With the early stages of training camp underway in the form of COVID-19 testing, we’re set to wrap up the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Position Preview series. Today, we conclude with the specialists.
The Buccaneers kicking curse. The Curse of Matt Bryant. The Curse of Connor Barth. The Never-Ending Kicking Carousel. Pain. Whatever you want to call it, Tampa Bay has long had an issue with its kicking game. After years of reliability from Matt Bryant and then some strong years from Connor Barth, the Bucs have cycled through kickers more frequently than the Cleveland Browns have cycled through quarterbacks (before Baker Mayfield, at least). It’s been an ongoing problem for quite some time now, which is why a decent year from a rookie kicker in 2019 isn’t reason enough to believe the woes are firmly in the past.
On the whole, Tampa Bay’s special teams units in the last few years haven’t been much to write home about either. Missed field goals and wayward PATs aside, the group simply hasn’t been up to par. Bryan Anger had some good years as the team’s punter, but he was replaced last season, and the returns weren’t anything special. The kick and punt return teams haven’t produced much, while the kick and punt coverage for the Bucs has been so-so.
Given that there have been far more pressing issues with the team in recent years, it’s been easy to overlook the special teams mediocrity (not including the kicking game—that hasn’t been overlooked at all). In 2020, though, the Bucs are set to field a team that—on paper—should contend with the league’s top dogs. But a lot of things need to go right for that to happen, and a stark improvement in special teams play is one of them. Before we move on to the new season, though, let’s take a look back at 2019.
As a unit, Tampa Bay’s special teams finished near the bottom of the league in 2019. Per Football Outsiders, the Bucs’ -2.8% special teams DVOA ranked them 27th in the NFL. That was the fourth-worst in the NFC, as they finished ahead of only the Falcons (-2.9%, 28th), Cowboys (-3.9%, 30th) and Panthers (-4.1%, 31st). That absolutely has to be improved upon in 2020 if Tampa Bay wants to truly compete for not only the NFC South title but a potential Lombardi Trophy.
The Bucs selected Matt Gay out of Utah with their fifth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, and the results from his rookie year were certainly mixed. Overall, he made 27 of his 35 field goal attempts (77.1%) and connected on 43 of his 48 extra point attempts (89.6%). However, despite the low field goal percentage, Gay was actually solid for a majority of the season. He went three-of-four on field goals and four-of-four on PATs in his first two games before a disastrous Week 3 performance saw him miss two PATs and a potential game-winning 34-yard field goal against the Giants.
But after that Giants game, Gay converted on 17 of his 18 field goal attempts over the next 10 games. It looked like he had turned everything around, but his final three games considerably dragged down the perception of his rookie year. He missed one field goal in Week 15 and another in Week 16 before capping off the season with an 0-for-3 day against the Falcons in Week 17. That was a game the Bucs went on to lose in overtime. Not great. Not great at all.
Apart from Gay’s up-and-down season, Tampa Bay’s special teams were just OK in 2019. Bradley Pinion, signed to replace Anger, averaged 43.2 yards per punt, with just a 38.3 net average. He landed 19 of his 57 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. In the return game, the Bucs weren’t especially good. Dare Ogunbowale averaged just 18.6 yards per return on 12 kick return chances, while T.J. Logan averaged 20.8 on 13 chances. Logan averaged 9.5 yards per return on 13 chances as a punt returner, with a long of 40 yards.
Meet The Group
Heading into 2020, the special teams group is just about the same for the Buccaneers. Gay enters camp as the starting kicker, though the team did sign Elliott Fry as competition back in the spring. The two may battle it out over the next few weeks in practice, but without preseason games, it may be hard for Fry to take the job from Gay, who the Bucs are hoping will bounce back in his second season after finishing 2019 on such a down note.
Pinion is still the guy when it comes to Tampa Bay’s punting duties, and Zach Triner is back as the longsnapper. The return game is where things could get a little more interesting. Ogunbowale and Logan are sure to compete for the kick return job, but seventh-round pick Raymond Calais could be a threat as well. The Louisiana product ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this year, proving that he has some deadly speed.
Calais could be a potential answer for the Bucs as they look to get a little more out of their kick return game, plus it’s possible that he assumes punt return duties as well. For what it’s worth, both OurLads’ and ESPN’s projected depth charts have Ogunbowale as the team’s kick returner and Justin Watson as the punt returner.
Once Week 1 rolls around, the Bucs could very well be rolling with the same core special teams unit it fielded in 2019. But training camp could provide some opportunities for newcomers to win jobs over the incumbent players. One of those newcomers is Fry, who played his college ball at the University of South Carolina before a successful stint with the Orlando Apollos of the Alliance of American Football, going 14-of-14 on field goals before the league suspended its operations. From there, he briefly competed for the Bears’ kicking job during training camp in 2019, going three-of-four on field goals in the preseason before being released. He has since been signed and subsequently waived by the Ravens and Panthers, though he was drafted by the XFL’s St. Louis BattleHawks in between (though he didn’t sign with them).
The other newcomer who will be looking to win a prominent special teams role in camp is Calais, who was drafted in the seventh round out of the University of Louisiana. In four seasons with the Ragin’ Cajuns, he returned 99 kicks for 2,493 yards (25.2 yards per return) and two touchdowns. In 2019, he made the All-Sun Belt Conference First Team as a return specialist. So, the experience returning kicks is there, as is the speed. He could be an interesting guy to keep an eye on over the next few weeks of practices.
Biggest Question: Can Matt Gay Find Some Consistency In Year Two?
Seriously, the Bucs have to find some consistency out of their kicking game in 2020. They’ve lost far too many games over the last several years due to missed field goals and extra points, and if they want to truly go all-in this year and compete for a championship, they can’t have that again. The questions will ultimately fall on Matt Gay as he heads into his second year in the league. Can he find the consistency that Tampa Bay needs? Or will the team be forced to rely on Fry or another outside leg this season? Of course, the Bucs would prefer for Gay to get things together, especially considering that they spent a draft pick on him just last year. But they can’t wait around for him to find his stride this year—not if they want to compete at a high level.
So, the big question is this: Can Gay do it? Can he rediscover the form that he had in the middle weeks of the 2019 season when it seemed like he just couldn’t miss? If he’s the “17-of-18 over 10 games” Matt Gay and not the “0-for-3 in the season finale” Matt Gay, the Bucs will be feeling pretty good about their kicking situation. But if he shows signs of struggling early, they may be forced to look at other options. Because special teams—and specifically the kicking game—may be magnified more than ever as Tampa Bay pushes for its first playoff appearance in more than a decade.