Bucs Don't Want Mitchell, May Pursue Lewis

February 26 - The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not expected to pursue veteran kick returner Brian Mitchell once free agency begins this weekend. Instead, the Bucs may take a look at two-time Pro Bowler Jermaine Lewis, who has returned six punts for touchdowns in his career with Baltimore in addition to returning a kick 84 yards for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXV. Lewis was a recent cap casualty of the Houston Texans.

Philadelphia kick returner Brian Mitchell may have interest in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but it appears to be a one-way street. Bucs officials told PewterReport.com that the team would not pursue Mitchell, who is set to be a free agent when his contract expires on February 28. Sources site Mitchell's age (35) and road miles (14 years in the NFL) as some of the biggest reasons for not pursuing him.

Steve Baker, Mitchell's agent, told the Tampa Tribune on February 14 that his client would be interested in considering the Buccaneers among his options.

"Brian has been happy with the Eagles, but how could you not be interested in Tampa?" Baker said. "We'll see how it plays out, but if Tampa Bay was seriously interested in Brian, he'd have to seriously consider the Bucs."

Mitchell, who is regarded as the best return man in the history of the NFL, has been a thorn in the Bucs' side on more than one occasion. In 1999, his 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown -- one of his 14 scores via kick returns -- to start the second half of the NFC Divisional playoffs at Raymond James Stadium gave the Washington Redskins a 13-0. The Bucs rallied in the fourth quarter to win 14-13.

This year, while playing for the Eagles, Mitchell burnt the Bucs for 144 return yards in Philadelphia's 20-10 regular season win. In the NFC Championship Game, Mitchell returned the opening kickoff 70 yards to set up Philadelphia's first touchdown.

The Bucs are seeking competition for the kick and punt return duties held last year by Aaron Stecker and Karl Williams, respectively. Tampa Bay added competition to the return units by spending a seventh-round draft pick on Kansas State return specialist Aaron Lockett last season, but the veteran experience that Stecker and Williams possess eventually won out and Lockett did not make Tampa Bay's 53-man roster.

The Bucs will look towards free agency and the 2003 NFL Draft for a smart, speedy return specialist. In free agency, Tampa Bay is expected to pursue receiver/kick returner Jermaine Lewis, who was recently released by the Houston Texans in a cost-cutting move. By cutting Lewis, Houston saved $4.7 million in cap room.

Lewis, an eight-year pro who spent last year with the expansion Texans after a successful career with Baltimore, was acquired to be a return specialist as well as one of the top receivers. However, he caught just two passes for 41 yards and was supplanted early in the year as a starter by Corey Bradford and Jabar Gaffney.

Lewis (5-foot-7, 181) didn't have the type of impact on special teams that the Texans were hoping for, but that was probably due in part to his supporting cast, which consisted of a lot of first-year players. Lewis averaged 7.8 yards per punt on 36 punt returns and 20.9 yards per kickoff return on 46 kick returns.

Lewis is best known for his 84-yard touchdown on a kickoff return as a member of the Baltimore Ravens against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. He is also a two-time Pro Bowler and has six punts returned for a touchdown in his career.

While the Bucs were pleased with the efforts of Stecker and Williams last season, neither player is in the class of some of the other return specialists in the NFC South, such as Atlanta's Allen Rossum, Carolina's Steve Smith, who was the NFC's Pro Bowl kick returner in 2001, and New Orleans' Michael Lewis, who was a Pro Bowl kick returner last season, or even Jermaine Lewis.

The Bucs would like to upgrade the speed of their return units, and Lewis is a viable option in free agency, while TCU wide receiver LaTarence Dunbar, who returned 18 kicks for 499 yards (27.7) last year and was interviewed by the Buccaneers at the Indianapolis Scouting Combine, could be an option in the NFL Draft.

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