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Bucs Need a Back? Try Round Two

Posted Feb 16, 2018

Tampa Bay has a strong history of drafting running backs early in the second round, and this year's class looks to present that opportunity if the Bucs want to try such a strategy again

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers own the seventh pick in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft and, according to many analysts, they also have a significant need in the offensive backfield. There is one available running back, Penn State's Saquon Barkley, who is considered an immediate fortune-changer in the mold of Ezekiel Elliott or Leonard Fournette. Unfortunately for the Buccaneers – if in fact those inside One Buccaneer Place agree with the outside assessment of their needs – most draft analysts also expect Barkley to be off the board by pick number seven, and there are no other running back prospects regarded nearly as highly as him.

Ah, but the nice thing about having a top-10 pick in the first round is that, generally, you also have a top-10 pick in the second round. Historically, and presently, that looks like fertile ground to draft a running back. If Tampa Bay's draft decision-makers, led by General Manager Jason Licht, want to add to that position, they very well could find that opportunity at pick number 38.

Last year, for instance, the Minnesota Vikings got Florida State running back Dalvin Cook with the ninth pick of the second round. Cook got off to a fantastic start, with 444 yards from scrimmage and 4.8 yards per carry through four games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Other useful backs taken in the top 10 of the second round in recent years include Jacksonville's T.J. Yeldon on 2015 and Cincinnati's Giovani Bernard in 2013.

Furthermore, the Buccaneers have gone this route before, and with pretty impressive results. In fact, the top two leading rushers in franchise history – James Wilder and Mike Alstott – were both picked in the top 10 of the second round.

As a matter of fact, running back has been the most common position the Buccaneers have targeted when they've had a top-10 pick in Round Two, covering more than 40 college drafts. Through the years, Tampa Bay has made 24 picks among the first 10 selections of the second round, and six of them have been running backs. That exceeds the five linebackers, four wide receivers and three offensive tackles chosen in that range; no other position has had more than one selection. And that doesn't even include Doug Martin, the team's fourth-leading rusher of all time, who was chosen at pick #31 in the first round in 2012 after the Buccaneers traded up from a top-10 spot in the second round.

As noted, the Buccaneers have done well when targeting backs high in the second round. Wilder was taken in 1981, and after starting his career in more of a fullback role eventually took over as the lead back and had two monster years in 1984 and 1985. His 5,957 rushing yards and his 430 receptions remain Tampa Bay career records. The Bucs chose Mike Alstott in 1996 and he was a fullback, but he was also a talented runner who ranks second in team history with 5,088 yards. Alstott is also far and away the top touchdown scorer in Buc annals, with 71. Wilder is second.

The Bucs' first two attempts at high-second-round backs produced middling results. Jimmy DuBose, taken in the Bucs' inaugural 1976 draft, had 704 rushing yards over three NFL seasons. Johnny Davis, selected two years later, played 10 years in a fullback-type role. Tampa Bay later used high second-rounders on Reggie Cobb and Errict Rhett in 1990 and 1994, respectively, and got good results. While neither had particularly long NFL careers, both contributed big early with 1,000-yard seasons. Given the relatively brief career of the average NFL back, those picks should be considered successes, and such immediate impact would certainly help the team in 2018.

There have been 42 running backs taken in the top 10 of the second round since the 1970 merger, and no team has done that more often than the Buccaneers and their six picks. The Cardinals have tried five times but might want to quit; after a modest success with Theotis Brown in 1979 they've missed badly on Anthony Thompson, Chuck Levy, Leeland McElroy and Ryan Williams.

As is the case with any subset of drafted players one produces, that group of 42 backs is full of hits and misses, but there has been enough success in that range to call it a good strategy. In addition to Wilder, Alstott, Cobb and Rhett, that range has produced the likes of Greg Pruitt, Christian Okoye, Robert Newhouse, Cullen Bryant, Tony Galbreath, Dalton Hilliard and Tiki Barber. Pruitt made five Pro Bowls, Barber is the Giants' all-time leading rusher, Galbreath and Hilliard are memorable names in the Saints' pantheon and Okoye had one of the best nicknames ever as the Nigerian Nightmare.

The list of useful backs in this group, along the lines of Cobb and Rhett, is even longer and includes Bernard, Yeldon, Anthony Thomas, Joe Cribbs, Dexter McCluster, Robert Newhouse, DeShaun Foster, Robert Holcombe and probably Cook at some point, though Cook may end up more in line with the group above.

As noted earlier, this might be a good year for teams to target running backs in the second round. Few of the early mock drafts show a run of ballcarriers of any sort in the first round. For example, there are five mocks assembled here on NFL.com (Bucky Brooks, Charley Casserly, Daniel Jeremiah, Chad Reuter and Lance Zierlein) and three of them finish the opening round without another back after Barkley. On the other two, LSU's Derrius Guice sneaks into the bottom of the first round, but no others.

Find a two-round mock draft, however, and you'll probably find a second round loaded with running backs. This one on WalterFootball.com, for instance, has four of them going in the top nine picks of round two (though not to the Buccaneers, curiously). This one by SBNation has three backs in the first 10 picks of the second round and another one just outside the top 10.

Among the running backs commonly mentioned as potential second-round picks are Guice, USC's Ronald Jones, Georgia's Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and Auburn's Kerryon Johnson. Unless the draft stock rises on a couple of those backs in the next two months, that represents excellent depth for teams hoping to find a backfield addition early in the second frame. That approach has worked for the Buccaneers in the past; if they're in the market in 2018, it very well could work again.