At some point – and everyone involved hopes that point will be sooner rather than later – the NFL's labor dispute will be resolved and the business of football will resume. That business will include training camp, which on a normal NFL calendar would be right around the corner.
More than ever, training camp will be a period for teams to sort out the roster, identify strengths and weaknesses and address any obvious shortcomings. Obviously, each team in the league has had plenty of time this offseason to evaluate how the depth chart stands heading into training camp…and that's exactly what Buccaneers.com is doing in this series of articles entitled "Camp Check."
Between now and the start of training camp, we will be taking a position-by-position look at the team's roster in regard to where it stands now and how it might change before or during camp. We will compare the current depth chart to how it appeared heading into last year's camp and take a look at the position's overall performance during the 2010 season. We'll also examine the potential of free agency impact, including the players that could potentially be available, and how commonly the Buccaneers have addressed the position on the open market in the past.
The second position to get a Camp Check is running back, which opens camp looking quite different than it did just a year ago. Our previous Check focused on the quarterbacks.
[Note: Analysis in the "Camp Check" series is not meant to reflect the opinions, intentions or strategies of the Buccaneers' actual player personnel decision-makers.]
Running Backs Currently on the Buccaneers' Roster:
Because the 2011 league year has not officially begun due to the labor negotiations, the Bucs' stable of backs is just what it was at the end of 2010, plus one: tailbacks LeGarrette Blount, Allen Bradford, Earnest Graham, Kareem Huggins and Cadillac Williams and fullbacks Erik Lorig and Rendrick Taylor.
The plus-one, obviously, is Bradford, Tampa Bay's sixth-round draft pick this past April. More on him below.
The Bucs' tailback position took about five or six weeks to get sorted out last fall but eventually settled into this set-up: Blount as the primary ballcarrier; Williams as the third-down back and usual replacement for Blount when he needed a rest; and Graham and Lumpkin as the reserves to pick up the odd runs here and there. Huggins was on injured reserve for most of the season and Taylor and Lorig were strictly blockers.
At fullback, the Bucs primarily went with the extremely versatile Graham ("Insurance Graham," as Head Coach Raheem Morris likes to call him) but got good relief work out of Lorig, a converted defensive end, when Graham was unavailable due to injury. Taylor, an undrafted rookie in the spring, was a late-season addition to the practice squad.
That combination worked quite well in the Buccaneers' backfield after a not-so-promising start to the season. Tampa Bay's running game struggled to produce yards with any consistency in September but really got rolling when Blount took over the primary role. By season's end, Blount had a 1,000-yard season despite joining the NFL as an undrafted player and the Bucs as a September waiver-wire claim, and Tampa Bay as a whole had the league's eighth-best ground attack.
There is clearly potential for more in that group, too. Blount may just be scratching the surface of his potential and will be a central part of the team's offense from Day One this year. Williams grew more and more comfortable as a third-down back as the season progressed and is one year further removed from his second knee injury in 2008, with plenty of tread left on his tires. Graham is always ready to step in and produce if needed and Lumpkin was mentioned by General Manager Mark Dominik after the 2011 as a potential part of a big-back rotation with Blount and Bradford.
Running Backs Taken to Training Camp by Tampa Bay in 2010:
The seven-man group of backs the Bucs took to camp last summer differs quite a bit from what the team had at the end of the season. Williams led the group of tailbacks after his very promising 2009 season, and he was backed up by former New York Giant Derrick Ward, diminutive kick returner Clifton Smith and Huggins, the relatively unknown first-year player. Graham was considered the starting fullback – a plan the team stuck to when the veteran was healthy – and he was backed up by two young players, Taylor and Chris Pressley.
After his disappointing 2009 season, Ward was released at the end of August, in part because the team had high hopes for Huggins. Dominik and Morris may have also had some idea that they would address the position through the waiver wire during the league-wide round of final roster cuts, and that eventually occurred with the additions of Blount and Lumpkin. Smith was also released during the final cuts after struggling through camp and the preseason.
During camp, the Buccaneers also added another running back in the person of rookie Carlos Brown, but Brown was let go in the final cuts. That left the team with Cadillac in the lead role, Huggins as the change-of-pace back and Graham in line to both provide lead blocks and take on some of the rushing load. The claims of Lumpkin and Blount appeared to be more about depth, particularly in the long run, though the latter back obviously made an impact much more quickly than expected.
Impact of the 2011 NFL Draft on the Bucs' Running Backs:
Many league analysts expected the Buccaneers to use one of their 2011 draft picks on a change-of-pace type of back given the presence of the power-running Blount. Instead, the team went in a different direction with the sixth-round addition of Bradford, whose size and running style are actually somewhat similar to Blount's.
That may have been a surprise, but it was certainly part of an internal plan. Dominik described his personnel crew as "big back hunters," and envisioned a rotation of bruising ballcarriers that could wear down opposing defenses.
Thus the 2011 draft not only shored up the depth that position – particularly considering the potential free agency status of Williams – but it also solidified one of the team's offensive philosophies. There is, of course, plenty of time in veteran or rookie free agency for the Bucs to also seek out a smaller, quicker back for a change of pace, but there is little doubt Tampa Bay is going to try to pound away with a power attack.
As we also discussed in our quarterback Camp Check, the 2011 draft could have an indirect effect on the fortunes of the Bucs' running back stable this fall. That's because the team spent two picks on tight ends, including fourth-round pick-up Luke Stocker out of Tennessee. There is a strong belief that Stocker will play a lot in his rookie season as the Bucs pair him with Kellen Winslow and make more out of their two-tight end sets.
The Bucs used two-TE formations with some frequency in 2010, but there was less subterfuge to the approach. Since the most common pairing with Winslow was John Gilmore, and Gilmore was known mostly for his strong blocking abilities, those formations were a good indication that the Bucs were going to run the ball. Now, with two potential receiving threats on the end of the line, the two-TE set should keep opposing defenses guessing and may make for a softer middle for Buccaneer backs to pound away at.
Buccaneers' Running Back Performance in 2010:
As mentioned, Tampa Bay overcame a slow start on the ground last year to eventually build a top-10 rushing attack. In fact, the Bucs finished with their highest spot in the NFL rankings – eighth – since landing at #4 in 1998. That Mike Alstott-Warrick Dunn attack ran for 134.3 yards per game in '98; Blount and company were good for 125.1.
Near the end of the team's season-ending win at New Orleans, Blount powered his way past the 1,000-yard mark (he finished with 1,007) and in the process put the Bucs just over 2,000 rushing yards as a team for just the fifth time in team history. The final total was 2,001 yards on 431 carries, which produced a mark of 4.6 yards per tote that shattered the previous franchise record of 4.2.
Blount led the charge in this category, as well, averaging a robust 5.0 yards per tote. He posted four 100-yard games along the way despite having just 21 total carries through the first six weeks of the season, including three in the season's final five weeks. He also provided several of the season's most memorable highlight-reel plays, not just in Tampa but across the league, with a pair of amazing tackler-hurdling breakaways against Arizona and Seattle and a helicopter-spinning touchdown dive against Carolina.
Williams added a valuable 437 rushing yards to the mix and scored two touchdowns, but he made a bigger impact in the receiving game, often on third down. Williams' strong blocking skills in the backfield made him a good choice to be on the field in obvious passing downs, and that also gave him the chance to emerge as one of Josh Freeman's favorite targets. Williams caught 46 passes for 355 yards and another score and converted many key third-down tries.
Freeman added 364 yards to the Bucs' ground total on scrambles, but the remainder of the Buccaneers' backfield combined for just 25 carries, 20 of them (for 99 yards) by Graham.
Potential Impact of Veteran Free Agency on Tampa Bay's Running Backs:
The impact of free agency is potentially two-fold on the Buccaneers' running back crew.
Even if the eventual CBA that comes from the current labor negotiations maintains the six years needed to reach unrestricted free agency, Williams is destined for that market. He turned in his sixth NFL season last fall. Obviously, Williams could re-sign with the Buccaneers or he could seek another opportunity elsewhere; either way, it is going to impact the Buccaneers' roster.
The less certain half of the equation is whether or not the Buccaneers will take a dip in the free agent running back pool for another player. It does not seem likely that the team would need to add another established back for first and second down; with Blount, Bradford, Graham, Lumpkin and potentially Williams around, there should be no shortage of candidates to bash between the tackles.
The team might see a need for a change-of-pace back as mentioned above, however, and a few intriguing candidates could be on the market. That includes San Diego's Darren Sproles and Seattle's Leon Washington. Both Sproles and Washington are smaller, quicker backs who are definitely helpful in the return game and, at times in their careers, have been dynamic players on offense as well. Williams' former Auburn teammate, Ronnie Brown, isn't exactly in the same mold but is a good pass-catcher and has shown he can make an impact with limited carries.
Buccaneers' Free Agency History at Running Back:
Tampa Bay has used the open market to import running backs relatively frequently since the first CBA ushered in the current form of free agency in 1993. In fact, in that very first year of the first CBA, the Bucs nabbed restricted free agent Vince Workman away from the Green Bay Packers. That remains one of the very few restricted free agents the Bucs have ever signed (also Bert Emanuel); as the system has evolved most teams have made a point of protecting their RFAs.
Workman was a decent change-of-pace for Reggie Cobb and then Errict Rhett, and an occasional starter, but his tenure in Tampa lasted only two years. A flyer on LeRoy Thompson didn't really pan out in 1996, but Jerry Ellison played a similar role to that of Workman after signing with the Bucs in 2000. The Bucs' biggest hit in the RB market came two years later, in 1992, when they signed Michael Pittman away from the Arizona Cardinals.
Pittman provided decent results on the ground and was a phenomenal pass-catcher who topped out at 75 catches in 2003, the most ever for a Buccaneer running back. He was also an integral part of the offense for the 2002 Super Bowl team, saving his best running day for the final game. In six seasons with the club, Pittman ran for 3,362 yards (fifth in team history) and caught 284 passes (seventh in team history).
Two years after getting Pittman, the Bucs tried their hand at the free agent running back market once again, with much worse results. Former Oakland standout Charlie Garner – a foe in that Super Bowl at the end of 2002 – was the choice, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury just three games into the 2004 season and finished his short Buc tenure with just 111 rushing yards. The import of Derrick Ward in 2009 didn't end much better. The Bucs envisioned a three-headed rushing attack with Williams, Graham and Ward, who had produced 1,000 yards in a similar arrangement with New York the year before, but Ward ran for just 409 yards as Williams took over the majority of the rushing load. As noted above, Ward was let go before the 2010 regular season and ended up in Houston.
Of course, if one wants to expand the discussion to include undrafted free agents, than the Bucs' ledger looks better at running back. Obviously, Blount was a major find, and that's the same avenue the Bucs used to find Graham way back in 2003. Smith went from undrafted rookie to Pro Bowler in one season in 2008, and the Bucs got some good years out of Aaron Stecker from a similar background.
Final Running Back Analysis:
As with many spots on the Bucs' current depth chart, the team feels it is in a particularly good position at running back because its top talent is also a very young player. The Buccaneers clearly expect big things out of Blount in 2011, and if they are right then the position will be considered successful no matter what else happens on the depth chart.
Still, there is some uncertainty at the position headed into training camp, in part due to Williams' impending free agency and in part due to the many ways in which the depth chart could fall out. Will Williams, if he returns, remain Blount's primary helper, or will it be the rookie Bradford? And if it is either of those, will there be enough work to keep the other one involved? Will Graham remain in the same role as, primarily, a fullback, or would the team want to tap into the same talent that produced his 900 yard season in 2007? Has Lorig's conversion from defense been successful enough to keep him in the Bucs' plans, long-term?
Running back shouldn't be a particular concern for the Buccaneers heading into training camp, but it could end up being a very intriguing position to watch.