With do-everything running back Earnest Graham headed to injured reserve this week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were sure to address their backfield depth sooner or later. As it turned out, it wasn't just sooner, but Sooner, and then some.
The Buccaneers announced Wednesday that they have promoted rookie running back Mossis Madu from the practice squad to the active roster and used the resulting open spot on the practice squad to sign fullback Matt Clapp. As recently as 2009, Madu and Clapp shared a backfield with the Oklahoma Sooners.
Madu's promotion fits in with two bits of modus operandi around One Buccaneer Place: filling roster needs from within and relying on the "next man up" approach when a starter goes down. While outside analysts hurried to link the Buccaneers with well-heeled veterans on the open market, Tampa Bay brass chose to rely on a young player who had impressed them during training camp and the preseason.
Signed as an undrafted free agent in July, Madu appeared in all four Tampa Bay preseason games and carried the ball 15 times for 53 yards. He also showed the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, snaring five receptions for 41 yards. It is likely that Madu, who at 6-0 and 197 pounds gives away 50 pounds to starting tailback LeGarrette Blount, would be used mostly in a third-down back type of role.
"I'm just another guy coming out of the backfield, a whole 'nother look," said Madu. "We've got a bunch of big, bruising guys, and I'm a little guy, so I'm going to come out there and be shifty and add another dimension."
Madu didn't know his former OU teammate had joined the roster until the whole team was on the practice field Wednesday morning. He actually heard the name "Clapp" before he saw the newest Buccaneer, which prompted him to turn to defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, another former Sooner, in surprise. Both Sooners-turned-Bucs were pleased to be reunited with their former teammate.
"I talked to him through the whole practice," said Madu. "That's my guy."
Clapp came into the league one year earlier than Madu, as an undrafted free agent with the Detroit Lions in 2010. He actually ended up on the practice squads in New Orleans and Indianapolis for a few weeks each during his rookie campaign before returning to the Lions as a free agent in January of 2011. The Lions released Clapp during the final roster cuts in early September, then brought him back last week to the practice squad. When Detroit again waived Clapp on Tuesday, the Bucs moved quickly to pick him up the next day.
Tampa Bay needed the added depth in the backfield after losing Graham and watching fullback Erik Lorig suffer a shoulder injury in the same game in London on Sunday. The two players actually suffered their injuries just a few plays apart; Lorig did return to the game, but only saw a few more snaps on offense. Graham, who started in the place of the injured and inactive Blount, got in just two runs and one catch before exiting. Essentially, the Bucs played the last 54 minutes of the game against Chicago with only tailback Kregg Lumpkin available for the backfield.
"We signed a new fullback," said quarterback Josh Freeman. "It was rough last week because you go in with an entire game plan of base personnel, then you lose your starting fullback and your starting tailback-slash-backup-fullback. We only had three running backs up so we were left with Lumpkin, and I thought he did a hell of a job coming in and being in on every down."
Clapp is a true blocking fullback. He played in 37 games with one start at Oklahoma but tallied only eight carries for 22 yards and nine catches for 92 yards. But he helped open holes for a very healthy Sooner rushing attack, and in the process was named first-team All-Big 12 by the conference's coaches. He was also a member of the Big 12 Academic first team and a valuable asset on special teams, contributing seven kick-coverage tackles.
The Buccaneers will certainly miss Graham's versatile skill set, but they do expect the backfield to be healthier by the time they take on the New Orleans Saints after the bye week. Blount has missed the last two contests after suffering a knee injury in San Francisco on October 9, but he ran on the sidelines of the Bucs' Pennyhill Park practice field in Surrey last week and looks to be on track to rejoin the offense next week.
"I'm really confident about Blount," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We've got two weeks. He looked good running last week; he looked better today. He'll have another week of rest and be able to come back the following week, get a bunch of treatment and be ready to go."
Lorig will also have the extra time to recover from his shoulder injury, and the addition of Madu will give Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson some additional options. The Bucs lost their insurance policy in Graham, who could have helped fill needs at both tailback and fullback, but they are confident the running game will be fine moving forward.
"We lost "Insurance Graham," a guy that moves around for us and does a lot of things," said Morris. "But we'll get some resolve from getting Blount back after the bye. We'll have Mossis Madu up and ready to deal. We've got some guys here in house. It's not as dire a need as SportsCenter tried to make it yesterday. I know everybody was in dire mode, but it's never like that with the Bucs. We always try to be one step ahead of ourselves. Mark Dominik has done a great job of stacking the roster with enough people to go out there and win football games, and that's what we've been able to do."