Bidwell is the unquestioned starter and his numbers have taken an upturn the past two years, with gross averages of 45.6 yards in 2005 (his only Pro Bowl season) and 43.5 in 2006. His best before that stretch was 42.5 in 2001. He's very consistent, is rarely blocked and usually puts about 20-25 punts per year inside the 20, though he struggled a bit last year, simply because he didn't have the field position he needed to make it work. He also rarely exceeds seven touchbacks a year, indicating that he's a solid directional punter. Douglas, signed after mini-camp, is there to make sure Bidwell doesn't get tired and to audition for a job with another team.
Placekicker: Matt Bryant
At the moment Bryant is the only kicker on the roster. The Bucs will probably sign a free agent right before camp, but it won't be to challenge Bryant. The Baylor product has steadied a position that was woefully inconsistent in Martin Gramatica's final days with the team in 2003-04. Bryant's field goal percentage dropped a bit in 2006 (77.3 percent, from 84 percent in 2005). But his 62-yard field goal was the highlight of 2006, and he's proved he has enough leg to handle kicks of 50 yards or more (he is 2-for-4 from 50 or more in Tampa Bay). He's also 15-of-20 from 40-49 yards. Last year's return average on his kickoffs — 18.4 yards — was the best of his career, a nod to the Bucs' highly rated coverage units, which were in the Top 5 in the NFL in 2006.
There may be other candidates, but these are the likely suspects. Jon Gruden wants one person to handle both duties, and I believe that will eliminate Pittman and Cox, each of whom have little experience returning punts. Jones has an 8.3-yard average on punts lifetime, but has never returned one for a touchdown. He also missed several games last year with injuries. His ability to break punts for long gains, even scores, is definitely a question mark. Owens has experience as a punt and kick returner, but developed a reputation —perhaps overblown — for being a fumbler, after muffing three in his pro debut. He has little professional track record. He's returned just 12 punts in the regular season, for a 5.2-yard average. But the Hawaii product was one of the best collegiate returners in the nation his junior and senior years. The former walk-on returned six punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns in his career, and he shares two NCAA records for scoring returns. The competition will come down to Jones and Owens in the preseason.
Postins' predictions: Bidwell at punter, Bryant at kicker and Owens and kick/punt returner.
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. Included among his more than two dozen writing and editing awards are national awards from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors, and state awards from the Florida Press Club and the Florida Sports Writers Association, for his coverage of the Buccaneers since 2004.