Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Michael Koenen
That ended up working out well as Murray had a strong rookie season. Now, the Bucs could be looking at a similar shakeup at punter.
The team signed free-agent Andrew Wilder on Friday. Wilder played at Northern Arizona, where he averaged 46.3 yards per punt in 2012 and 44.5 yards in 2013.
Wilder could provide competition to veteran Michael Koenen, who did not have a great 2014 season. Koenen averaged 40.4 yards per punt last season and his net average was 37.1 yards.
Money also could end up being a factor if Wilder fares well in training camp and the preseason. Wilder likely will make the league minimum, while Koenen is scheduled to count $3.25 million against the salary cap.
Veterans have been released, trades have been made and contracts have been restructured. But the only noise coming out of One Buccaneer Place this week was Jameis Winston's visit. That's a significant event, but it doesn't play into the start of the league year next week.
So when are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers going to start making some moves? Logic says that will come very soon. Although the Bucs already are about $30 million under the salary cap, some releases and possibly some restructures are bound to come between now and next Tuesday.
Veterans like Anthony Collins, Dashon Goldson and Michael Koenen are on the hot seat. The Bucs can free up $3 million by releasing Collins, $4 million by parting ways with Goldson and $3.25 million by letting Koenen go. Veteran receiver Vincent Jackson, who has a $12.2 million cap figure, could be a candidate for a restructured contract.
The Bucs have been slow in making moves because they already are under the salary cap. But they're not going to stay inactive. They're going to head into free agency with about $40 million in cap space.
Signed to a five-year, $30 million contract after spending most of his career as a backup in Cincinnati, Collins flopped so badly that he wasn’t even active for the final four games. His run blocking and pass blocking were disappointing and the coaching staff ended up having questions about his attitude and work ethic.
Collins has a base salary of $6 million in each of the remaining years on his contract. I can’t imagine any other team wanting to take on that contract.
The more likely outcome is that the Bucs will have to release Collins. That move would save them $3 million against this year’s salary cap. Collins might not be the only veteran on the hot seat.
Safety Dashon Goldson and punter Michael Koenen also could be casualties. Releasing Goldson would save the Bucs $4 million against the cap and cutting Koenen would free up $3.25 million.
Why he could stay: Koenen was doing what he was told to last season. The Bucs didn’t want booming punts that gave return men room to work. Instead, they wanted Koenen focusing more on hang time than distance to force fair catches or short returns. Koenen is a proven veteran who also can handle kickoff duties, so the Bucs might be hesitant to let him go.
Let’s start with the positive because it’s not going to take long. The Bucs shocked many when they elected to go with inexperienced kicker Patrick Murray over veteran Connor Barth in the preseason. But Murray proved the Bucs made the right decision by making 20 of his 24 field-goal attempts.
The rest of the special teams were dismal. Punter Michael Koenen averaged 40.4 yards gross and 37.1 yards net. In fairness to Koenen, it should be noted that the coaching staff asked him to punt a certain way. The emphasis was on hang time and forcing fair catches and not on distance. Still, Koenen’s averages should have been better.
The return game was a mess. The Bucs used four different punt returners, and eight different players fielded kickoffs. None of them thrived. Coach Lovie Smith prides himself on being strong on special teams. There will be a lot of change in that area in the offseason.
The Bucs signed punter Jacob Schum to their practice squad, while placing linebacker Jeremy Grable on injured reserve. The Schum signing could be significant.
It comes at a time when incumbent Michael Koenen ranks last in the league with a 39.7-yard average. Koenen and coach Lovie Smith have said the Bucs have been sacrificing distance for hang time and directional punts. But Koenen had a particularly bad game last week, averaging just 30.3 yards per punt.
Schum and Koenen were taking turns punting in Friday’s practice. Schum spent part of the offseason with the Bucs and part with the New York Jets. His signing could just be an attempt to light a fire under Koenen. Or the Bucs could go ahead and replace Koenen with Schum.
Koenen's gross average is 39.7 yards per punt. That makes him the only punter in the league averaging less than 40 yards per punt. His net average, 35.2 yards, also is last in the league. In Sunday's loss to Atlanta, Koenen averaged only 30.3 yards per punt.
So what's gone wrong with Koenen, who has put up much better numbers throughout the rest of his career?
One answer is the Bucs have messed up Koenen because they've asked him to alter his punting style. They've asked him to sacrifice distance for hang time and they've asked him to be a directional punter.
The logic is that will result in fair catches, instead of returns. On the surface, that's not bad logic. But the reality is Koenen no longer is allowed to just punt as far as he can. He's taking distance off his kicks. That's not always a bad thing. But the Bucs have taken things too far with Koenen. He's taking too much distance off his punts.
How the Bucs start. The Bucs continue to struggle early in games. They have scored only 37 points in the first half this season. That ranks last in the NFL. They’ve allowed opponents to score 135 points, which ranks 30th in the NFL. That point differential of minus-98 ranks last in the NFL.
How the Falcons finish. While the Bucs have struggled at the start of games, the Falcons have struggled at the end. They’ve scored just 24 fourth-quarter points while allowing 84. That minus-60 point differential ranks last in the league.
Devin Hester. The Atlanta return man burned the Bucs in the first meeting, returning a punt for a touchdown. The Bucs have had punter Michael Koenen doing a lot of directional punting and are also having him kick high to force fair catches. The Bucs need to use those same tactics to prevent Hester from getting any shots at big returns.
Josh McCown. The quarterback is making his first start since suffering a thumb injury in Week 3. The Bucs went 1-4 with Mike Glennon as the starter. The hope is that McCown can provide a spark for an offense that has had trouble getting into any sort of rhythm. But McCown also struggled in his first three starts and needs to do a better job of protecting the ball.
Tampa Bay’s running game. The Bucs rushed for 113 yards against Cleveland last week. That snapped a string of five games in which the Bucs failed to reach 100 rushing yards. Starter Doug Martin is likely to miss his second straight game with an injury. Bobby Rainey, who is more elusive than Martin, is likely to start. The Bucs also might use rookie Charles Sims for the first time. Sims was on injured reserve, but he’s had several weeks of practice. The Bucs could use Sims as their third-down back.
So why did the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lose 22-17 to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday?
The easy and most accurate answer is the special teams. The Bucs had three catastrophic special-teams plays that each led to Cleveland points.
Let's run through the litany of errors. The first came early in the game when Patrick Murray's 31-yard field-goal attempt was blocked by Billy Winn. That came with 9:43 left in the first-quarter and the Browns followed it up with a field goal.
The more costly plays came in the second half. The one that seemed to anger Smith the most came with 10:10 left in the third quarter. The Bucs had shut down Cleveland in the red zone and the Browns were about to settle for a field goal.
But that's when William Gholston was called for a neutral-zone infraction. That gave the Browns a first down. Three plays later, Cleveland scored a touchdown to take a 16-10 lead.
It didn't end there. With 9:42 left in the fourth quarter, Michael Koenen lined up to punt. Officially, the play was not called a blocked punt, but it had the same impact. A Cleveland player deflected the ball and Koenen was credited with a 1-yard punt.
That gave the Browns possession at the Tampa Bay 35-yard line. Two plays later, Brian Hoyer hit Taylor Gabriel with the game-winning touchdown pass.
"Good plays on their part," Smith said. "One jumped over us. Got to be able to get that. A guy coming up the middle, we should have him blocked. And then, you move on the snap of the ball and let a drive keep going. Those were all blunders that really cost us in the end."
But the numbers don't come close to telling the whole story. There's a lot going on behind the scenes. The Bucs have asked Koenen to change his style of punting.
"Yeah, we've put a little emphasis on getting fair catches and taking the ball out of their hands," Koenen said Thursday. "We're trying to limit returns and that type of thing. So it is a little bit different. I can't give you the game plan. But the less chance they have to return the ball, the better for us."
Koenen doesn't have to give away the game plan. If you've watched him punt this season, it's pretty obvious what's going on. Koenen isn't booming his punts the way he used to.
Instead, he's sacrificing distance for hang time and is focusing more on directional punting. Koenen said he's fine with the change and Tampa Bay's punt coverage has been good aside from a return for a touchdown by Atlanta's Devin Hester. Opponents have returned only eight punts (with seven fair catches) and are averaging 12.9 yards per return.
"Your net is not as high," Koenen said. "But I've never been a statistical punter. It's hang the ball up, get it on the sideline, cause fair catches and take the ball out of their hands. I'm more than willing to do that."
The significant news there is that McCown is a captain. The quarterback almost always should be a captain.
But that wasn’t the case for the Bucs last year. As part of the soap opera that was the start of last season, Josh Freeman was not elected as a captain. That led to speculation that former coach Greg Schiano had rigged the voting to prevent Freeman from being a captain. Only a few weeks later, Freeman was benched and eventually released.
With McCown as a captain, there’s a much healthier situation for the Bucs than a year ago at this time.
- The camp with no controversy finally had a little bit Tuesday; just a little. It came during a goal-line drill at the end of practice. There was a play where running back Doug Martin ended up very near the goal line. Martin and the rest of the offensive players signaled it was a touchdown. But the team was divided. The defensive players said Martin came up short. “There’s no replay," coach Lovie Smith said. “I have final say and I thought it was good." Smith said he was pleased with the offense’s showing in the goal-line drill. “Last time we went goal line I thought the defense kind of got the better of it," Smith said. “I thought the offense came back out there strong today down there. We’ve got to get touchdowns when we get down there. We say we want to have balance. We’ve got to be able to run the ball, especially in those types of situations."
- Although cornerback Alterraun Verner (hamstring) has missed most of training camp and been ruled out of Friday’s preseason opener at Jacksonville, Smith said he’s not all that concerned about the veteran missing so much practice time. “You can’t do much about it," Smith said. “I’ve seen too many good football players miss time in training camp. I think it has very little bearing on what happens later on. He’s been through a lot of work with us. We feel pretty confident that he’ll be able to get our defense down and be able to play at a high level."
- The first unofficial depth chart of the year came out Tuesday, but Smith had some words of caution. “Don’t put too much into the depth chart," Smith said. “The league says we have to put out a depth chart today, so we put out a depth chart today. The depth chart will mean a little bit more once we play a football game against someone else." The initial depth chart was generous to the veterans and sold some rookies short. Receiver Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins continue to get some work with the first team, but they were listed as backups on the depth chart.
- The Bucs let kicker Connor Barth and punter Michael Koenen have a light day Tuesday. Rookie Patrick Murray handled both the kicking and punting duties.
- A couple of guys that have had trouble catching the ball came up with nice catches Tuesday. Rookie Robert Herron had a nice catch in traffic. Running back Jeff Demps made a nice catch on a deep pass from Mike Glennon. Demps also had a nice run.
- In addition to Verner, cornerback Mike Jenkins, receiver Tommy Streeter and defensive end Da'Quan Bowers sat out with injuries.
- The Bucs signed defensive ends Ryne Giddins and James Ruffin. Linebacker Jeremy Grable and safety Mycal Swaim were waived.
- The Bucs will practice at 2 p.m. Wednesday. The session is closed to the public.
The cap will be $130 million and that means the Buccaneers are in good shape. They currently have 60 players under contract and the top 51 cap figures (which are all that count in the offseason) come to $114.2 million.
That means the Bucs have a good chunk of cap room to work with and they can use free agency to narrow their needs before the draft. But the Bucs could end up having even more room than they currently do. They could extend the contract of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and lower his cap figure ($15.6 million) for this year.
Also, as we mentioned earlier, the Bucs could decide to part ways with some high-priced veterans, such as offensive linemen Donald Penn and Davin Joseph. Another name to keep an eye on is punter Michael Koenen. He’s dependable, but he has a $3.25 million cap figure, which is high for a punter.
Watson was on the field for a team-high 311 of Tampa Bay’s 453 special-teams plays.
Let’s take a look at the number of special-teams plays Tampa Bay’s most used players on special teams were on the field for. We’ll include only those that had more than 75 plays on special teams.
- Watson 311
- Adam Hayward 298
- Jonathan Casillas 255
- Russell Shepard 243
- Erik Lorig 230
- Michael Koenen 221
- Keith Tandy 210
- Brian Leonard 181
- Spencer Larsen 175
- Lavonte David 162
- Leonard Johnson 152
- Andrew Economos 151
- Eric Page 144
- Dashon Goldson 138
- Kelcie McCray 135
- Johnthan Banks 96
- Ka'Lial Glaud 92
- Deveron Carr 88
- Gerald McCoy 85
- Adrian Clayborn 84
- Ted Larsen 83
- Danny Gorrer 78
- Darrelle Revis 76
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.