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2012 Bucs Free Agency Primer: Running Back

Posted Mar 12, 2012

The Bucs have some work to do in their offensive backfield and options to consider in both free agency and the draft


Is Michael Bush the next Michael Turner?

 

That’s a question you’re more likely to run across in fantasy football forums than anywhere else right now, but it’s an issue very much rooted in real gridiron concerns.  It’s a question at least one of the NFL’s 32 teams is probably trying to answer right now, as the start of free agency draws near and Bush prepares to test the open market.

 

The San Diego Chargers drafted Bush out of Northern Illinois in the fifth round in 2004.  He spent the life of his first NFL contract backing up the Hall of Fame-bound LaDainian Tomlinson, which obviously meant limited opportunities to carry the ball.  In his first four seasons, Bush ran 228 times for 1,257 yards and scored six touchdowns, impressing the Chargers (and others, as it would turn out) with his 5.5 yards per carry but never getting an opportunity to be a feature back.

 

In the spring of 2008, Bush hit free agency, and there was some difference of opinion over whether he would be productive enough as a lead runner to justify the number-one-back contract he was likely to get.  The Atlanta Falcons believed he would, gave him a big deal and have never regretted the decision.  In his first season as a Falcon alone, Turner ran 376 times for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns.

 

Turner has been just as productive since and he’s coming off nearly identical seasons of 1,371 and 1,340 yards.  It turns out there really was a star-quality running back cooling his heels behind a proven starter in 2008, waiting for his opportunity to become an offensive centerpiece for another team.

 

So, the question is, will history repeat itself four years later?  Is Michael Bush, the former Louisville standout who came into the league exactly four years after Turner, as a fourth-round pick, going to do for a new team what Turner did for the Falcons in ’08?  Bush, who began the 2011 season as a backup to first-round pick and emerging star Darren McFadden, will likely push that comparison on any suitors he finds in free agency, and he only needs one team to agree with him to hit it big like Turner did four years ago.

 

Bush is widely expected to be the top target among the running backs when the 2012 free agency period begins on Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. ET, but there are several other players that RB-needy teams will be sure to check out.  Should we consider the Tampa Bay Buccaneers one of those teams?  Will the team’s insistence that it is going to be more active on the veteran market this year extend to giving LeGarrette Blount some help in the backfield?

 

Buccaneer decision-makers obviously do not plan on sharing their free agency strategies beforehand, but we can still survey the landscape, in regards to both team needs and the possible pool of free agents, before the opening bell.  This is the last entry in a series of position-by-position primers prior to the start of free agency on Buccaneers.com.  Once again, we will be discussing five categories of information in each article:

 

1. How might the Buccaneers’ own list of pending free agents affect the position?

 

2. What level of talent will potentially be available at that position on the open market?

 

3. How effectively could a need at that position be addressed in the early rounds of the draft instead?

 

4. What is the Buccaneers history in free agency at that position?

 

5. How did that position perform for the Buccaneers in 2011?

 

We hit on one of the most intriguing free agency positions in 2012 in our last primer with an analysis of the cornerbacks.  To conclude the series, we flip back to offense and study the running backs, a position that may lead to less action on the open market but still has some highly-coveted players.  Previous entries have looked at offensive linemen, defensive linemen, safeties, wide receivers, linebackers and tight ends.  As always, player evaluations and other points of conjecture are not meant to reflect the opinion of the Buccaneers’ coaches or player personnel staff.

 

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Positional Free Agency Primer: Running Back

 

- Tampa Bay’s own pending free agents

 

The Buccaneers don’t have a long list of running backs headed to the open market this year, but then again the running back room wasn’t too crowded to begin with.

 

Most significantly, Swiss Army Knife Earnest Graham is due to become an unrestricted free agent following his ninth year with the team.  Graham has done virtually everything during his long and productive Buc career – from feature back to fullback to third-down back to special teams stud to hybrid roles combine several of the above – but he finished the 2011 season on injured reserve after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon.

 

Obviously, Graham’s health is the primary concern, and as of early in 2012 he was said to be on pace to be full-go when training camp starts next summer.  The question, of course, is will he once again be in the Bucs’ training camp, as he first was in 2003 as an undrafted free agent out of Florida.  Few players have been held in higher regard by team management over the last decade, but it’s difficult to predict any outcome with a player whose health status is still unclear.

 

Reserve tailback Kregg Lumpkin is a restricted free agent, but without a tender offer from the Buccaneers he would move into the unrestricted category.  Lumpkin signed with the Buccaneers in September of 2010 after not receiving a tender offer from the Green Bay Packers as an exclusive rights free agent and in the past two seasons has run 32 times for 105 yards.  His greatest value in a slightly expanded role last year was as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, as he tallied 41 of his career 45 receptions in 2011.

 

Starting back LeGarrette Blount is also a pending free agent, but of the exclusive rights category.  By extending the necessary tender offer, the Buccaneers have ensured that Blount can only negotiate with them, making it exceedingly likely he will remain a big part of Tampa Bay’s rushing game in 2012.

 

- The potential free agent market

 

As mentioned above, Bush is likely to be the top back on the free agency list, after Baltimore’s Ray Rice, Chicago’s Matt Forte and Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch were all locked up with franchise tags or new deals.  Alternatively, some might see the latest San Diego extra, Mike Tolbert, as a better option, and there are a number of recent starters on the list who could retain or regain such a role in a new location.  That group includes Cedric Benson, Peyton Hillis, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Tim Hightower.

 

Though Bush is several inches taller than Turner, he’s the same sort of thick and powerful back who can succeed between the tackles but also has a burst in the open field.  Bush and Turner recorded similar 40-yard dash times before their respective drafts, and Bush enters free agency with a fine career yards-per-carry number of 4.2, much like Turner did.

 

The main difference between the two is that Bush has already had significantly more exposure, thanks to a handful of injuries suffered by McFadden.  In his four years in Oakland, Bush has rushed 632 times for 2,641 yards and 21 touchdowns.  He was thrust into the primary role for a good portion of the 2011 campaign and was very productive, giving him some real momentum heading into free agency.  Buccaneer fans who remember Graham’s breakout season in 2007 after injuries racked the running back position will find Bush’s 2011 numbers familiar: Graham put up a 222-898-10 line in 2007 while Bush finished 2011 with 256-977-7.

 

Tolbert is a thick (5-9, 243) and powerful back, too, and he has been part of a time-share in the San Diego backfield for the past two years.  Even though the Chargers spent a first-round pick on running back Ryan Matthews (12th overall) in 2010, Tolbert, a former undrafted free agent, led the team in attempts and rushing yards (182-735) that year.  Matthews asserted himself more firmly in his second season, with a 1,000-yard campaign, and that reduced Tolbert’s role and perhaps made him more eager to test the free agency waters.  Teams that value powerful backs around the goal line will likely be interested; he scored 18 times over the past two seasons.

 

The Ohio duo of Hillis (Cleveland) and Benson (Cincinnati) are harder to pin down in terms of value.  With Benson, the issue is age (29) and mileage (1,529 career carries) at a position that often doesn’t have a long shelf life.  He has three straight 1,000-yard campaigns coming into free agency, but has been below 4.0 yards per carry the last two years.  Hillis is three years young and has a third of the career attempts, but his precipitous drop from 2010 (1,177 yards, 11 TDs, 4.4 yards per carry) to 2011 (587, three, 3.6) would need to be explained.  Green-Ellis has scored 24 touchdowns over the last two seasons but in New England’s varied and unpredictable offense, it’s a stretch to say he was the typical NFL lead back.  He, too, had a much better 2010 season than 2011.  Hightower was sneakily productive during three seasons in Arizona and was considered a good pickup by Washington in a 2011 trade, but he played in just five games for the Redskins ahd had just 321 yards and one score.

 

There is a whole different subcategory of backs about to hit the market, and it’s doubtful anyone in this group will get a particularly big deal or come in as an unquestioned lead back. These are players who have had tremendous seasons as starters in the past but are now question marks due to age, injury history or an unrelated drop in productivity.  Tomlinson is in this group after two relatively good late-career years with the Jets, as is former Buccaneer Cadillac William, who played for St. Louis in 2011.  Teams might also wonder what is left in the tank for the likes of Ronnie Brown, Ryan Grant, Steve Slaton, Derrick Ward and Thomas Jones.

 

The extent to which the running back position takes a starring role in free agency this year will likely depend on whether teams sell themselves on the starting capabilities of Bush and Tolbert, especially the former.  The rest of the field is relatively deep and includes a lot of players who were productive NFL players in the past, but question marks are attached to almost all of them.

 

- Is the top of the draft a better option?

 

In one respect, the draft is almost always a better choice when it comes to adding a running back, because talented runners can be found throughout the seven rounds and young backs can often step right in and be productive.  Given how quickly a new standout runner can emerge – such as Blount, Arian Foster and Jamaal Charles in 2010 alone – some teams are obviously leery of paying a big free agent contract to an older runner.

 

The flip side of that coin, however, is that teams are trending away from spending very high draft picks on running backs.  From 1980-2000, there were 31 running backs taken with top-10 overall picks in a total of 21 drafts.  From 2000-11, there were eight running backs taken with top-10 overall picks in a total of 11 drafts.  That’s a steep decline in the perceived top-of-the-draft talent of the back position.

 

Of course, eight isn’t zero, which means some teams are still willing to use their most valuable draft picks on the position if the right player comes along.  The Vikings, for instance, were thrilled that Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson made it all the way to them at pick number seven, and they have never regretted jumping on him then.  As it turns out, there is a running back in this year’s field that scouts are calling the best prospect at his position since Peterson came out.

 

That would be Alabama’s Trent Richardson, a complete back who combines quick feet with a physical and instinctive running style.  He is powerful and quick through the line, with a second-level burst, and he plays with great balance.  While he was only a starter on the college level for one year – backing up 2011 first-rounder Mark Ingram will do that to you – he did enough to impress NFL scouts with his 1,700-yard, 21-touchdown campaign for the national champs.

 

Richardson is the only running back likely to be a top-10 target, but it looks like there will be plenty of value for teams, like the Buccaneers, holding high picks in the second and third rounds.  How plentiful the field is for such picks may depend on whether Miami’s Lamar Miller and/or Virginia Tech’s David Wilson sneak into the first round.  Neither Miller nor Wilson is as powerful a runner as Richardson, but both have plenty of speed.  In fact, Miller helped his draft stock at the recent NFL Scouting Combine by leading all backs in the 40-yard dash.  That alone could bump him into the first round.

 

Doug Martin of Boise State and Chris Polk of Washington might be the next two backs off the board, though they have very different profiles.  Martin is a tough runner but he’s only 5-9 and he doesn’t wow the scouts with his explosiveness; that combination might make it difficult for him to be an every-down back in the NFL.  Polk, on the other hand, has the size scouts are looking for and runs with strength but is not overly quick or fast.

 

Oregon’s LaMichael James is an interesting prospect in that he’s small (5-8, 194) but very explosive.  He ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at the Combine and put up good numbers in the other drills as well.  He will likely be taken by a team looking for a third-down or change-of-pace back, and that makes it difficult to predict whether he will come off the board as early as the second round or will slide to the third or the fourth.

 

The consensus opinion on this year’s class of draft-eligible running backs is that there is one player who is worthy of – and likely to be taken with – a high first-round selection, perhaps even one in the top 10.  Further, there is a small but interesting group of backs in the next tier who should make the position an attractive one in the second and third rounds.  Thus, a team like Tampa Bay that has high picks in each of the first three rounds should be able to add a back to its stable if it so chooses.

 

- Tampa Bay’s free agent history

 

Nine of the top 10 runners in Buccaneers history were either drafted by the team or signed as an undrafted free agent.  The lone exception: Michael Pittman.


Pittman represents the peak of the Bucs’ all-time efforts at running back in free agency.  There are definitely more examples at the other end of the spectrum, though the team has rarely tried too hard to find outside help at the position.

 

Pittman was one of a handful of newcomers the team signed in 2002 to recalibrate the offense upon the arrival of new Head Coach Jon Gruden.  Many of those moves worked out in 2002 – Pittman, Joe Jurevicius, Keenan McCardell, Ken Dilger – but the Pittman signing had the longest lasting effect.  The former Arizona back stuck for six seasons in Tampa and ran for 3,362 yards, the fifth-best total in franchise history.  He also caught 284 passes (seventh-most in team annals) for 2,361 yards.  Pittman wasn’t always viewed as the prototypical lead ballcarrier, but he was productive pretty much throughout his Buc tenure.  His best game in Tampa might have been Super Bowl XXXVII, when he ran 29 times for 124 yards in the Bucs’ victory over Oakland.

 

The Bucs also had reasonable success with their very first signing of a back in the NFL’s new era of free agency.  In 1993, Tampa Bay signed restricted free agent Vince Workman away from the Green Bay Packers.  Workman wasn’t spectacular during his three years in Tampa but he was solid as a third-down back who could catch passes out of the backfield.  Jerry Ellison, signed from New England in 2000, essentially panned out the same, though he stuck around one year longer than Workman.  The signing of fullback B.J. Askew from the Jets in 2007 certainly wasn’t a miss; he played relatively well when healthy but struggled too often with injuries.  Some envisioned more of a hybrid role for Askew but he essentially just fell into a fullback role.

 

A shot at former Chief LeRoy Thompson in 1996 didn’t produce anything memorable, but the signing of Charlie Garner away from Oakland in 2004 did, and not in a good way.  The Bucs brought in a rather large group of free agents in ’04, seeking to shore up a team trying to make a run at another title, but few of the additions panned out, and Garner became something of a symbol of that overall failure.  He ran 30 times for 111 yards in three games, suffered a season-ending injury in the third contest and never played in the NFL again.  The Bucs also signed former Cincinnati Bengal Brandon Bennett that year, but Bennett is even less memorable.

 

Tampa Bay brought former Buc star Warrick Dunn back for his 12th and final season in the NFL in 2008.  It wasn’t a bad signing – Dunn started six games and produced 1,116 combined yards – but he was no longer a difference-maker and the 2008 season ended badly for the Bucs.  The 2009 signing of Derrick Ward was a more conspicuous miss.  Part of a very productive three-headed backfield monster with the Giants the previous season, Ward was a high-profile free agent for Tampa Bay who didn’t pan out.  The Bucs were hoping to create a similar three-way attack with Ward, Williams and Graham, but Williams was better and healthier than expected and Ward ran just 114 times for 409 yards.  The Bucs cut Ward the following summer and it’s fair to say that it wasn’t a particularly happy parting of ways.

 

Thomas Jones, another former Cardinal who found success in Tampa, was a real find in 2003, rushing for 637 yards and 4.6 yards per carry.  However, he was actually a trade acquisition (a brilliant straight-up swap for bust WR Marquise Walker) , not a free agent, and he left after one year as a higher-priced free agent after resurrecting his career.

 

From Ricky Bell to Cadillac Williams, the Bucs have done most of their running back cultivation in-house, through the draft.  They’ve also found some diamonds in the rough with such undrafted free agents as Graham and Blount.  The free agency route hasn’t been a common choice for the Buccaneers in the offensive backfield, but it did pay off big at least once with the arrival of Michael Pittman in 2002.

 

- 2011 Performance

 

Tampa Bay’s rushing attack, which was quite promising in 2010, fell hard in 2011.

 

That is not entirely an indictment of the team’s actual running backs.  Blount still averaged 4.2 yards per carry, and Graham was running at a 5.6-yards-per clip before his season-ending injury.  Undrafted rookie Mossis Madu showed some flash as a third-down back late in the year, though the season was long lost by then.

 

Unfortunately, too many early deficits too often forced the Bucs out of their plans to feature a power rushing attack.  Tampa Bay finished last in the NFL with 346 rushing attempts in 2011, which was definitely not part of the plan going into the season.  Tellingly, the Bucs’ team average of 4.2 yards per carry was exactly in the middle of the NFL pack; more opportunities would have made the running attack look a little less ugly.

 

That said, more was expected of Blount after his breakout rookie campaign, in which he topped 1,000 rushing yards.  Blount still had a handful of highlight-reel runs, but he was too often a non-factor and he never quite developed into a three-down back, as planned.  He also missed the better part of three games due to a knee injury. Graham once again did everything that was asked of him, and did it well, but the Bucs’ offense suffered greatly after he went down in London.  Lumpkin never carved out a significant role and likely will not be back.  The team was forced to give up on rookie RB Allen Bradford quickly, cutting him before midseason.

 

New Head Coach Greg Schiano said he wants to build his Buccaneer offense around a power rushing attack and downfield shots in the passing game.  Blount may not have had as strong of a season as expected in 2011 but he showed enough to demonstrate that the plan could still work out in the long run.

 

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Summary: As with the cornerback position, there is enough obvious uncertainty at running back for the Buccaneers that it is sure to get some attention in the next few months.  The Bucs won’t have any difficulty retaining their number-one back, as Blount is an exclusive rights free agent, but there may not be much else in the cupboard.  Graham and Lumpkin are pending free agents and Madu has all of 15 NFL carries.  The Bucs will have to make some movies – signings and/or re-signings and/or draft picks – simply to flesh out the backfield.  Neither the free agency field nor the 2012 draft class is particularly top heavy at running back, so only a few teams may have an opportunity to make a very high-impact addition.  However, both groups sport enough second-tier depth to make it relatively simple for other teams to address the position, as well.