Coming into training camp, the Buccaneers had multiple position battles to work out. One of those battles was for the kick return job, which Kenny Bell currently holds heading into week one of the preseason. However, it doesn’t look like the job completely belongs to Bell just yet.
When the Buccaneers released their first depth chart on Saturday, Kenny Bell was the number one kick returner, which is pretty intriguing. Bell, after missing all of last season, has a big opportunity this preseason to establish himself as a reliable receiver and returner for the Bucs. He ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at his pro day, so he clearly has the speed to thrive in a return role. As the number one guy on the depth chart, he’ll likely get the most reps in Thursday night’s preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. But, he likely won’t get that many more reps than his competition.
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After watching Tuesday’s practice at One Buc, it sure doesn’t look like Bell has a sizable lead for the return job. During kick return drills, rep splits looked pretty close to even between Bell, Ryan Smith and Donteea Dye. The interesting thing about that is the fact that Dye isn’t currently on the depth chart for a return spot. Behind Bell, Smith and Bernard Reedy are in line to have a shot at the job. On Tuesday, Dye looked quick and explosive, but the kick coverage itself was minimal, so it’s hard to read too much into it. The real tool of measurement for the returner spot will be the upcoming preseason games. It should be one of the big battles to look out for throughout the four contests.
Especially when looking for someone to return kicks against NFL competition that usually fields solid kick coverage units, field vision and elusiveness will obviously have to be taken into account along with speed. This is why seeing Bell, Smith, Reedy and possibly Dye take kicks in the upcoming preseason games will be so telling.
Bell has experience as a return man from his days at the University of Nebraska. As a Cornhusker, he returned 51 kickoffs for 1,277 yards and a touchdown. That’s an average of 25 yards per return, which would’ve been around the top 10 in the NFL a year ago among qualified returners. Smith, a rookie out of North Carolina Central University, returned 14 kicks for 394 yards and a touchdown as a senior. His average of 28.1 yards per return was first in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. In his career at Toledo, Reedy took 76 kickoffs for 1,800 yards (23.7 average) and three touchdowns. Dye didn’t return many kicks in college, taking just 10 for 238 yards (average of 23.8 yards per return).
As the current number one, Bell will likely take the first kickoff for the Bucs on Thursday night, but the battle for the return spot will continue throughout the night and throughout the preseason.