Two weeks ago, Buccaneers.com took a look at the positions where there was likely to be a training camp battle for the starting job, running down the competitors at such spots as strongside linebacker and nose tackle.
Not included in this analysis: punt returner and kickoff returner. And for a good reason: Neither of those jobs is technically considered a starting position. Make no mistake, however; those positions are of critical importance, and they are very much up in the air, perhaps more so than any other line on the depth chart.
“The competition obviously is wide open,” said the man most tuned in to that battle, new Special Teams Coach Dave Wannstedt. “It’s not a situation where you know right now who our kickoff or our punt returner is going to be. And, yeah, in most cases you’d like to know, if it was a great one. But there’s another side to that too in having great competition. So we’ll see what happens, but all the guys are working hard and we’ll just see how it plays out.”
Speaking on Monday, one day before the Bucs’ offseason-capping mini-camp, Wannstedt indicated that the competition isn’t likely to start shaking out until training camp, when the pads go on, and even more importantly the preseason games, when the live action starts. Still, he did run down a few names, and that certainly gives a starting point to start assessing the candidates.
“We signed [Eric] Page, who was a free agent,” said Wannstedt. “We’ve got a couple young kids – [David] Douglas is back, [Chris] Owusu. So we’ve got some guys right now who are all competing – [Michael] Smith as far as the kickoff return stuff. It’s competitive.”
That’s a list of four players, all of whom have entered the NFL in the last 13 months and are thus obviously unproven. There are likely some other young candidates who either didn’t spring directly to Wannstedt’s mind on Monday or who haven’t emerged as such just yet. Several of the team’s undrafted defensive backs, for instance, are reportedly blessed with outstanding speed, which could be put into play. Wannstedt also acknowledged that Jeff Demps, the former Florida Gator the Bucs picked up in a draft-weekend trade in April, would clearly be in the mix if he chooses to continue his football career.
As for the four names Wannstedt mentioned:
- Page was an undrafted free agent out of Toledo a year ago, signing with the Denver Broncos but never getting much of a chance to proven himself due to an ACL tear on the practice field in July. The Bucs had been interested in signing Page a year ago before he went to Denver, and they got their chance again in April. Page has recovered from his injury and has been participating fully in OTA practices. A huge 125-catch season in 2011 made him an All-American as a receiver, but he was also a very good return man for the rockets. He averaged 27.3 yards per kickoff return and scored four touchdowns in that phase of the game during his career. He also averaged 10.9 yards per punt return as a senior and scored one TD.
- Douglas was snapped off the Giants’ practice squad last November when Arrelious Benn headed to injured reserve. A University of Arizona product, he too went undrafted in 2012 before signing with New York. Douglas only got a few chances to return punts while with the Wildcats but the Bucs may be interested by his quickness and his sure hands.
- Owusu has speed to burn and a very good collegiate return history. Though he was derailed for awhile at Stanford by concussions, he finished his collegiate career with 78 kickoff returns for 2,132 yards (27.3 avg.) and three touchdowns. Owusu started out with the 49ers last year as an undrafted free agent but was released on the final cuts. He signed with the Bucs a few weeks later when Sammie Stroughter went to I.R. Owusu eventually saw some action with the team late last season, catching one pass for 24 yards, but he didn’t get a look in the return game.
- Smith was one of the Buccaneers’ seventh-round draft picks in 2012 out of Utah State. A couple numbers give an idea of the speed he’s working with – a 4.32-second 40-yard dash at the USU Pro Day last spring and a career mark of 7.1 yards per carry in college. Smith made the Bucs’ regular-season roster as a rookie and was even the kickoff return man during the season-opening win over Carolina last September. However, Smith got just three return chances (for 55 yards) and was then inactive for the remaining 15 games as the Bucs used their 46 active game day spots on other positions.
So maybe one of those four – or two of those four if the punt and kickoff return jobs go to separate players – will emerge during August. It’s likely that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the options the Bucs are considering. One thing is for certain, however, it’s an issue that will receive it’s full share of attention on a Greg Schiano team.
“I think everybody knows the importance that Greg puts on special teams,” said Wannstedt, who gave Schiano his first NFL coaching job when he was the head coach for the Chicago Bears in the 1990s. “Everywhere he’s been, special teams have been a big part of the team’s success, and a team emphasis. Maybe we’re not where we want to be today, but it’s not something that’s being slighted, or something that’s being overlooked. Nobody knows the importance of it more than Greg, and we’re keeping a close eye on it.”