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2017 NFL free agency: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a kick return problem

Vikings receiver/returner Cordarrelle Patterson has led the NFL in kick return average in three of the past four seasons. He is set to become a free agent when the league year begins Thursday. [Associated Press]

Vikings receiver/returner Cordarrelle Patterson has led the NFL in kick return average in three of the past four seasons. He is set to become a free agent when the league year begins Thursday. [Associated Press]

The first time Josh Huff fielded a kickoff for the Buccaneers, the ball hit him in the face.

Not exactly what Tampa Bay had in mind when it signed the receiver/returner in November.

Huff went on to average 12 yards on six kick returns, and the team's average fell to an NFL-low 14.6 yards — more than 7 yards below the league mean.

That's not just a single-season low.

That's an ALL-TIME low.

Didn't notice? Maybe that's because the only returns we remember are the ones that result in touchdowns or turnovers. Maybe that's because we're in the kitchen or the bathroom and miss kickoffs entirely.

The conventional wisdom is when the free agency period begins this week, the Bucs need weapons for Jameis Winston. That might be true, but Tampa Bay doesn't have to add to its offense to improve it.

For evidence, look no further than Bryan Anger. His 37 punts downed inside the 20-yard line last season were tied for third most. It's no coincidence the Bucs defense allowed three fewer points per game in 2016.

We marvel at football's intricacies, but it can be a remarkably simple game. The difference between success and failure often depends on where you start. The closer you are to the end zone, the more likely you are to score.

Drive starts over past 10 seasons

Drive start All scores All turnovers Points per drive
Own 5 21.7% 11.8% 1.19
Own 15 26.3% 13.5% 1.43
Own 25 32.8% 14.2% 1.80
Own 35 35.9% 11.9% 1.95
Source: Pro Football Reference

One name about to hit the open market: Vikings receiver/returner Cordarrelle Patterson, a first-round pick in 2013.

The Bucs didn't return a kickoff more than 26 yards last season; Patterson averaged 31.7 yards. He has led the league in kick return average three of the past four seasons.

The reason the two-time All-Pro is available is also the reason he's a less than ideal fit in Tampa. Patterson has size (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) and speed (ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the combine), but he did not develop into the receiver the Vikings hoped he would. He averaged 33 catches and 329 yards a season and was on the sidelines more often than he was on the field. In 2015, he played less than 6 percent of Minnesota's offensive snaps.

While he is an incomplete receiver, Patterson possesses big-play potential as a rusher. He has rushed 31 times in his career for 333 yards, including seven times for 43 yards last season.

Dirk Koetter has integrated such multidimensional threats into his offense before. Flash back to 2014 and a game that Bucs fans would rather forget: the 56-14 shellacking at the hands of the Falcons. Koetter was Atlanta's offensive coordinator.

On the first play of the second quarter, Matt Ryan handed the ball off to a receiver on an end-around. He sliced through the left side of the defense, going nearly untouched on the 20-yard spirit-crushing score. The receiver? Devin Hester.

That run is a staple in Koetter's offense. We saw Mike Thomas run it in 2009 and 2010, when Koetter was in Jacksonville, and we saw Adam Humphries run it a handful of times last season.

If Tampa Bay secures the speedy receiver it covets, count on seeing it again.

Four players returned kickoffs for the Bucs last season — Huff, Humphries, Cecil Shorts III and Ryan Smith. All but Shorts remain under contract, so Tampa Bay might choose to view Huff's struggles as an aberration — just a couple of bad bounces in a short sample — and not feel compelled to make a change. In his two-and-a-half seasons with the Eagles, he averaged 27.7 yards per return. He also scored two touchdowns.

Even consistently average returns would represent a significant improvement. Now imagine the impact Patterson or Huff, if he were to regain his pre-Bucs form, could make. It'd be hard to miss.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

Bucs kickoff returns, 2016

Player Opponent Start End Net return
Adam Humphries Falcons 5 17 12
Cecil Shorts III Cardinals -6 13 19
Ryan Smith Broncos 9 25 16
Ryan Smith Broncos 6 17 11
Ryan Smith 49ers -1 13 14
Ryan Smith 49ers 0 6 6
Adam Humphries 49ers 6 23 17
Ryan Smith Raiders 3 15 12
Ryan Smith Raiders 0 24 24
Ryan Smith Bears 1 23 22
Adam Humphries Bears 20 29 9
Ryan Smith Chiefs 4 26 22
Adam Humphries Chiefs 14 23 9
Ryan Smith Seahawks 4 22 18
Ryan Smith Seahawks -1 23 24
Josh Huff Saints 1 1 0
Josh Huff Cowboys 10 22 12
Josh Huff Cowboys -1 25 26
Josh Huff Cowboys -2 15 17
Josh Huff Saints -3 14 17
Josh Huff Saints 4 4 0

2017 NFL free agency: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a kick return problem 03/06/17 [Last modified: Monday, March 6, 2017 4:30pm]
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