PRIORITY NINE: FIGURE OUT THE RETURN GAME.
WHAT I SAID THEN?
Poor Mark Jones. He was doing such great work before he got hurt against Detroit.
Jones had put a headlock on the kickoff and punt return positions for the Bucs and was having the best season of his career. Jones averaged 11.9 yards per punt return. Had he finished the season and qualified for the league rankings that would have put him fourth in the NFL. He averaged 28.6 yards per kickoff return. That would have been fourth in the NFL. Those are Pro Bowl type numbers.
After Jones' injury, both return games sputtered, the punt game especially. The Bucs had to force Phillip Buchanon, Ike Hilliard and Joey Galloway into that role, players Gruden trusted but didn't want to risk. Their averages were paltry compared to Jones.
Micheal Spurlock emerged as the kickoff returner late in the season, and he did finally snap the Bucs' dubious kickoff return streak by scoring that 90-yarder against Atlanta. And he averaged 27.8 yards per return.
But Spurlock has returned fewer than 20 kickoffs in his career. He fumbled in the NFC Wild Card playoff game. And he is of little help in the punt return game.
Gruden has openly complained for years that he wants more explosive players in the return game. The Bucs seem to trot out dozens of players every year, only to settle on reliable veterans that are better off not being involved in the return game.
Every team is searching for its Devin Hester now, and the Bucs need to be proactive. They need to find their big-play returner this year. Fortunately, one could hit free agency — Houston's Andre Davis.
You remember him, right? He's the only that returned that kickoff for a touchdown in the second half of the Bucs' 28-14 loss to the Texans.
Davis was second in the NFL in kickoff return average at 30.3 yards. He also scored three times, including twice in one game. He can even give you some receiving stats, too.
But he's a gamebreaker the Bucs should investigate if he's a free agent. Spurlock is good. But Davis is better.
And Jones is probably out, as he injured his patellar tendon, just like Carnell Williams. Don't expect Jones to be ready for training camp.
WHAT I SAY NOW?
Jones is now in San Diego. Davis remains in Houston. Spurlock is still in Tampa Bay.
The Bucs made only one move this offseason to potentially bolster their return game and that was drafting second-round pick Dexter Jackson out of Appalachian State.
One could make the argument that Jackson will have more of an impact on special teams than on the offense in 2008. He returned punts mostly at ASU, finishing with a 6.6-yard average last year. But he also produced averages of 12.3 his junior year and 8.4 his sophomore year, so he's capable of producing better yardage. Plus, he has that blazing speed that few of his peers can match.
So will Jackson handle punts and Spurlock handle kickoffs? That's hard to predict. Head coach Jon Gruden has sought for years to have one player handle both duties, and Jones' presence last year was the perfect fit. Spurlock handled kickoffs last year, but not punts. So it would seem that, at least right now, that Spurlock is more suited for kickoffs and Jackson is more suited for punts. That does rob the Bucs of some roster flexibility. But it could also give them talented players at both specialist positions, depth for those positions and potential impact players at wide receiver.
It also means that two roster spots will be tied up in those two players and may force the Bucs to keep seven receivers. That's why I see them both competing in training camp and, if Jackson can prove he can handle both duties, he could put Spurlock out of a job. But if Jackson proves he can only handle punts, the Bucs will keep both.
So have they figured out the return game? Not yet.
Did you miss our previous editions of "Buccaneers Rewind? Just click below to read more about how the Bucs did this offseason:
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald.