FB B.J. Askew (35) and RB Earnest Graham were bright spots in the Bucs' often banged-up backfield in 2007
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' running back corps was turned upside down in 2007.
Earnest Graham, once the third-stringer, impressively seized the opportunity to be the leading man; Cadillac Williams, after a promising start, suddenly found himself staring down a long road to recovery thanks to a knee injury; and do-everything veteran Michael Pittman spent much of the season in limbo due to an ankle problem.
Those developments as well as a lingering ankle injury that plagued fullback B.J. Askew had the Bucs jumping through roster hoops for much of the season. That was evidenced by the midseason trade for Michael Bennett, the two separate promotions from the practice squad given to rookie Kenneth Darby and the several times the team recalled Lionel Gates.
Williams' dogged pursuit of his rehab is one of the few things breaking up the quiet at One Buccaneer Place in these early weeks after the season's end, but the upheaval at running back is likely not over. General Manager Bruce Allen recently acknowledged that there is work to do at that spot on the depth chart.
"It's obviously a position of concern," said Allen. "Michael Pittman is going to be a free agent, and Michael Bennett is going to be a free agent so it is an area that needs to be addressed."
Indeed, Bennett and Pittman are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March if they are not re-signed prior to the start of the new league season. Williams is in the middle of a recovery process that, the team concedes, will be grueling. Allen has recently spoken to Graham's agent about the back's existing contract. And Head Coach Jon Gruden said at his season wrap-up press conference that, "We also need to continue to add to our backfield."
Of course, Allen and Gruden have also made it clear that they are trying to upgrade every position on the team, and that no potential help will be ignored. Furthermore, Tampa Bay's running game was reasonably strong in 2007, ranking 11th in the NFL and posting its best per-game yardage mark (117.0) in seven years.
Still, there are clearly a number of pressing questions to be answered at running back before the team wades back into action in 2008. One that won't be completely answered for some time is how much difficulty Williams will have in returning to his pre-injury form.
"It's going to be a grind," said Gruden of Williams' recovery process. "All I can say is that we have as many people on his situation as you can imagine. He's in here early and he's going to be pushed. It's not going to be easy, but if there is any guy that can get it done, he can get it done. It's important to him and it's a long road ahead of him. I'm cautiously optimistic because of the kid we're talking about and the work ethic that he possesses."
Allen, who swung the deadline-deal with Kansas City for Bennett when the Bucs were shorthanded in October, must make sure the team is covered for any possible outcome with Williams.
"I don't look at it that way," he countered. "I do look at it as trying to increase the talent level at every position and that's one of them."
That said, Allen believes Williams has the grit and determination to make it back, too.
"We're going to be here with Carnell fighting through this injury," said Allen. "The training staff already has his program throughout the year and we're going to be helping along every step.
"Yes, it is a serious injury. He has excellent medical care and the equipment and recuperation time is completely different than it was six, seven years ago even. Yes, I'm confident that if it can be done, he can do it."
The news should come more quickly on potential new deals for Bennett and/or Pittman, or a reworked situation for Graham. However, the team doesn't discuss any ongoing contract work and will likely be especially tight-lipped in the weeks leading up to the beginning of free agency.
One question that the Bucs believe has already been answered however, is that of Graham's ability to produce as a starter in the National Football League.
Graham took over as the starter in Game Six following Pittman's injury, and he took the great majority of the handoffs from then through Game 14 before being rested for most of the last two weeks. During those nine games, he ran for 730 yards, averaged 4.1 yards per carry and scored seven touchdowns. Extrapolating a full season as a starter from just those nine games, one would have Graham at just under 1,300 yards and a little over 12 touchdowns.
"We saw that he can certainly carry the load," said Gruden. "We saw that he can stand in there on a down-to-down basis and not only play good, but play great at times. Obviously the situation that he was thrust in to, for him to excel the way he did, certainly proved that he is a quality NFL back and a guy that we can win with. I tip my hat to him. We lost our fullback for a few weeks, which didn't help him. Jeff had his injury, so we had to lean on Graham, and that we did. I think, certainly, he can be a guy that we can give the ball to and ask a lot from."
Will that make Graham the starter heading into 2008? Will Caddy be back to reclaim his spot? Will Pittman or Bennett return? Will the Bucs try to add to that position via free agency or some other means? Some of the answers will come sooner than others, but whatever they prove to be, it should be an eventful offseason for the Bucs' backfield.