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Both punt returner Karl Williams and kick returner Aaron Stecker have been productive at their respective positions, but will they fit into Tampa Bay's plans in 2003?
Williams has returned a franchise-record five punts for scores during his seven-year tenure in Tampa Bay while Stecker's 86-yard kickoff return in 2001 set a new team record.
While Williams and Stecker may have been good enough for former Bucs special teams coach Joe Marciano's needs, the special teams coach that inherited both return men, Richard Bisaccia, apparently has his sights set on adding speed to both positions.
After further review, you can certainly start to see why the Bucs feel they have a need for speed on both return units.
Williams is as sure-handed as punt returners come, but his 9.5 average per return last season was nearly two yards below his career average, and he returned just one punt for a touchdown last year. Although Stecker averaged 25.2 yards per kickoff return last season, the franchise still has yet to return a kickoff for a touchdown in its 27-year history.
Both Williams and Stecker have some speed, but they look like they're running in slow motion compared to some of the other return specialists in the NFC South Division. Perhaps the fact that Tampa Bay watched Atlanta's Allen Rossum, Carolina's Steve Smith and New Orleans' Michael Lewis in person two times each last season convinced the Bucs to try and shift into a higher gear in terms of its return specialists.
The Bucs could look to promote from within at the punt and/or kick return positions. Bucs cornerback Dwight Smith has experience returning kickoffs, but there's a chance he could become Tampa Bay's starting free safety next season, and even if he stays at the nickel cornerback position, he could prove to be too valuable for the Bucs to use him as a return guy.
Tampa Bay might also take another look at running back Travis Stephens, who was the Bucs' fourth-round draft pick last year. Stephens was regarded as playmaker when he was coming out of college, but he fumbled three times in games during his rookie preseason, which made him a risk as a return man.
The Bucs added a speedy return specialist to its roster last week when the team signed wide receiver Jacquez Green to a one-year deal. While the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Green could give head coach Jon Gruden's offense the speed threat some thought the team was missing at the receiver position last season, the Bucs expect the speedster to compete as a return specialist this season.
Green, who spent four seasons (1998-2001) with Tampa Bay, recorded the longest punt return for a touchdown in franchise history with a 95-yard return for a score against Green Bay in his rookie season.
But Green didn't have a chance to field many more punts after his rookie season due to the fact that he became too valuable as a wide receiver in former Bucs head coach Tony Dungy's offense. Green did, however, field punts for Washington last season and averaged 10.2 yards per return with the Redskins, including a 90-yard return for a touchdown.
While Green isn't as experienced as Williams is at the receiver and punt return positions, the former Florida Gators' $525,000 salary cap value is a little more attractive than Williams' 2003 cap value of $705,000. Plus, the Bucs invested a 1998 second-round draft pick in Green, which might have some of the Bucs brass pulling for Green to beat out "The Truth", who signed with the Bucs as an undrafted free agent in 1996.
Green will also compete with Stecker, who has served as Tampa Bay's primary kickoff return man over the last two seasons. Stecker, who signed a one-year deal as a restricted free agent this offseason, has helped give the Bucs offense good starting field position, and while he has a good initial burst, some question whether or not he has the speed to take one all the way to the house.
While Tampa Bay likes the fact that Green will push both Williams and Stecker for the return duties next season, don't be surprised if the Bucs add another explosive player to both of those positions through the NFL Draft, which is under two weeks away.
"If we can get an explosive player at any position late in the draft whether it's a return guy, a receiver, linebacker, tight end, running back or whatever, we'll do it," said Bucs director of college scouting Ruston Webster.
The Bucs invested a seventh-round draft pick in Kansas State return man Aaron Lockett last season, but the veteran experience of Williams and Stecker was enough to beat out Lockett, who did not make the team's 53-man roster.
Although the Bucs do not have a seventh-round draft pick this year due to the trade last season with Miami in exchange for tackle Cornell Green, the team hopes to have the opportunity to sign South Florida's DeAndrew Rubin and/or TCU's LaTarence Dunbar as undrafted free agents.
The Bucs are definitely interested in Rubin. In fact, the team likes him so much that they had him visit One Buccaneer Place at the beginning of April.
Rubin, who has impressive 4.38 speed, averaged 26.9 yards per kick return and 14.9 yards per punt return as a senior. He returned two punts for touchdowns and is a developing wide receiver.
While the Bucs didn't bring Dunbar in for a visit, the team liked him enough to interview him at the Indianapolis Scouting Combine in February.
Dunbar returned 19 kicks for 499 yards (27.7 avg.) last year.
They say competition only makes players better, and while that might be true, one has to wonder if it will make Williams and Stecker fast enough to keep their jobs as return men next season.