Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Devin Hester

Let’s conclude our fact-or-fiction series with coaching and special teams.

1. The arrival of coach Lovie Smith makes the Buccaneers an instant playoff team.

Our take: Fiction.

Justify it: There's little doubt Smith will be better than predecessor Greg Schiano. Smith is a proven winner in the NFL. Players like working for him and he commands respect. All that being said, Smith still faces a tough job. This team was 4-12 last season. The Bucs were very aggressive in free agency and that will help. But turning this team completely around might be more than a one-year project.

2. Leslie Frazier is the luckiest defensive coordinator in the NFL.

Our take: Fact.

Justify it: Frazier inherits defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David. They're among the best in the league at their respective positions and they give Frazier a couple of solid building blocks. David and McCoy have been compared to Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp, who were the central figures of the defense in Tampa Bay's glory days. If Frazier can get solid production from some other role players, the Bucs could have an elite defense.

3. Jeff Tedford's offense is going to bring excitement to Tampa Bay.

Our take: Fact.

Justify it: For the most part, the Bucs have been very quiet about what Tedford's offense will look like. Several players have used the phrase "up tempo" to describe it. That would be a nice twist for an offense that's been boring in recent years. This offense has enough tools to be potent if Tedford can put things together the right way. Doug Martin gives the team a solid runner and Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans will be one of the league's biggest receiving tandems. But the real key will be quarterback Josh McCown. If he can thrive in Tedford's offense, this team suddenly can be good.

4. Smith had strong return games in Chicago, so he should bring the same thing to Tampa Bay.

Our take: Fiction.

Justify it: Smith had a strong return game in Chicago mostly because he had Devin Hester. At the moment, the Bucs don't have anyone to compare with Hester. Eric Page handled returns last season and he was ordinary. The Bucs will look at several other possible returners, including Jeff Demps and Charles Sims. Someone could emerge as a strong returner, but the Bucs don't have anyone that's proven yet.

5. Connor Barth is back, so the kicking game will be fine.

Our take: Fact.

Justify it: Barth missed all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon. He's healthy now and that's great news for the kicking game. Barth is one of the better young kickers in the NFL.

What's next for the Buccaneers?

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers continued their free-agent frenzy Sunday by signing two players that are likely to fill roles as backups.

The Bucs signed former New England linebacker Dane Fletcher and former Cleveland guard Oniel Cousins.

Fletcher has been a backup middle linebacker and special-teams player for New England and is likely to play behind Mason Foster. Cousins was a part-time starter in Cleveland and he could factor into Tampa Bay’s overhaul of the offensive line. The Bucs previously released veterans Davin Joseph and Donald Penn and signed tackle Anthony Collins and center Evan Dietrich-Smith.

Cousins could get a chance to compete with Jamon Meredith and Jeremy Zuttah at guard.

The first wave of free agency is over and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been very active. They’ve filled a lot of needs, but the Bucs aren’t done yet.

Looking at the roster, I still see a fair amount of needs. Let’s take a look.

Wide receiver. The Bucs flirted with Emmanuel Sanders before he signed with the Denver Broncos. The Bucs need to add a speed receiver to go with starters Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.

Return man. The Bucs need to get better on special teams. Veteran Devin Hester, who has ties to coach Lovie Smith, remains available as a free agent.

Cornerback. Even after signing Alterraun Verner, there still is a need here. The Bucs need a strong third corner to go with Verner and Johnthan Banks.

Guard. The Bucs have added guard Oneil Cousins, center Evan Dietrich-Smith and tackle Anthony Collins as they go about overhauling their offensive line. With Dietrich-Smith’s arrival, Jeremy Zuttah could move from center to guard. But Cousins has spent much of his career as a backup and the Bucs might want more of an upgrade at this position.

Outside linebacker. Jonathan Casillas was re-signed and he’s an option on the strong side. But the Bucs need depth and they’d be wise to bring in someone to compete with Casillas.
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: LB Adam Hayward, FB Erik Lorig, LB Jonathan Casillas and WR Tiquan Underwood.

Where they stand: The Buccaneers don't have any huge names among their own free agents, but they'd like to keep some of them as role players. Hayward is a key special-teams player and Lorig is important as the lead blocker for Doug Martin in the running game. If Casillas returns, he's a candidate to start at strongside linebacker. The major need on defense is for a pass-rusher. On offense, the team may look to overhaul its offensive line. Tight end and depth at wide receiver also are big needs.

What to expect: The Bucs were 4-12 last season and they have a new coaching staff and general manager. That means there will be significant changes. The Bucs have $18 million in cap room, so they’re going to be active in free agency, even though they've stated their goal is to build through the draft. Look for connections to the new regime to play into free-agent signings. Return man Devin Hester and cornerback Charles Tillman played for coach Lovie Smith in Chicago and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier worked with defensive end Jared Allen in Minnesota. All of those players could be prime targets. A veteran quarterback also could be added to the mix, with Josh McCown and Michael Vick as possibilities.
Devin Hester said Wednesday he won’t be returning to the Chicago Bears. That leads to instant speculation that the record-setting return man could reunite with coach Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay.

"I look at Lovie as my No. 1 coach right now because he's the one that took a chance on me coming out of the draft," Hester said. "He has all my respect so if he's a guy that is going to shoot at me and want me to come play with him again, my arms are open."

I’ve got a feeling Smith's arms also could be open. Tampa Bay's return game with Eric Page last season was ordinary. Smith puts a premium on special teams.

Hester might be the best return man ever. The Bucs should have a shot at him in free agency and landing Hester could invigorate the special teams.

Bucs need to upgrade return game

February, 7, 2014
Feb 7
TAMPA, Fla. -- I listed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' five biggest offseason needs this week, but there is one more position I’d like to touch on.

That is return man, because it could be an area where the Bucs make a significant move. It might not seem like an area of desperate need since Eric Page did an adequate job last season and Jeff Demps has great potential.

But, after hearing Lovie Smith talk several times about how much emphasis he puts on special teams, I don’t think adequate is good enough. And I don’t think Smith is going to be patient enough to wait on potential.

Smith has made it clear that he thinks special teams are extremely important, and there might not be a more important position on special teams than return man. This is where you start connecting the dots.

There are strong indications out of Chicago that Devin Hester might not be back with the Bears. Hester just might be the best return man in history. And, oh yeah, Smith used to coach him in Chicago.

This move is logical on many fronts, including the fact that Hester, 31, probably wouldn’t command a large salary, which is important when you’re talking about a guy whose only role might be returns.

Even if Hester doesn’t end up in Tampa Bay, I would expect the Bucs to look to upgrade their return game in free agency or the draft.

Overview: Specialists

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
TAMPA, Fla. -- Let’s conclude our position-by-position overviews with the specialists.

Looking back: Kicker Connor Barth suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the offseason. His replacement, Lawrence Tynes, was diagnosed with MRSA during training camp. That meant the Bucs had to bring in veteran Rian Lindell, who ended up missing six field-goal attempts. Punter Michael Koenen was solid, and return man Eric Page was adequate. But there was nothing special about Tampa Bay’s special teams.

Looking ahead: The special teams could be in for a lot of changes. New coach Lovie Smith has emphasized the importance of special teams several times. Barth should return at full strength, and that will solidify the kicking situation. Koenen is worth keeping an eye on because he has a salary-cap figure over $3 million and the Bucs might attempt to restructure his contract or try to find a cheaper alternative. Smith had the luxury of having return man Devin Hester in Chicago. Hester could be available, and he’d be a logical fit. But, if that doesn’t happen, the Bucs likely will look for someone to spice up their return game.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers mailbag

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
TAMPA, Fla. -- I asked you to hit the mailbag with questions about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and you delivered. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights.

Brian in Atlanta asks about the possibility of a reunion of Lovie Smith and Devin Hester in Tampa Bay.

Pat Yasinskas: It sounds like there’s a good chance Hester won’t be back with the Chicago Bears. If he indeed becomes available, I think Tampa Bay would be a logical landing spot. Smith and Hester have history. Smith talked at length about the importance of special teams at his introductory news conference. Hester is as good a return man as there ever has been.

Christian in West Haven, Conn., asks about what type of culture change Smith might bring to the Bucs.

Yasinskas Smith will try to instill a culture of winning. But, as far as what type of players and personalities he wants, I don’t think he’ll be all that different than Greg Schiano. Say what you want about Schiano’s tenure, but he did rid the locker room of some problem players. Smith isn’t the type of coach that will reverse course and start bringing in problem players. In that regard, Schiano left the Bucs in good shape.

Michael in Columbia, S.C., asks what I see as Tampa Bay’s biggest offseason need.

Yasinskas Two areas really stand out in my eyes. First off, the pass rush needs to get better. The Bucs have Gerald McCoy in the middle, but they need to upgrade on the outside. Second, I think the offensive line needs some major help. The line wasn’t very good in 2013 and it has to be improved because everything starts up front. Also, it’s not quite on a par with defensive end or offensive line, but I think the Bucs could use some help at tight end.