Michael Turner was cut by the Atlanta Falcons on Friday. This wasn't a surprising development for the 31-year-old running back, as his numbers had been in decline and the Falcons had a younger option ready to take over in Jacquizz Rodgers. Still, Turner had topped 1,300 rushing yards in three of the previous five seasons and had averaged 12 touchdowns a year during his tenure in Atlanta.
Those are robust numbers for any running back, but they are particularly noteworthy because Turner had played four seasons in San Diego before joining the Falcons as an unrestricted free agent in 2008. That just happened to be the season after Warrick Dunn finished his six-year stay in Atlanta; Dunn, too, had signed with the Falcons as an unrestricted free agent after five seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and had been extremely productive in Atlanta.
Now the Falcons are apparently going to an in-house option, a player they drafted two years ago and have developed themselves. (Of course, other reports suggest that they are going to dip into free agency at the position once again, giving Rodgers someone to share carries with.) Going in-house is by far the more common manner in which NFL teams find standout running backs. Last year, for instance, 13 of the top 15 rushers in the league were backs on their original teams. In 2011 and 2010, 11 of the top 15 rushers fell into that category. Obviously, there is a lot of overlap in the names on those three lists, but if you jump all the way back to the 2000 season – in the era of Eddie George, Edgerrin James and Jamal Lewis – the number is once again 11 out of the top 15.
Because the average NFL career length for a running back is the shortest of any position (approximately two and a half years) and because relatively few of them remain effective into their thirties, the position is rarely a focal point in free agency. The exceptions are often players like Turner, who had been backups on their original teams and thus still had a lot of "tread on their tires," or players who for whatever reason had been used more sparingly than the normal feature back. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who averaged 128 carries per year in four seasons with the New England Patriots before getting 278 totes in his first year in Cincinnati in 2012, is a good example of that latter situation.
The Buccaneers have certainly been part of the NFL norm throughout their nearly four decades, almost always finding their top ballcarriers in the draft (more on that below). That was certainly the case once again last year, when they nabbed Boise State's Doug Martin at the bottom of the first round and saw him rank fourth in the NFL with 1,454 rushing yards.
The competing trend, on the other hand, is the growing number of teams who build a backfield by committee rather than relying on a single workhorse back. It was such an attempt in Chicago last year, for example, that prompted the Bears to sign former Oakland Raiders running back Michael Bush to pair with lead back Matt Forte. Some thought Bush might be the next Michael Turner, in his case escaping the shadow of Darren McFadden, but Bush had just 411 yards on 114 carries in his first season as a Bear. Another example from last year: Former San Diego back Mike Tolbert, who had shared carries with Ryan Mathews in San Diego, jumping to the Carolina Panthers to be part of a three-headed backfield with Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Tolbert carried just 54 times for 183 yards, though the big back did score seven touchdowns.
Perhaps the top name on this year's list of free agent running backs is an even rarer case. Reggie Bush could be moving on to his third NFL team after five years in New Orleans and two in Miami. It's not Bush's second go-around at the open market; he was traded from the Saints to the Dolphins in 2011. This time he'll get a chance to find out how active that market really is for a running back.
And the Buccaneers will get an opportunity to see if Bush or any other free agent back would be a good fit on their roster, even with the presence of Martin and 2010-11 lead back LeGarrette Blount. As we do at each position in our free agency primers, we will consider five questions as we work our way through the depth chart:
- How might the Buccaneers' own list of pending free agents affect the position?
- What level of talent will potentially be available at that position on the open market?
- How effectively could a need at that position be addressed in the early rounds of the draft instead?
- What is the Buccaneers history in free agency at that position?
- How did that position perform for the Buccaneers in 2012?
As always, player evaluations and other points of conjecture are not meant to reflect the opinion of the Buccaneers' coaches or player personnel staff. We now look at the running back position after previously addressing the defensive line, wide receivers, safeties, tight ends and cornerbacks.
Positional Free Agency Primer: Running Backs
- Tampa Bay's own pending free agents
Since a team's 53-man roster generally includes only two or three tailbacks, and perhaps a fullback or two, there is rarely a long list of free agents at the position for a club to worry about. That's certainly the case for the Buccaneers this year, as Blount is the only Buc back who will get a taste of free agency, and it likely won't be a significant one.
That's because Blount, who has played just three seasons in the NFL, is actually a restricted free agent, or will be one come March 12. Assuming the Buccaneers extend the necessary tender offer, which is a virtual certainty, Blount will have the sort of limited shot at free agency that is granted to players with three accrued seasons and an expiring contract. He may negotiate with other teams, but the Buccaneers will have the option to match any offer he receives or get draft pick compensation back from the other team. This system means that restricted free agents rarely switch teams as long as they are still valued by their original clubs. Blount had just 41 carries last year after being in the 200-carry range each of his first two years, but he represents the Bucs' depth in the backfield and thus clearly has value to the team.
Martin is signed through the 2016 season, including an option year, and 2012 signee D.J. Ware, who played a third-down-back role in his first year with the Bucs, remains under contract in 2013. The Bucs also have another young back in Michael Smith, a seventh-round draftee a year ago.
- The potential free agent market
The running back market got a boost when the St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson took advantage of an opportunity to void the last year of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent. Jackson will turn 30 just before training camp this summer and he has 2,395 carries on his odometer already, but there is a sense that he still has something left in the tank. Jackson is coming off his eighth straight 1,000-yard rushing season, and though 1,000 yards isn't quite as heralded a feat as it used to be, he has obviously been remarkably consistent. Jackson averaged 4.1 yards per carry in 2012 and has topped 4.0 in every season except one.
Jackson gives Bush company at the top of the running back list in free agency this year. Jackson may have been the more consistent producer in his career so far, but Bush has the advantage of age (he's two years younger) and far less wear on his tires. Bush's career total of 967 carries is less than half what Jackson has logged and he hit his career high of 227 just this past season in Miami. Bush's career yards-per-carry average is 4.3 and he is also a very good pass-catcher, with 372 career receptions. That latter skill might actually give him more suitors on the market than Jackson, as there are likely to be more teams looking for a complementary back than one that is going to carry the majority of the load.
Shopping teams are likely to be more cautious after those two players are off the market. There are few sure things on the remainder of the list, which includes Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall, Green Bay's Cedric Benson, the Jets' Shonne Greene and the Cowboys' Felix Jones.
Mendenhall and Benson are coming off of significant injuries, and Jones has had difficulty staying healthy as well. Mendenhall fell out of favor in Pittsburgh in the second half of last season and the 30-year-old Benson has a career average of 3.8 yards per carry. Greene is just 27 but appears to have a profile somewhat like Benson's, with value as a workhorse but perhaps not star potential. Jones might be the most intriguing of the four, as a former first-round pick who is only 25 and has shown big-play potential. His career average of 4.8 yards per carry is certainly intriguing, as is his pass-catching ability, though there are obviously durability questions.
There are plenty of other backs about to hit the market, though it's not likely any of them are seen as lead ballcarriers. That group includes Brandon Jacobs, who was buried in San Francisco this past year after some good years with the Giants, and Peyton Hillis, who has struggled for two years in Cleveland and Kansas City after his breakout 2010 season. Danny Woodhead and La'Rod Stephens-Howling are small backs who could bring some value to a shared backfield, and Justin Forsett delivered exactly that in Houston last year. There are also a number of backs on the list who have essentially been career backups but who might be able to thrive in a larger role. Those include Cincinnati's Bernard Scott and Cedric Peerman, Jacksonville's Rashad Jennings, Tennessee's Javon Ringer and Oakland's Mike Goodson.
- Is the top of the draft a better option?
It almost always is when it comes to the running back position, but this year might be an exception. As noted in the Captain's Blog two weeks ago, this year's draft could very well be the first one in 50 years that has not included a single running back in the first round.
Alabama's Eddie Lacy is considered the top option, but he arrived at that spot somewhat late after finishing his 2012 season on a roll. He is a big and powerful back but he doesn't necessarily have elite speed and is more likely to go near the end of the round if he can keep the running backs on the first-round board. Wisconsin's Montee Ball was extraordinarily productive in college, but the reason he returned for his senior season with the Badgers was that he was advised he was likely to be a third-round pick in last year's draft. That could still be true despite another great season in Madison because Ball doesn't really wow the scouts in any particular area besides his toughness. He is not a particularly big back nor is he considered one with exceptional burst.
The field of backs would be considerably more intriguing of South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore not suffered a devastating knee injury this past fall, ending his season early for the second straight year. Lattimore is attempting to convince teams he will be ready to play this fall, but obviously his current medical evaluation and teams' worries about his durability will drastically affect where he goes in the draft. Lattimore has impressive skills when healthy, including good vision and a burst of speed when he gets to the second level.
Christine Michael of Texas A&M had injury problems in college, as well, but he turned in a relatively strong performance at the recent NFL Scouting Combine. His 4.54-second 40-yard-dash was decent but he excelled in many of the other drills, including the vertical leap and the three-cone drill. At a compact 5-10 and 220 pounds, he could be a Doug Martin type of runner, with great balance and an ability to get low and stay on his feet.
The first two days of the draft could work for a team that is looking for a smaller change-of-pace type of back. North Carolina's Giovani Bernard, at 5-8 and 202 pounds, seems to fall into that category. He was very productive at UNC, both running and catching passes, and he believes he can fill the same sort of role in the NFL that Darren Sproles does in New Orleans.
Overall, the Buccaneers are surely happy they addressed their backfield situation in the draft last year, as this year's class doesn't seem to offer much depth.
- Tampa Bay's free agent history
As mentioned above, the Buccaneers have almost always found their primary ballcarriers in the draft, or shortly after the last round. Eleven of the top 12 runners in Buccaneers history were either drafted by the team or signed as an undrafted free agent (including Blount, who first signed with the Tennessee Titans in 2010 but was picked up by the Bucs off waivers just before the beginning of the season).
The lone exception is Michael Pittman, who stands as the team's major free agency success at the position. 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 normal fullback duties.
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, Cadillac Williams and Earnest 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. Tampa Bay took on another former Giants back, D.J. Ware, this past season after he was released in the league's final cuts, but Ware was targeted for a more limited role as a third-down back and filled that role just fine.
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.
- 2012 Performance
Well, Doug Martin obviously gets an A . His 1,926 yards from scrimmage ranked as the third best total for a rookie in NFL history and his last action of the season actually took place in Honolulu, in the 2013 Pro Bowl.
Martin's numbers were outstanding in every way. His 1,454 rushing yards were the second-highest total in team history for any player, not just rookies. His 12 touchdowns were also the second-highest mark in franchise annals and they tied him for sixth in the NFL in that category. He also caught 49 passes, averaged 4.8 yards per carry and, by all reports, even did an outstanding job as a pass-blocker.
Tampa Bay's running game as a whole was right about at the middle of the NFL pack, however. The Bucs ranked 15th in overall rushing yards, with 1,837, a total that almost exactly matched the NFL team average. It's worth noting, of course, that the Buccaneers played the entire season without Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph and more than half of it without Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks. Considering those factors and the fact that the team found itself trailing in many of its last six games, the Bucs' rushing attack should be considered a success in 2012.
Martin contributed the vast majority of those rushing yards, of course. Blount was used only sparingly and Ware got roughly one catch and one run per game.
Summary: The Bucs found their new lead back last year and, as usual, it was through the draft. The team has very rarely looked to free agency to find running backs, or at least primary ballcarriers. The market has more often given them options for complementary backs, and that could be a target for the Buccaneers again in the spring of 2013. Doug Martin will obviously continue in his role as the starting tailback, and he could very easily be a 300-carry back again this coming fall. Depending upon what transpires with restricted free agent LeGarrette Blount, the Bucs could be looking for depth and a different sort of back to join Martin in the backfield. They could look to the draft for that player once again, or they could see if one of the unproven but interesting options on the open market is worth a try. After Steven Jackson and Reggie Bush find their homes for 2013 – and in Jackson's case that could very well be back in St. Louis – few teams are going to find proven producers at running back in free agency this year.