then take a look at five players that could fit into Tampa Bay’s plans, known as the Bucs’ Best Bets. Up first is the special teams preview.
BUCS’ PENDING FREE AGENTS
Place kicker Rian Lindell, last season’s replacement for an injured Conner Barth is set to become a free agent, but most likely will be allowed to walk with Barth set to return after spending the last eight months rehabbing a torn Achilles suffered on the eve of training camp last summer.
The Bucs have a handful of special teams contributors who will be free agents, including linebackers Dekoda Watson, Adam Hayward and Jonathan Casillas.
WHAT THE BUCS HAVENew Bucs head coach Lovie Smith told the media shortly after being hired that Tampa Bay would put a heavy emphasis on special teams, particularly the return game. The Bucs return Eric Page, Jeff Demps and Skye Dawson but you can be assured that Tampa Bay will be looking to bring in some help via free agency.
Page, at least statistically, had a good 2013 season averaging 24.9 yards on 22 kickoffs and also 10.9 yards per punt return. The issue with Page, at times, was his decision making. Several times last season Page made mental errors as far as fielding punts too deep instead of letting the ball go into the end zone, and also struggled with indecisiveness when deciding to bring the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs. Page also fumbled three times last season, losing two, drawing the ire of former head coach Greg Schiano.
Dawson was used sparingly on special teams last year as a returner and most likely will go into camp with his concentration on trying to make the team as a backup wide receiver. Demps is the fastest player on the team and has some limited experience returning kicks in college, but didn’t get that opportunity in Tampa Bay last year.
As mentioned, Barth appears to be close to being fully recovered and should step back into his role as starter. The Buccaneers missed Barth’s accuracy early last season as Lindell missed a handful of very makeable kicks, killing momentum in some games. Lindell did settle down as the season progressed, but Tampa Bay’s front office will most likely welcome back Barth’s consistency with open arms. Barth has two years left on his contract and is set to earn $3.15 million in 2014 and 2015.
Tampa Bay punter Michael Koenen had a solid season in 2013, but nothing spectacular, and carrying a $3.25 million salary cap hit could have the new front office evaluating the position. Koenen’s average was middle of the road (44.2), although his kickoff touchback percentage was among the league’s best, ranking 6th in the NFL.
WHAT THE BUCS NEEDTampa Bay will no doubt be looking for an explosive, game-changing type of returner as both Smith and new special teams coordinator Kevin O’Dea have talked extensively about the importance of special teams. Smith was fortunate to have Devin Hester in place while in Chicago, and with Hester being a free agent, it makes sense that one of Tampa Bay’s first phone calls in free agency will be to Hester’s agent.
But Tampa Bay may not just be content with a kick returner and could also look for a punter who can flip field position. While Koenen is a steady directional kicker, he has never been known for the booming, 50-plus yards teams loves to have when punting from near their own goal line.
Tampa Bay would also be wise to re-sign a couple of their special team standout linebackers. Adam Hayward was the special team’s captain last season and is a valuable linebacker who can play all three positions. Jonathan Casillas started playing well down the stretch before being injured late in the season and Dekoda Watson is a proven punt blocker with three in the past two years, and is as athletic a specimen of a linebacker as you will ever see. We’ll have more on those three later this week in PewterReport.com’s free agent linebacker preview.
BUCS’ BEST BETS1. Chicago KR/PR Devin HesterHester is the NFL’s all-time leader in return touchdowns and although he only had one touchdown last season, it was an electrifying 81-yard punt return against the Redskins at FedEx Field. Hester also led the league in kickoff returns (52) and yardage (1,442 yards) and ranked seventh in yards per punt return (14.2). He may be beginning to slow down just a touch, but still has some gas left in the tank, and is a huge fan of Smith. Hester wearing red and pewter next season makes a lot of sense and most feel the Buccaneers will do their best to bring his talent to Tampa Bay.
2. Kansas City PR/WR Dexter McClusterMcCluster, a Largo, Fla. native, and just 25 years old, fits the bill of what the Bucs will be looking for to improve their return game and give a boost to their special team. In 2013, McCluster averaged 11.8 yards per punt return, returning two for touchdowns, including an 89-yarder. At age 25, McCluster may actually be a better fit for the Buccaneers, as along with his youth compared to Hester, McCluster added 511 yards on 53 receptions and two more scores as a receiver.
3. Seattle PR/WR Golden TateBuccaneers fans will remember Tate as he helped spark the turnaround last season in the Bucs 27-24 loss to the Seahawks with his dynamic second half punt return that eventually led to a Seahawks touchdown. Tate averaged 11.5 yards on 51 punt returns, and like McCluster, is also a threat as a receiver, nabbing 64 receptions for 894 yards and six touchdowns in 2013. Tate has expressed an interest in returning to Seattle and likely would command a much bigger contract that Hester or McCluster. But with Tampa Bay needing help at the receiver and returner position, Tate makes some sense.
4. Baltimore KR/WR Jacoby JonesJones is only 29, but an eight-year NFL veteran, and has been a solid NFL receiver, but an even better kick returner. Last season, Jones averaged 28.8 yards per kickoff return and 12.8 on punt returns. Jones returned one kickoff for a touchdown last season, giving him four for his career and has also added four punt return touchdowns since entering the league in 2007. His 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl two years ago set an NFL Super Bowl record.
5. Carolina PR/WR Ted GinnGinn, like Jones and Tate, would also provide another receiving threat to go along with return kickoffs (23.8 avg.) and punts (12.2 avg.). Ginn had seven career touchdowns as a returner during his Miami and San Francisco before joining the Panthers last season. Ginn totaled 36 pass receptions for 556 yards and six TD receptions in Charlotte in 2013. Ginn also takes a very good player away from an NFC South rival, something NFL general manager’s love to do.
TOP FIVE SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS IN 2014 FREE AGENCY1. Chicago KR Devin HesterHester’s stats speak for themselves and the Buccaneers won’t be the only team calling on the opening day of free agency. Hester will go down as one of the best ever to return kicks in the NFL, and despite being 31, proved last year he can still be a game-changer in the return game.
2. Seattle KR/WR Golden TateTate will make his money in free agency as a receiver, not a kick returner, but the added bonus fills two roster spots with one player, which is a value that coaching staffs and front offices love. The odds of leaving Seattle aren’t great, however the Seahawks have a number of decisions to make as they are up against the salary cap.
3. Kansas City KR Dexter McClusterMcCluster being only 25 will certainly help his cause in free agency. With superb return skills and versatility on offense, the Tampa Bay area native will draw plenty of interest when free agency opens next week.
4. Seattle PK Steven HauschkaHauschka was one of the NFL’s best kickers in 2013, making all but two kicks (33-of-35) last season. Late reports out of Seattle suggest the Seahawks won’t be placing the franchise tag on him, leaving him to test the waters of free agency.
5. Indianapolis P Pat McAfeeMcAfee, like Hauschka, won’t receive the franchise tag from the Colts and will most likely earn a big pay day in the next few weeks. McAfee had a cannon for a leg, although he does punt inside the climate-controlled dome at Lucas Oil Field eight games a year. Even so, with nearly a 46-yard career average, McAfee should be able to cash in.
Up Next: Quarterbacks
Mark Cook currently is the director of editorial content and Bucs beat writer and has written for PewterReport.com since 2011. Cook has followed the Buccaneers since 1977 when he first began watching football with his Dad and is fond of the 1979 Bucs team that came within 10 points of going to a Super Bowl. His favorite Bucs game is still the 1979 divisional playoff win 24-17 over the Eagles. In his spare time Cook enjoys playing guitar, fishing, surfing and family time at the beach. In addition, Cook can be found in front of a television or in Doak Campbell any time the FSU Seminoles are playing. Cook is a native of Pinecrest in Eastern Hillsborough County and has written for numerous publications including the Tampa Tribune, In the Field and Ya'll Magazine. Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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