The player who returned the most kickoffs for the Buccaneers in 2013, Arrelious Benn, is now a Philadelphia Eagle. The man behind him on that list, LeQuan Lewis, is a Chicago Bear. Roscoe Parrish, who was responsible for 30 of the team’s 36 punt returns in 2012, as well as a handful of kickoff returns, is currently an unrestricted free agent.
In fact, of all 67 punt and kickoff returns the Buccaneers had during the 2012 regular season, only nine were accounted for by players who are on the team’s 2013 roster at the moment.
Obviously, the team will be auditioning new return men this spring and summer. That’s a pair of jobs (PR and KR) that have passed through quite a few hands since 2008, when Clifton Smith made the Pro Bowl as a rookie return man. The Bucs have had a different leader in both punt returns and kick returns in each of the last four seasons, and only Micheal Spurlock in 2010 was a real full-season option for both return gigs.
The Bucs are a long way from determining who their primary return man (or men) will be this fall. It’s possible some new options will arrive via the draft, or further activity in free agency. The team may want to take another look at 2012 seventh-round pick Michael Smith, who got an early cameo as a kick returner last season before spending most Sundays in the inactive list due to greater game-day needs at other positions.
One potential option just joined the team last Thursday. Former Cowboys wide receiver Kevin Ogletree, who will likely get a solid crack at the #3 receiver job, has a kick return background. He got occasional return opportunities during his first three seasons in Dallas after running back kickoffs during his 2008 final year at Virginia. Most of his work has come on kickoff returns, but he also ran back two punts for the Cowboys in 2011, one for 25 yards and one for 10 yards.
Ogletree’s return averages aren’t overwhelming – he’s averaged 19.5 yards on 20 kickoff returns as a pro – but the adjustment of the kickoff line to the 35 in 2011 has reduced return opportunities across the league and made it a little harder to judge a return man’s big-play possibilities. The 6-0, 200-pound Ogletree is very solidly built, almost like a running back, and that plus good speed makes him an intriguing candidate for the return job.
Other apparent options on the current roster include Smith, wide receiver Tiquan Underwood and running back D.J. Ware. All three got a handful of kickoff return chances last year, and Ware held the job for the Giants for a good part of 2010. None have ever returned punts, however. Obviously, Parrish or fellow free agent wide receiver Sammie Stroughter would be in the mix if either re-signed with the team.
There are also a couple young players the Buccaneers added to their roster during the season last fall but haven’t really tested out yet. David Douglas, the 2012 rookie receiver the team swiped off the Giants’ practice squad in November, had a few return opportunities at the University of Arizona and is considered both sure-handed and quick. Chris Owusu, similarly signed off San Diego’s practice squad in September, was a very good return man at Stanford and has speed to burn. He averaged 27.3 yards per kickoff return in college, scoring three touchdowns. Owusu is obviously an interesting candidate but his chances may hinge on finding other reasons to make the roster and be kept active on game days.
The punt return job is much more difficult to predict. Fielding punts is more difficult than fielding kickoffs, and the potential for turnovers is higher, so coaches generally want a very sure-handed player who has experience with the job. While the team cycled through a bunch of in-house options at kickoff return last year, they pointedly went outside the roster to sign Parrish when Stroughter got hurt and Jordan Shipley fumbled his chance.
Perhaps Ogletree will be able to prove he can handle that job, too. At the very least, he would appear to be a new candidate to return kickoffs in 2013.