Mason Foster and Allen Bradford, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' third and sixth-round picks, respectively, in the recent 2011 NFL Draft, have had plenty of opportunities to get to know each other in the Pac-10. Foster was a tackling machine at Washington who averaged more than a dozen stops per game last year. Bradford was the second-leading rusher for USC, a battering ram who rang up 7.2 yards per carry in 2010.
When the Trojans and Huskies met last fall, Bradford had one of his best days as a collegian, rushing 21 times for 223 yards and two touchdowns. However, Foster did pitch in with 10 tackles, 1.5 of them for a loss, and a fumble recovery, and Washington needed every bit of it to come away with a 32-31 win.
Imagine how that game might have turned out if USC had a second Allen Bradford to throw into the game anytime the first one needed a rest. Foster won't have to imagine that scenario; he'll essentially see it play out this summer in his first NFL training camp.
Thank goodness for the tackling moratorium in most camp practices, because a day spent absorbing alternating hits from Bradford and the Buccaneers' other human anvil in the backfield, LeGarrette Blount, would be a long day indeed. And that's exactly what Tampa Bay's coaching staff has in mind for their opponents this fall.
After watching Blount blast through (and occasionally hurdle completely over) opposing defenders as a rookie, to the tune of 1,007 yards and 5.0 yards per tote, the Bucs decided they would like more of a good thing. Enter Bradford with the 187th overall pick in April, a selection that surprised many analysts simply because of the unusual pairing it created. Most expected the Bucs to use a third-day pick on one of the draft's shifty little waterbug backs as a change of pace for Blount.
Instead, as General Manager Mark Dominik said as the draft was coming to a close, the Buccaneers went "big-back hunting." Tampa Bay will happily send a wave of bruising runners at opponents this year, and in camp Foster and his fellow Buccaneer defenders will have to deal with Blount, Bradford, the 228-pound Kregg Lumpkin, the 225-pound Earnest Graham and, if he returns, the 217-pound Cadillac Williams.
It's Blount and Bradford that will really bring the downhill pain, though. Each of the two backs is also roughly six feet tall, and they run with similar styles, according to the USC rookie.
"We both run punishing, we both run aggressive and we both run with a chip on our shoulder," said Bradford. "I'm not looking to juke anybody, or make moves or take stutter steps. I'm one to cut and go and get the tough yards."
The Buccaneers have never had a backfield quite like the one they could potentially put together this fall. Before the arrival of Blount in 2010, the Buccaneers had 24 running backs through the years who had put up at least a 300-yard season. Only three of those ran even as much as 240 pounds, and all three were officially listed as fullbacks. They didn't come close to overlapping with each other – Ed Williams (6-1, 245) played for the Bucs from 1976-77, William Howard from 1988-89 and, of course, Mike Alstott from 1996-2007.
Now, Buccaneer fans know that Alstott was much more than a fullback, and they've seen their share of power running attacks in the past. Most notably was likely 1998, when 240-pound blocking fullback Lorenzo Neal paved the way for Alstott's 846 rushing yards and the team's 2,148 ground yards overall. But Neal was not a ballcarrier. Never before have the Bucs had a pair of tailbacks of Blount and Bradford's size at the same time.
Bradford wasn't worried about the presence of his fellow former Pac-10 back limiting his playing time in Tampa. The only thing he knows about his role so far is that the Bucs want him to play running back, not fullback, and that there is room for him to make an impact.
"I'll have to see when I get there," said Bradford. "I'm willing to do anything to help my team win. I just feel that adding me to offense is just going to add another weapon to be more explosive."
It's difficult to find many comparisons for the Blount and Bradford pairing in recent NFL history. Most of the league's noteworthy jumbo backs are part of backfield committees that pair them with smaller, shiftier backs. The 260-pound Brandon Jacobs, for instance, formed a very productive trio with the 195-pound Ahmad Bradshaw and the 230-pound Derrick Ward in 2008 for the New York Giants. Alstott had his Warrick Dunn. It's the usual "Thunder and Lightning" package.
Perhaps the most analogous backfield that comes to mind was that of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1990 and 1991. Those Chiefs could alternate between the 255-pound Christian Okoye and the 245-pound Barry Word. In 1990, Word led the way with 1,015 yards and Okoye added 805 as the Chiefs went 11-5 and made the playoffs. The next year, Okoye took the lead with 1,031 yards, Word added 684 and the 10-6 Chiefs went back to the postseason. In '91, the ground game was so successful that the relatively small Harvey Williams (he was still 225 pounds on his own) was able to add another 447 yards, and all three backs averaged 4.3 yards per carry or better.
Bradford could envision the same sort of backfield success for the Buccaneers in 2011, and he's been excited about the possibility since even before Tampa Bay called his name on draft weekend.
"When I went to the Combine, I met with the with the whole [Tampa Bay] coaching staff," he said. "That right there showed that they liked me and I fell in love with those guys, the whole coaching staff. I'm fired up. I've got a lot of players I know on the team already and I'm ready to go to work. Me and LeGarrette are going to be one [special] combination."