With rookies, Bucs seeking upgrade in punt returns
TAMPA -- The Bucs used all their draft picks to help their offense, but if Saturday's minicamp is any indication, coach Lovie Smith could turn to a rookie for help on punt returns this fall.
"Our punt returner is an area of concern a little bit for us. It was good to see some of the guys, whether they can do it or not," he said after the second and final full practice of the Bucs' rookie minicamp at One Buc Place.
The potential returners included sixth-round pick Robert Herron, and third-round pick Charles Sims, as well as undrafted receiver Solomon Patton of Florida.
"Robert didn't do a lot in college, but he has been working on it," Smith said of returning punts. "With new guys coming in, we searched their history a little bit to see what they'd done, from Pop Warner on. Charles has returned, felt comfortable with the kickoff. I wanted to know if he's ever returned punts. He hasn't, but he has good hands and we'll keep working on that ... We'll just keep looking at guys, and hopefully someone will step up."
Herron had issues fielding punts on a windy first practice Friday, and Smith said he was "a little concerned to say the least," but said he fared better in fielding punts Saturday.
The Bucs have last year's primary punt returner, Eric Page, back on roster, and the team ranked eighth in the NFL with an average of 11.2 yards on punt returns. But only three teams had fewer total punt returns -- the Bucs had the fifth-highest rate of settling for fair catches on punt returns last season.
MOVES COMING: Veteran tight end Tom Crabtree, limited by an ankle injury to seven games last season, was released, thanking the team on Twitter for his one season in Tampa.
"Thank you to Lovie and the rest of the new staff for giving me a shot," he wrote. "That's a great group of guys. Expect big things."
Crabtree was limited to four catches for 21 yards and a touchdown last season. The team signed Brandon Myers in free agency and used a second-round draft pick on Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Also back from last season is Tim Wright, who shined as an undrafted rookie.
Smith confirmed the release but did not reveal a corresponding signing from the group of 23 rookies in minicamp as tryout players. By Monday, he said the team should have news about which players impressed the coaches enough to earn their own deals.
"We do have a couple, but they don't know it yet," Smith said. "I'm going to let them know it first, but we do have a couple that have stood out. ... It's always good to see guys come up the hard way, and there are a couple guys that have a chance."
The team has released three tight ends since the draft in Crabtree, Steve Maneri and Josh Baker; as it stands only Luke Stocker, limited by injury to two games and zero catches last year, remains to challenge the top three tight ends on the roster.
THIS AND THAT: Patton, recognizing that special teams could help him make the roster, blocked two punts in his Gators career, including the Outback Bowl in Tampa his freshman year. He also returned a block punt 42 yards for a touchdown. ... Former Armwood and USF defensive end Ryne Giddins, in camp as a tryout player, said he's down to 250 pounds after playing at 275-280 pounds as a Bulls senior. ... The team will have just a walkthrough practice Sunday to wrap up the three-day minicamp, making roster decisions after that.