FAB 3. 5 Critical Camp Questions – Bucs Special Teams
PewterReport.com’s 20 Critical Camp Questions for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers continues with a look at special teams. Here are five big questions as the start of Tampa Bay’s 2018 training camp is just days away.
1. Is there truly a competition at kicker?
Yes. The odds-on favorite for winning the job is veteran Chandler Catanzaro, but he’ll get a legitimate battle from undrafted free agent Trevor Moore. The 27-year old Catanzaro, who is entering his fifth season in the league, is the guy the Bucs want to win the job. They signed him to a three-year deal worth $9.75 million, including $3.75 million in guaranteed money. With three years worth of experience in Arizona and a year’s worth of experience with the New York Jets last season, investing in a young, veteran kicker is ideal for the Bucs, who desperately need stability at the position.
Catanzaro has a big, strong leg to go along with 84.4 percent career accuracy. He connected on 87.9 percent of his field goals as a rookie in 2014 and then hit 90.3 percent the following year. After a down season in 2016 in which he made just 75 percent of his field goals, Catanzaro rebounded with the Jets last year, making 83.3 percent of his kicks. He has an impressive 7-of-13 record on kicks 50 yards or longer with a career-high of 60 yards. The Bucs struggled to make long field goals last year with Patrick Murray and Nick Folk handling the kicking duties.
While Catanzaro is the favorite, it should be noted that Folk was the favorite to beat out Roberto Aguayo last summer, which happened, only to see Folk falter by October and be replaced by Murray. Moore has a strong leg, but doesn’t have the range Catanzaro does. He is accurate though, evidenced by his 90.9 percent connection rate during his senior year at North Texas.
Aside from both kickers faltering in August, the Bucs’ worst nightmare may be Moore outdueling Catanzaro in training camp and the preseason and having to decide whether to keep the veteran over the rookie, or whether to roll the dice and go with an unproven kicker and flush $3.75 million down the drain. Bucs general manager Jason Licht kept Murray, an undrafted free agent in 2014, over the established veteran Connor Barth that year and that was a big surprise. Could Moore pull off a similar feat this year? Don’t bet on it, but don’t rule it out, either.
2. What’s the kicker’s range?
Not only will training camp and the preseason decide whether the Bucs go with veteran Chandler Catanzaro or rookie Trevor Moore as the team’s kicker, Tampa Bay will also use the month of August to determine what range the winner of that training camp battle is. That’s very important in a league that often has games decided by three points or less.
Patrick Murray, who took over kicking duties from Nick Folk last year in October, was the more accurate of the two, connecting on 82.6 percent of his kicks, but didn’t offer much in the way of leg strength when it came to kickoffs or long field goals. Murray was just 2-of-5 on field goals 50 yards or longer, and his longest field goal of the year was just 50 yards. Folk was just 1-of-2 on deep kicks, connecting on a 50-yard field goal before being shown the door.
Catanzaro has a big leg and is 7-of-13 on kicks from 50 yards or more. His career long is 60 yards, and he made a 57-yard field goal last year while with the Jets. Moore’s leg is not as strong and he only attempted two kicks 50 yards or longer in his four-year Mean Green career, connecting on one 51-yarder. Was that just a product of North Texas not wanting to attempt long field goals or a sign that Moore simply can’t make them?
The Bucs typically have their kickers and punters go over to Raymond James Stadium during training camp to practice kicking where the team will play half its games this year. That’s a wise move for special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor, who will be sure to let head coach Dirk Koetter what the range of each kicker is at Ray-Jay. That, combined with preseason performance, will go a long way in determining who winds up as Tampa Bay’s kicker. If Moore can prove he’s not another Murray with limited range it will help his chances as he competes with Catanzaro.
3. Will punter Bryan Anger return to form?
Yes. When Anger rewarded the Bucs’ confidence in him when the team signed him as a free agent in 2016, Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg rewarded Anger with a five-year contract extension worth $17 million. Unfortunately, his numbers dipped last year, especially the number of punts downed inside the 20-yard line, as well as his net average.
Anger averaged 44 yards per punt with just a 39.5-yard net. He had just five touchbacks, which is good, but managed to down only 24 punts inside opponents’ 20-yard line. Anger had one punt blocked for a touchdown at New Orleans, but that wasn’t his fault as linebacker Devante Bond whiffed on his block.
The year prior, Anger averaged 45.9 yards per punt with five touchbacks and a career-high 37 punts downed inside the 20, which was 13 more than last year, along with a net average of 42.7. That’s significant as opponents starting inside their own 20 is a huge help to the Bucs defense.
Part of the reason why Anger struggled with punts inside the 20 was because Tampa Bay’s two special teams aces – Josh Robinson and Ryan Smith – missed some time on special teams last year. Robinson, the Bucs’ special teams captain, missed five games due to injury, while Smith had to start 10 games at cornerback. Both Robinson and Smith are Tampa Bay’s top gunners on the punt team.
As long as Robinson stays healthy he will available to down punts inside the 20, and with the influx of young talent at cornerback this offseason with the drafting of Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart, it’s more likely that Smith returns to the role of reserve cornerback and special teams star. Downing punts inside the 20-yard line is a knack that only a few gunners around the league have, and both Smith and Robinson have proven themselves in this area. Their return to special teams will help Anger bounce back and have a better year in 2018.
4. Will the Bucs have better kickoff coverage in 2018?
Hopefully. The Buccaneers did a tremendous job covering punts last year, allowing less than six yards per return, although Bryan Anger’s net average of only 39.5 yards had something to do with that. It’s easier to cover shorter punts. Where the Bucs really struggled was in kickoff coverage.
In a day and age where more kickoffs wind up being touchbacks that allow teams to start at the 25-yard line, the Bucs allowed two returns for touchdowns last year, which was the most in the NFL. Just how bad of a stat is that? Consider that the NFL only had seven touchdowns on kick returns last year – and the Bucs coverage units accounted for two of those, while allowing opponents to average 24.6 yards per return, which was the third-highest average in the league.
Both of those kick returns occurred in the final two weeks of the season when injuries affected the Bucs special teams. When roster attrition strikes, it hits special teams the hardest because a team’s top reserves are core special teams players. When those backups have to step in as starters, special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor has to get newly signed players off the street ready to go cover kicks and punts with only a few days of practice time.
Kaczor can’t control who gets injured, but when it comes to Tampa Bay forming its 53-man roster in September, the last three or four players that make the team usually do so by excelling on special teams during training camp and the preseason. Bucs general manager Jason Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter will have to choose the last three or four players carefully and weigh keeping top special teams performers who may lack a high ceiling on offense or defense in favor of developmental players that show promise on offense or defense that may not excel on special teams.
5. Will the Bucs find significant upgrades for their return game?
Yes. Tampa Bay’s kick return game last year ranked 17th in the NFL, averaging 21.6 yards per return. The problem is that the Bucs only had nine returns of 20 yards or more, which was tied for last in the league with Philadelphia. Tampa Bay’s longest kick return was 50 yards by Bernard Reedy in 2017. Reedy also led the Bucs as a punt returner. Tampa Bay was tied for sixth in the league with a 9.6-yard punt return average. Before his release in November, Reedy had a 44-yard return versus the Jets, but it was Tampa Bay’s only punt return to be returned for more than 20 yards last season, which ranked second-to-last in the NFL in this category.
Reedy returns to try to win the Bucs’ return specialist job again during training camp and he’ll have plenty of competition. Adam Humphries has experience returning punts, but lacks speed and dynamic playmaking ability. He’s a safe bet to get nine yards.
Keep an eye on undrafted rookie free agent running back Shaun Wilson. He could emerge as someone who can handle kick returns or punt returns – perhaps both. Wilson has generated a lot of buzz this offseason as a third-down back in Dirk Koetter’s offense, but if he’s going to stick on the roster as the team’s fourth-string running back behind Peyton Barber, Ronald Jones II and Charles Sims, he’ll have to prove his worth on special teams and beat out Jacquizz Rodgers, who is also in the running for kick return duties.
Whether it’s Reedy, Wilson or another sleeper candidate, the Bucs’ return game just might have more punch in the playmaking department. After two years of lackluster returns under special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor he’ll need to do a better job finding a player with more speed and make-you-miss capability. The guess here is that Wilson becomes that guy – at least as a kick returner.