Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2008 Offseason Position Analysis: Running Backs

The injury bug bit the Bucs' backfield hard in 2007, leading to Earnest Graham's impressive ascent up the depth chart…As the 2008 offseason begins, the running back position will be an interesting one to watch

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RB Cadillac Williams is recovering from a significant knee injury suffered early in 2007

In the weeks prior to the 2008 NFL Draft, Buccaneers.com will analyze each position on the team in regards to the draft and free agency, looking at depth, selection history and available players. As usual, this look at the draft, free agency and the Bucs' roster is not intended to reflect the intentions or strategies of the team's personnel decision-makers. Today we focus on the running back position, where some key decisions will need to be made in free agency and/or the draft as the team looks for depth and even more improvement on last year's solid ground attack.

If you would have told a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan after training camp last year that Earnest Graham, sitting in the third spot on the depth chart at the time, would finish the season as the team's leading rusher and would score 10 touchdowns, he probably would have accused you of spending too much time in the sun.

That's no knock on Graham; the Bucs clearly believed in starter Cadillac Williams and had a very proven backup in Michael Pittman. But when injuries hit, even the best-laid plans go out the window, and the Buccaneers' situation at running back in 2007 was a prime example.

The Bucs saw Williams as a rising star, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury early in the year, followed by Michael Pittman assuming the starting role and immediately sustaining an injury of his own. Only then did a sense of stability arise in the form of Graham, who started 10 games in a row before resting the last week of the regular season. The team was even pressed to pull the trigger on a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs for Michael Bennett, adding another talented rusher to the group.

Clearly, the Bucs are crossing their fingers in hopes that the injury bug stays away in 2008 – and that Williams makes as speedy and as complete a recovery as possible – allowing for more stability at the position. But superstition alone won't rebuild the running back corps, and the Bucs have some work to do this offseason. At the very least, it will be interesting to see how the battle for playing time in the backfield plays out.

Graham remains under contract on the heels of his impressive 2007 season, in which he proved capable of shouldering the load, rushing for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns. Williams has been faithfully rehabbing his knee injury and will make every effort to return to the rotation and to his explosive ways, and the Bucs have re-signed Bennett to a multi-year deal. Pittman, however, is an unrestricted free agent and could possibly join another squad.

If Pittman jumps ship, that would leave the Bucs with only Graham and Bennett as givens in the running back corps, considering the uncertain timetable on Williams' knee. Aside from those three, the only other tailback on the roster is the untested Kenneth Darby, a 7th round pick from 2007 who saw very little action in his rookie season. The fullback position has a pair of players under contract, even after the retirement of Mike Alstott, with versatile vet B.J. Askew backed up by unproven second-year man Byron Storer.

The Bucs will bring closer to eight or 10 backs (including fullbacks) to training camp, so clearly the team will look to add runners through free agency or the draft. It remains to be seen whether those will be high-profile additions or lesser-known hopefuls who can provide depth.

Luckily for them, the 2008 NFL Draft seems to be chock full of talented runners at every level of the board and there are also a handful of capable backs looking for new teams in free agency. Before we dive into who's available, let's first look at who will be returning in pewter and red jerseys in 2008.

**Running Backs Currently Under Contract**
**Player****Exp.****2007 (No.-Yds.-Avg.-TDs)****Career (No.-Yds.-Avg.-TDs)**
B.J. Askew (FB)60-0-0.0-027-102-3.8-0
Michael Bennett761-241-4.0-1810-3,615-4.5-13
Kenneth Darby12-9-4.5-72-9-4.5-7
Earnest Graham5222-898-4.0-10274-1,113-4.1-10
Byron Storer (FB)20-0-0.0-00-0-0.0-0
Carnell Williams454-208-3.9-3569-2,184-3.8-10

Fullback Mike Alstott retired after the 2007 season and running back Michael Bennett, a potential unrestricted free agent, re-signed with Tampa Bay in February. That leaves only one Buccaneer back from 2007 who will test the free agent market this spring.

**Free Agent Running Backs from the 2007 Buccaneers**
**Player****Exp.****2007 (No.-Yds.-Avg.-TDs)****Career (No.-Yds.-Avg.-TDs)**
Michael Pittman (UFA)1168-286-4.2-01,317-5,309-4.0-21

Even if Pittman isn't back in a Buccaneers jersey, the prospect of a healthy Williams returning to the rotation along with Graham and Bennett surely gives hope to an even stronger rushing attack in 2008.

Despite the multitude of injuries that pestered the Bucs' backfield last season, it was a very successful campaign in terms of the ground game. As a unit, the Bucs' runners finished 11th in the NFL and 4th in the NFC last season in average rushing yards per game (up from 28th and 14th, respectively, in 2006). They also improved the team's overall yards per carry by a healthy margin, from 3.8 in 2006 to 4.2 in 2007. And Tampa Bay's 15 rushing touchdowns were its most in a season since 2001.

Here are some other key numbers pertaining to the running back position:

Running Back Position Numbers:

  • Starting spots/Returning starters: 2/2 (Returning: FB B.J. Askew, RB Earnest Graham) * Total players under contract (as of 3/6/08): 6 (see above) * Unrestricted/Restricted free agents: 1/0 * 2007 Pro Bowlers: 0 * 2007 AP All-Pros: 0 * Relevant 2007 NFL Rankings: Tampa Bay ranked 11th in rushing offense, 7th in yards per carry; Graham ranked 10th in NFC rushing yards, 10th in the NFC in total yards from scrimmage and 3rd in NFC in touchdowns * Running Backs Taken to Training Camp in 2007: 8 (FB Alstott, FB Askew, Darby, Lionel Gates, Graham, Pittman, FB Storer, Williams) * Running Backs Carried During the 2007 Regular Season: 5* (Askew, Bennett, Graham, Pittman, Storer) * Running Backs Drafted by Tampa Bay, 1976-2007, Rounds 1-3: 15…Jimmy DuBose (2, 1976), Ricky Bell (1, 1977), Johnny Davis (2, 1978), Jerry Eckwood (3, 1979), Rick Berns (3, 1979), James Wilder (2, 1981), Bo Jackson (1, 1986), Don Smith (2, 1987), Lars Tate (2, 1988), Reggie Cobb (2, 1990), Robert Wilson (3, 1991), Errict Rhett (2, 1994), Mike Alstott (2, 1996), Warrick Dunn (1, 1997), Cadillac Williams (1, 2005)

* Zack Crockett, Darby, Gates and Williams also played at various points throughout the season, but the team most often carried five backs at a time.

If the Bucs are looking to increase depth and competition at the position in the draft, there are a bevy of potential runners to add to the mix.

What looked to be a relatively mediocre crop of senior rushers was immediately upgraded when a handful of talented junior running backs decided to leave school early and declare for the draft, most notably Arkansas star Darren McFadden.

In fact, it is entirely likely the first handful of running backs selected will be juniors, not seniors.

Along with McFadden, some other top-rated underclassmen eligible to be selected in 2008 are Rashard Mendenhall of Illinois, Jonathan Stewart of Oregon, Felix Jones of Arkansas and Jamaal Charles of Texas. Other juniors who declared for the draft include Rutgers' Ray Rice, Central Florida's Kevin Smith and West Virginia's Steve Slaton.

Here are a few backs that could be drawing a significant amount of attention on draft weekend in April:

  • Darren McFadden, Arkansas…Ran for 1,830 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior and impressed at the Combine with a 4.33 40-yard dash time, second-fastest of all running backs. Was a runner-up for both the 2006 and 2007 Heisman Trophy Award. * Jonathan Stewart, Oregon… Ran a 4.48 40-yard dash at Combine after picking up 1,722 yards and 11 touchdowns in his junior season as a Duck * Rashard Mendenhall, Illinois… Helped lead Illini to the Rose Bowl in his junior season, rushing for 1,681 yards and 17 touchdowns. Ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at the Combine. * Felix Jones, Arkansas… Although he split time at Arkansas with McFadden as his backfield mate, Jones still finds himself highly rated on many draft boards after gaining 1,162 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Ran a 4.47 40-yard dash * Jamaal Charles, Texas… Lightning-quick back rushed for 1,619 yards and 18 touchdowns as a Longhorn last season and ran a 4.38 40-yard dash time * Chris Johnson, East Carolina… Ran the fastest 40-yard dash of all running backs at the Combine, posting a 4.24. One of the best senior runners available, Johnson rushed for 1,423 yards and 17 touchdowns his final season at ECU * Ray Rice, Rutgers… Powerful runner picked up over 2,000 yards and 24 touchdowns in his final season at Rutgers * Mike Hart, Michigan… Another of the top seniors in this year's group, the sure-handed Hart rushed for 1,361 yards and 14 touchdowns his final year as a Wolverine * Kevin Smith, Central Florida… Rushed for a whopping 2,567 yards and 29 touchdowns his junior season at UCF, the second-highest single-season rushing total in Football Bowl Subdivision history * Steve Slaton, West Virginia… Paired with quarterback Pat White to give Mountaineers one of the most explosive backfields in college football, rushing for 1,051 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2007

The Buccaneers have addressed the running back position only a couple of times on draft day in the last few years, most notably with the selection of Auburn's Cadillac Williams with the fifth overall pick in 2005. Williams is trying to recover from a serious knee injury suffered early in the 2007 season, but he was the NFL's Rookie of the Year in 2005.

**Running Backs Drafted in the Last Five Years**
**Year****Round****Player****School****Still on Team?**
20074thKenneth DarbyAlabamaYes
20051stCadillac WilliamsAuburnYes
20057thRick Razzano (FB)MississippiNo

Historically, the Bucs have done fairly well when spending an early-round draft pick on a running back.

James Wilder, a second-round pick in the 1981 draft, turned out to be perhaps the team's best running back selection, as he ended up atop the all-time franchise rushing list and holds numerous team records.

Some other successful runners added in the draft include Ricky Bell (first round, 1977), Reggie Cobb (second round, 1990), and of course fullback Mike Alstott (second round,1996) and running back Warrick Dunn (first round, 1997).

The Bucs also drafted a handful of running backs whose tenures were short but productive, such as Lars Tate (second round, 1988) and Eric Rhett (second round, 1994).

Unfortunately, injuries have temporarily delayed the ascent to stardom of the Bucs' most recent high-round selection at running back, Williams. The first-rounder from 2005 was off to a fantastic start to his career before a knee injury sidelined him for much of the 2007 season. However, given a return to health, Williams could easily prove to be one of the best running backs the team has ever drafted.

Of course, no team's history is free of draft day misses. Some notable backs the Bucs selected who didn't quite pan out as hoped include Bo Jackson, who spurned the team's contract offer after he was made the first overall pick in 1986, Jimmy DuBose (second round, 1976), Johnny Davis (second round, 1978) and Don Smith (second round 1987).

Here' s a rundown of all backs the Bucs have taken in the first three rounds:

Running Backs Drafted by Tampa Bay in the First Three Rounds, 1976-2007

  • RB Jimmy DuBose (2nd), 1976…Second draft pick ever by Bucs…Played three seasons in Tampa with 33 games, 15 starts, mostly at fullback….Gained 704 yards and four touchdowns on 184 carries. * RB Ricky Bell (1st), 1977…Sixth-leading rusher in team history…Key member of 1979, 1981 playoff teams…Led '79 team with 1,263 yards and 4.5 yards per carry…Promising career cut short by illness. * RB Johnny Davis (2nd), 1978…Very similar to DuBose…Played three seasons in Tampa with 38 games, 20 starts, mostly at fullback…Gained 721 yards and six touchdowns on 195 carries. * RB Jerry Eckwood (3rd), 1979…Seventh-leading rusher in team history with 1,845 yards…Led team in rushing in 1981…Started 30 games but played only three seasons. * RB Rick Berns (3rd), 1979…Played in all 32 games with three starts over two seasons with the team…Rushed 62 times for 233 yards. * RB James Wilder (2nd), 1981…Leading rusher in team history…First Buc running back to make the Pro Bowl (1984)…Gained 5,957 yards and 37 touchdowns on 1,575 carries in nine seasons (1981-89)…Holds Buc single-season records for rushing yards (1,544), attempts (407), combined yards (2,229), yards per carry (4.6), rushing touchdowns (13), total touchdowns (13), receptions by a running back (85), receiving yards by a running back (685). * RB Bo Jackson (1st), 1986…Never played for Buccaneers. * RB Don Smith (2nd), 1987…A quarterback in college, was tried at both RB and WR with Bucs, but lasted just two seasons, with 21 games and three starts…Missed rookie season due to injury. * RB Lars Tate (2nd), 1988…Promising career cut short by injury after two seasons…Played in 30 games and started 19, rushing for 1,056 yards and 15 touchdowns on 289 carries…Led team in rushing as a rookie with 589 yards. * RB Reggie Cobb (2nd), 1990…Fourth-leading rusher in team history…In four seasons with Bucs, started 47 games and played in 60, picking up 3,061 yards and 21 touchdowns on 878 carries…Led team in rushing in '91, '92 and '93, with a high of 1,171 yards and nine TDs in '92. * FB Robert Wilson (3rd), 1991…Played one season in Tampa, starting 15 games…Averaged 4.3 yards per carry on 42 totes…Later played in Dallas and Miami. * RB Errict Rhett (2nd), 1994…Sixth-leading rusher in team history with 2,853 yards and 24 touchdowns on 823 carries…Owns Buc rookie records for rushing yards in a season (1,011) and a game (192)…Contract holdout in 1996 derailed productive career in Tampa. * FB Mike Alstott (2nd), 1996…One of the top performers at any position in team history…Has made six consecutive Pro Bowl trips…Is franchise's all-time leader in touchdowns (57) and rushing touchdowns (45), and ranks second in rushing yards (4,530)…Also eighth in team history with 220 receptions…Plays both fullback and tailback. * RB Warrick Dunn (1st), 1997…Third-leading rusher in team history with 4,200 yards…Made Pro Bowl as a rookie…Still-active 11-year NFL career, including six seasons in Atlanta, has produced over 10,000 rushing yards. * RB Carnell Williams (1st), 2005…NFL Rookie of the Year in '05 after team-rookie-record 1,178 yards…Set Buccaneer record with six 100-yard rushing games as rookie…Lost most of 2007 season to serious knee injury.

The Buccaneers have less often successfully addressed their running back situation through free agency, with Michael Pittman being the most notable exception.

Pittman was signed away from the Arizona Cardinals in 2002, but no other running back the Bucs have added via free agency has had near the impact as Pittman. The 10-year veteran has rushed for 3,363 yards and 10 touchdowns in his six seasons with Tampa Bay.

Looking ahead to this year's crop of free agent runners, the back most consider the top prize at his position – San Diego reserve Michael Turner – has already landed in Atlanta.

Some of the other top free agent backs available have also been snapped up already. Jamal Lewis of the Browns and Justin Fargas of the Raiders have re-signed with their respective clubs. DeShaun Foster, recently released by the Panthers, agreed to a deal with the 49ers, and T.J. Duckett, who was an unrestricted free agent of the Lions, signed with the Seahawks earlier this week.

Here are some of the other running backs and fullbacks that became unrestricted or restricted free agents on February 29 or were released by their club:

  • Marion Barber (RFA, Dallas) – A punishing runner lethal near the goal line that Dallas will surely look to keep * Julius Jones (UFA, Dallas) – Posted a solid 2007 season in terms of yardage, but had his scoring opportunities taken away by backfield teammate Barber * Tatum Bell (UFA, Detroit) – The athletic Bell played well in teammate Kevin Jones' absence with the Lions and could make an impact wherever he signs * FB Lorenzo Neal (Released by San Diego) – Long known as one of the premier blockers in the league, Neal has been named to four Pro Bowls in his career and has led the way for 11 straight 1,000-yard rushers * Ron Dayne (UFA, Houston) – A tough runner who is difficult to tackle, Dayne has lost some of his speed but could still hold value in short-yardage or goal-line situations

Overall, the running back position could be one of the more interesting spots to keep an eye on as the offseason progresses. Bucs management could look to improve the unit and add to its depth in a number of different ways. Do they strive to keep Michael Pittman, hoping to keep him heavily involved in a corps already including Graham, Bennett and a recovering Cadillac Williams? Do they let Pittman go and look to the draft to add a young running back, or to free agency to add an established role player to the backfield nucleus? Or will the team pursue some combination of those strategies?

However it plays out, the Bucs will enter the 2008 season with a talented corps of returning running backs looking to further improve on the strides the group made in 2007, in addition to some potentially new faces seeking to make their mark as well.

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