One of the players Tampa Bay released en route to creating its league-mandated 53-man roster on Saturday was wide receiver Mark Jones.
A 2004 seventh-round draft pick, Jones earned a roster spot with the Bucs in previous seasons as a return specialist. Jones averaged 20.1 yards per kickoff return and 8.3 yards per punt return.
“That was a tough decision,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said of releasing Jones. “He’s a good player, a great guy and a hard worker. I think he’s an NFL returner – I think you saw that a few years ago.”
But Tampa Bay feels it can get the same type of production – if not better – from some other players that are currently on its active roster.
The Bucs are determined to find a dangerous return specialist that can help the Buccaneer offense establish better starting field position.
Last year, the Bucs ranked 30th in punt returns (6.5 avg.) and 25th in kickoff returns (21.5 avg.). In addition, Tampa Bay has never returned a kickoff for a touchdown in a regular season game in its 31-year history.
The Bucs have several players on their roster that will help to solidify the return man jobs, including wide receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard, running backs Michael Pittman and Earnest Graham and cornerback Phillip Buchanon.
“It will be done by committee,” Gruden said of the kickoff and punt return duties. “We’re going to give Joey Galloway some looks. We think he’s rare at that. We think Phillip Buchanon has punt return ability. We have Ike Hilliard. We have three guys that can catch it, and that’s the decision at this time.”
Galloway, 35, has averaged 9.7 yards per punt return and scored five touchdowns since entering the NFL in 1995. However, Galloway has established himself as Tampa Bay’s primary receiving threat on offense and has been used sparingly as a returner, evidenced by his two punt return attempts over the past three seasons.
Buchanon has averaged 10.3 yards per punt return and scored three touchdowns since entering the league in 2002.
Hilliard has averaged just 6.3 yards per punt return on 28 career attempts . He fielded 24 punts in 2006.
As far as kickoff returns go, Pittman, who has averaged 22.7 yards per attempt during his career, including 22.2 yards per attempt on 39 tries in 2006, likely will share those duties with Graham, who has averaged just 17.4 yards per try on eight career attempts.
Bucs special teams coach Richard Bisaccia even suggested wide receiver Michael Clayton could take some reps as a kickoff return man.
“If we played today, it would be Ike Hilliard and Joey Galloway returning punts, and we’ll have Pittman along with Earnest Graham returning kickoffs and we would see Michael Clayton back there a little bit,” said Bisaccia. “We’ll see how things go.”
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