We know the Buccaneers need defensive ends. And cornerbacks. And running backs. But there’s a position on their offseason shopping list that might surprise you:
You read that right. They need a kicker.
Here we go again.
Hard to believe, I know. In December, I declared that the Bucs’ kicker-go-round was over, that they finally found the kicker they’ve been looking for.
Patrick Murray, who replaced Nick Folk who replaced Roberto Aguayo who replaced Connor Barth who replaced Kyle Brindza who replaced Murray, had delivered what his predecessors couldn’t: consistency. He made 19 of 23 field goals and 17 of 18 under 50 yards. He made all but one extra point. His overall field-goal percentage was the highest by a Bucs kicker since … Murray in 2014.
In other NFL cities, such a season might seem ordinary. In Tampa Bay, though, it was borderline heroic. Murray’s kicks weren’t just kicks. They were doses of relief. Each time one sailed through the uprights, we could elbow the person next to us and say, “Hey, at least the Bucs don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
If only it were that simple. On field goals and extra points Murray was reliable, but his kicks after kicks weren’t good — and they’re the reason why the Bucs might employ a different kicker in 2018.
“Pat, his strength is not his kickoffs,” coach Dirk Koetter said after the season. “We have teams in this league kicking it 80 percent touchbacks, and if you just look at what a kickoff return really is, if you just took a touchback every time and took the ball at the 25-yard line, you’re going to be in the top 10, just taking it to the 25.”
Less than a quarter of Murray’s kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. At the other end of the NFL spectrum was Greg Zuerlein of the Rams. More than three-quarters of his kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. On average, Murray’s kickoffs traveled 60.8 yards, the league’s seventh-lowest mark.
Short kickoffs aren’t necessarily a problem. In fact, in today’s NFL, where offenses start at the 25-yard line after a touchback, they’re an opportunity. If a kicker can drop the ball inside the 5, a good coverage unit might be able to stop the returner before he reaches the 25. The key is hang time.
“Part of kicking it to the end zone, if you can kick it to the end zone, is hang time, and that’s one thing Pat struggled with is hang time on his kickoffs,” Koetter said. “When a guy is getting the ball in not the proper hang time and you have to cover those kicks, it just makes it tougher on your coverage team.”
When the league voted in 2016 to move touchbacks from the 20 to the 25, longtime kicker Jay Feely expected an increase in mortar kicks, or high-arcing kicks that sacrifice distance for height and hang time. The best kickers can get 4.4 to 4.6 seconds of hang time, he told NFL.com.
Murray’s maximum hang time last season? 4.16 seconds.
Only Matt Prater of the Lions had a shorter maximum hang time (among kickers to play in at least eight games). Justin Tucker (4.72), Nick Rose (4.66), Harrison Butker (4.66) and Stephen Gostkowski (4.60) were among the leaders. A half-second difference might not seem like much, but an NFL player can cover a lot of ground in that time.
As a result of Murray’s short hang times, opponents returned 72.9 percent of his kickoffs. That’s about 30 percentage points above the league average. Even when his kicks landed several yards into the end zone, opponents chose to attempt a return.
In Week 16, Damiere Byrd of the Panthers caught the ball 3 yards into the end zone and chose to run it out. He sliced through Tampa Bay’s coverage for a 103-yard touchdown.
The next week, Alvin Kamara of the Saints caught the ball 6 yards into the end zone, hesitated and then ran it out. The Bucs never stopped him, either.
Those returns weren’t entirely Murray’s fault. They exposed the Bucs’ lack of depth.
“When you start to have injuries on your team,” Koetter said, “usually that’s one of the places you’re going to feel it because any time guys are injured, now their backups are elevated to full-time players and the backup’s backups now become the special teams players.”
Kicking might no longer be the Bucs’ biggest problem, but make no mistake, it is a problem. Murray’s hold on the job is tenuous.
“I’ve always been the underdog,” he told the Times last season.
That’s as true today as it was then.
Here we go again.
Statistics in this report are from Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.