Wed, 23 Jun 2021

Bucs' Rookies Already Pursuing Special Teams Roles

Buccaneers
16 May 2021, 19:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Jaelon Darden, CB Chris Wilcox and LBs K.J. Britt and Grant Stuard, the Bucs' four Day Three draft picks, not only understand the importance of special teams but actively want to be contributors in that phase of the game Scott Smith

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are famously returning all 22 starters from the roster that won Super Bowl LV back in February. In fact, they were so aggressive in retaining their potential free agents that the Buccaneers also still have the men responsible for roughly 95% of last year's snaps on both offense and defense.

So what does a rookie do to not only find a spot in this group but make an impact in 2021? The answer is simple, and they all know it. Moreover, they want it. The answer is special teams, which makes Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong one of the main people they want to impress this weekend in rookie mini-camp.

"That's their biggest chance right now is to come in and show Keith that they could be core special-teamers," said Arians. "You're talking about 25-30 plays a game. That will be their role, and then continue to develop as a positional player. They can help a bunch and that's the way to make the team."

That finding a role on special teams is the best path to a secure roster spot for rookies, especially later-round draft picks is a truism you hear repeatedly every year around this time and then again in training camp. As Arians notes, it is seen as a way to get a helmet on Sundays and use that as a springboard to a role on offense or defense.

And that's true, but that's not what is necessarily driving the Buccaneers' 2021 draftees. Tampa Bay selected four players on Day Three (Rounds 4-7) of this year's draft, and all four of them expressly want to play in the kick-and-return game. Not as a step towards something bigger - though that would be nice, too - but as something they can use to help the team win and make a name for themselves in the league.

"I played special teams all four years of college," said fifth-round linebacker K.J. Britt. "Even when I was a starter I played special teams. Special teams is something that I do. We embrace it at Auburn. Most starters play special teams; that's just the standard there. I feel like people try to downgrade it, but it's just part of the game, it's just part of ball. I'm just looking forward to playing ball and special teams is part of ball, so I'm ready to play."

In addition to Britt, the Bucs took another player to help bolster their depth behind inside linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White, snatching up Houston's Grant Stuard late in the seventh round. The Bucs think Stuard can help right away in the kicking game, but Stuard is thinking bigger than that.

"I feel like I have the opportunity to be dominant in that area of the game," he said. "It's about the matchup and it's pretty hard to match up with me when you have 30 yards of space between us. If you're a DB or a receiver I'm stronger than you, and if you're a linebacker or a tight end I'm going to be faster than you. I kind of look at my matchup, feel the matchup and attack them whichever I need to. But I really feel like I'm unblockable in that area of the game so I'm trying to be one of the best players in the league Year One in that area of football."

BYU cornerback Chris Wilcox came aboard in the sixth round, and while the Buccaneers are always chasing that elusive cornerback depth it's hard not to dwell on special teams with Wilcox given his size (6-2, 193) and speed (4.31-second 40-yard dash). With that profile, if Wilcox can consistently win at the line of scrimmage he could be an excellent gunner on punt coverage. One of the few things the Bucs lost after the Super Bowl was special teams ace Ryan Smith, who signed with the Chargers as a free agent.

"Yesterday we were working on punt," said Wilcox on Saturday. "I do see myself as one of the gunners. So we were working on that, not play-wise, we were just working on technique - how to push off your foot, the right stance, things like that. We didn't really get too in-depth but yeah, I see myself playing there. And we've got kickoff today so that's another team I'm trying to make, for sure."

Fourth-round wideout Jaelon Darden is a slightly different story. While he might conceivably be of use as a gunner, his most obvious role on special teams is as a punt returner. The Buccaneers made it clear on draft weekend that the extremely shifty North Texas receiver was going to be given a shot at that job, and he could factor in on kickoff return as well.

"To be honest, whatever I can do to help the team, that's what matters to me," he said. "But I'm definitely comfortable at punt return, being able to be back there and kind of be in space and make guys miss. I feel like that's what I do best."

The Buccaneers spent a good amount of time on special teams during the first two days of their rookie mini-camp, and that was perfectly fine with the team's four Day Three draft picks. All of them hope to be spending a lot of time in that area of the game during the regular season.

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