Position review: Bucs in need of spark for special team’s return game

Tampa Bay Buccaneers special teams (from left): Kicker Patrick Murray, punter Michael Koenen, long-snapper Andrew DePaola.

USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. — Wanted: A return man. The pay: Negotiable. Starting date: ASAP.

When will the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sign an effective return threat? There was a revolving door of options at One Buc Place last season, each one a disappointment, each one failing to provide the spark necessary to be memorable at the position.

Solomon Patton.

Bobby Rainey.

Marcus Thigpen.

Who’s got next?

The return game was the weakest area of the Bucs’ special teams, a unit that was far from special too often in 2014. Rookie kicker Patrick Murray was a pleasant surprise after veteran Connor Barth was shown an exit before Week 1. But punter Michael Koenen was underwhelming, and the return men were forgettable.

Coach Lovie Smith was a benefactor of Devin Hester’s brilliance for so many years in Chicago. Players like Hester are hard to find, of course. The Bucs would be thrilled to capture lightning in a bottle with someone half as good.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers position review

The search continues.

Overall, the Bucs ranked No. 20 in the NFL on kickoff returns by averaging 22.8 yards per attempt. They were eighth on punt returns by averaging 10.8 yards per attempt. Still, they were one of just three teams in the top 12 in the category without a punt returned for a touchdown.

Who’s got next?

Who knows? But someone is needed … fast.

Here’s a look at how the Bucs’ special teams performed in 2014:

STARTERS

K Patrick Murray — The undrafted rookie proved to be a find after Smith and general manager Jason Licht took a chance on him to start the season. Tampa Bay parted ways with Barth, who was scheduled to make $2 million in base salary, because the new regime was big on Murray’s potential and versatility. Also, Murray came much cheaper at $420,000. All the trust was rewarded, with the Fordham product making 20 of 24 field goal attempts, including a solid 5-of-6 clip from at least 50 yards. (His longest field goal was 55 yards.) Murray also is listed as the backup option on punts and kickoffs. Consider him a success story after the many questions that followed him into the fall.

P Michael Koenen — With the Bucs’ abysmal offense, he received plenty of work last season. Koenen averaged 40.4 yards per punt in 78 attempts, which stands as the second-highest total of his four-year Bucs career, behind the 87 punts he had in 2013. More power would help him. Koenen’s average was the worst among punters with at least seven kicks. The Jacksonville Jaguars’ Bryan Anger, in comparison, averaged an NFL-best 47.5 yards per punt in 94 attempts.

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PR/KR Solomon Patton — He won’t be confused with Hester any time soon. Patton closed with an anemic 23.1-yard average on 18 kickoff returns and an 11.2-yard average on 10 punt returns. He lacks the breakaway speed necessary to be a dynamic presence in the return game, so it’s clear the Bucs need an upgrade.

PR/KR Bobby Rainey — Despite disappearing from the backfield in the season’s final weeks, he remained a staple on returns. Still, like Patton, Rainey lacked the athleticism needed to create fireworks when given the chance. He averaged 26.3 yards on six kickoff returns and 7.9 yards on seven punt returns. Tampa Bay should strive for better.

PR/KR Marcus Thigpen — He averaged 20 yards on six kickoff returns and 16.25 yards on four punt returns. Thigpen wasn’t reliable with his hands, though. The Bucs cut him in November, and he finished the season with the Buffalo Bills.

POSSIBLE FREE-AGENT TARGETS

The Bucs, barring a surprise, appear set with Murray and Koenen with the kicking duties. But Tampa Bay should try to upgrade its talent on both kick and punt returns. The Bucs missed on Hester in free agency in 2014 and paid the price. There aren’t Hester-like talents to be signed this year, but perhaps players such as the Atlanta Falcons’ Jacquizz Rodgers or the Green Bay Packers’ DuJuan Harris could be considered.

BEST DRAFT OPTIONS

Anyone the Bucs select to fill this need must provide depth at running back or wide receiver as well. It’s possible that Tampa Bay will tinker with options in training camp, including undrafted signees. But players such as Purdue’s Akeem Hunt, USC’s Nelson Agholor and Miami’s Phillip Dorsett could be worth a look.

FINAL THOUGHT

Murray was a success story, but about almost every other aspect of the Bucs’ special teams unit can be improved. Better help in the return game is sorely needed after Tampa Bay lacked a sustainable threat last season. Problem is, dynamic return men like Hester aren’t easy to find in free agency, and it would be unwise to spend a high draft pick on someone who can’t provide solid depth on offense as well. The problem is easily diagnosed, but the solution can be difficult to discover.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.