RB Derrick Ward arrived as an unrestricted free agent in 2009 and should find more opportunities to carry the ball in 2010
Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of pre-draft articles analyzing the Buccaneers' roster position by position. Each position analysis will include a look at the team's current depth at that spot, its history in stocking the position and the potential additions available in the draft and free agency. Today running backs. On deck: linebackers.
Early in this year's NFL free agency period, defensive ends Julius Peppers and Kyle Vanden Bosch got big new paychecks from Chicago and Detroit, respectively. Peppers is 30 years old, Vanden Bosch 31.
Quarterbacks Jake Delhomme, A.J. Feeley and David Carr - 35, 32 and 30 years old, respectively - may not have hit the same huge paydays, but they had no problem finding a new job on the market. Same for 30-somethings like cornerback Phillip Buchanon, guard Hank Fraley and tight end Alge Crumpler.
Here's a short list of running backs in the 28 to 31-years-old range who are so far still looking for new NFL destinations in 2010: Jamal Lewis, Brian Westbrook, Ladell Betts, Chris Brown, LaMont Jordan, Justin Griffith, Justin Fargas and Rock Cartwright.
At one point not long ago, all of those backs were either highly coveted or at least very productive in their roles for their respective teams. But at no position is the reality of rapid turnover in the NFL more apparent than in the offensive backfield.
Running backs can often step right into starting roles and be very productive as NFL rookies, which was most recently proven last fall by Denver's Knowshon Moreno and Arizona's Beanie Wells (and, in the playoffs, the New York Jets' Shonn Greene). There are multiple examples from the Bucs' own history books, such as Cadillac Williams in 2005, Warrick Dunn in 1997 and Errict Rhett in 1994.
In addition, productive backs are often found well past the first round in the draft, meaning teams can still load up in that area even if they have to spend their higher picks on more pressing needs. The Bucs have had great success in the second round, with the likes of Rhett, Mike Alstott, James Wilder and Reggie Cobb. Some of the NFL's best backs of this generation, such as Terrell Davis, Stephen Davis and Priest Holmes, were all late-round picks or players who went undrafted completely.
All of which is to say, there are few organizations in the NFL whose running back depth charts are not in constant flux. The Buccaneers were actually something of an anomaly in the late '90s and early '00s, when Alstott and Warrick Dunn were the key ingredients year after year. Lately, however, the Bucs have had four different leading rushers in the past seven years - Williams, Dunn, Michael Pittman and Earnest Graham.
Last year, one of the Buccaneers' most significant offseason acquisitions was that of running back Derrick Ward. Tampa Bay lured Ward to Florida despite still having Graham and Williams on the roster. Both Williams and, to a lesser extent, Graham were returning from injuries, but the team figured that there would be no harm in having three accomplished tailbacks if everyone proved healthy. In fact, all three backs were ready to go to start the season, and the Bucs initial intent was to use them all liberally.
Tampa Bay's rushing attack never materialized as the powerful, consistent threat it was expected to be, though that was in part due to a series of lopsided scores in the early going. The Bucs still believe they can make that power attack a reality, and they still happily employee those same three tailbacks (Williams is a restricted free agent but is almost certain to be back). Despite that, and because running back turnover is so common, it is still worthwhile to look at the state of that position on the depth chart and what possible additions could be made in the next few months.
Before we dive into who's still available at running back in free agency and the draft, let's first look at who will be returning in pewter and red jerseys in 2010.
| Running Backs Currently Under Contract|
|Player||Exp.||2009 (No.-Yds.-Avg.-TDs)||Career (No.-Yds.-Avg.-TDs)|
|B.J. Askew (FB)||8||1-0-0.0-0||35-116-3.3-2|
|Chris Pressley (FB)||2||1-0-0.0-0||1-0-0.0-0|
Those 2009 numbers, in total, are a little misleadingly light. The Bucs expect to get Ward more carries in 2010, and Graham was forced into mostly a fullback role last year by injuries at that position. Both Ward and Graham have proved in previous years that they could be productive, primary ballcarriers.
In addition, Smith is valuable no matter what his rushing numbers indicate because he is one of the NFL's best return men. A Pro Bowler in that job in 2008, Smith missed a good chunk of time last year due to a pair of concussions but is healthy for 2010 and a significant threat on special teams. Askew is mostly a lead blocker, and he missed the majority of the 2009 campaign due to an off-the-field injury. Huggins and Pressley are young players who will be looking to carve out larger roles.
As mentioned, Williams is a restricted free agent, but he has been given a tender offer that would require any team signing him away to give back a first-round draft pick. He is one of only two backs from last year's roster who are currently unsigned, and the other, Byron Storer, missed all of last year with a knee injury and may not choose to play again.
| Free Agent Running Backs from the 2009 Buccaneers|
|Player||Exp.||2009 (No.-Yds.-Avg.-TDs)||Career (No.-Yds.-Avg.-TDs)|
|Byron Storer (UFA) *||4||N/A||0-0-0.0-0|
|Cadillac Williams (RFA)||6||211-823-3.9-4||843-3,240-3.8-18|
The impressive return of Williams from a second season-ending knee injury was one of the Bucs' best stories of 2009. A question mark in March, he was the starter when training camp broke and he finished as the team's leading rusher. Had the season unfolded differently and the Bucs been able to get Ward more involved, it's likely that Williams' 823 rushing yards would have been exactly what the team was expecting in its efforts to create that power attack. Ward, who was coming off a 1,000-yard season in a similar three-back crew with the Giants, is clearly capable of adding much more to the equation if the Buccaneers' offense is more successful overall in 2010.
In addition, team brass still believes, as it did a year ago at this time, that it's relatively young offensive line can develop into a major strength. Pro Bowl right guard Davin Joseph and center Jeff Faine, the prized acquisition of the 2008 offseason, will lead the way again in 2010, and second-year quarterback Josh Freeman will hopefully open up more options for the rushing attack by improving the team's aerial threat..
So, again, there is significant reason for optimism in the ground game in 2010. Here are some other key numbers pertaining to the Bucs' running back position:
Running Back Position Numbers:
- Starting spots/Returning starters: 2/2 (Returning: FB Earnest Graham, RB Cadillac Williams *)
- Total players under contract (as of 4/21/09): 6 (Askew, Graham, Huggins, Pressley, Smith, Ward #)
- Unrestricted/Restricted free agents: 1/1 (Storer/Williams)
- 2009 Pro Bowlers: 0
- 2009 AP All-Pros: 0
- Relevant 2009 NFL Rankings: Tampa Bay ranked 23rd in rushing offense, 25th in yards per carry
- Running Backs Taken to Training Camp in 2009: 8 (FB Askew, FB Jameel Cook, Graham, Huggins, Smith, Josh Vaughn, Ward, Williams)
- Running Backs Carried During the 2009 Regular Season: 5 (Graham, Pressley, Smith, Ward, Williams)
- Running Backs Drafted by Tampa Bay, 1976-2009, Rounds 1-3: 15...Jimmy DuBose (2, 1976), Ricky Bell (1, 1977), Johnny Davis (2, 1978), Jerry Eckwood (3, 1979), Rick Berns (3, 1979), James Wilder (2, 1981), Bo Jackson (1, 1986), Don Smith (2, 1987), Lars Tate (2, 1988), Reggie Cobb (2, 1990), Robert Wilson (3, 1991), Errict Rhett (2, 1994), Mike Alstott (2, 1996), Warrick Dunn (1, 1997), Cadillac Williams (1, 2005)
* As a restricted free agent, Williams is almost certain to return. He has not signed with another team and has only until April 14 to do so.
# Smith has not yet signed his tender offer as an exclusive rights free agent but can only negotiate with the Buccaneers
As deep as this year's draft class reportedly is, it may not produce a running back who goes in the top 10 or 15 picks. Most expect Clemson's C.J. Spiller to draw a first-round choice, but after that there are wild differences of opinion. Last year was the first time since 2004 that a running back was not among the first 10 picks (Moreno went 12th overall); perhaps this year's class will be underrated but still productive, as that 2004 group was. Steven Jackson went first among the backs that year, 24th overall, and later picks included Julius Jones in the second round, Michael Turner in the fifth and Ward in the seventh.
Here are a few backs that could be drawing a significant amount of attention this weekend:
- C.J. Spiller, Clemson...Widely expected to be the first back off the board, Spiller is explosive, extremely fast and aggressive, a big-play threat at all times...At 5-11 and 196, may not be considered an every-down back by some (though that didn't hold back the likes of Warrick Dunn and others)
- Jahvid Best, California... Similar in size to Spiller, and in fact carries a scouting report with many of the same points - speedy, home run threat who may lack the strength to move the pile...Has return capabilities, too, but has battled injuries.
- Ryan Matthews, Fresno State... Bigger and more powerful than Spiller and Best, and more likely to make just one cut before heading downfield...Very productive for FSU but also battled injuries and is inexperienced in the passing game.
- Dexter McCluster, Mississippi... Smaller even than Spiller and Best and thus is considered more of a return specialist or even a receiver by some...Showed big-play ability at Ole Miss but surprisingly did not light up the gun in the 40-yard dash at the Combine.
- Ben Tate, Auburn... Big and powerful and definitely a between-the-tackles, downhill runner, though his 40 time at the Combine was a respectable 4.43...Improved his draft stock with a strong senior season at Auburn.
- Toby Gerhart, Stanford... Strong 230-pounder with adequate speed and very good balance, even after taking several hits...Was very productive in college but is not considered a big-play threat.
- Jonathan Dwyer, Georgia Tech... Thick, durable and competitive... Though he played in an option offense at Tech, his blocking, pass-catching and downhill running should translate into other systems.
- Rashawn Jackson, Virginia... Since fullbacks are rarely early-round picks, we generally only consider the top tailbacks in this section; however, Jackson is a good bet to be the first fullback off the board because he also showed productivity as a runner at Virginia when the Cavs needed him to step in.
The Buccaneers have spent a couple seventh-round picks on running backs in recent years but otherwise have made just one notable selection at the position, taking Cadillac Williams fifth overall in 2005. As noted, Williams recovered nicely from a second knee injury that required surgery and showed that he still has elite skills. The Bucs have also rarely addressed the fullback position on draft day over the last five years.
| Running Backs Drafted in the Last Five Years|
|Year||Round||Player||School||Still on Team?|
|2005||7th||Rick Razzano (FB)||Mississippi||No|
|2008||7th||Cory Boyd||South Carolina||No|
Historically, the Bucs have done fairly well when spending an early-round draft pick on a running back.
Wilder, a second-round pick in the 1981 draft, turned out to be perhaps the team's best running back selection, as he ended up atop the all-time franchise rushing list and holds numerous team records.
Some other successful runners added in the draft include Ricky Bell (first round, 1977), Cobb (second round, 1990), and of course Alstott (second round,1996) and Dunn (first round, 1997).
The Bucs also drafted a handful of running backs whose tenures were short but productive, such as Lars Tate (second round, 1988) and Rhett (second round, 1994).
Of course, no team's history is free of draft day misses. Some notable backs the Bucs selected who didn't quite pan out as hoped include Bo Jackson, who spurned the team's contract offer after he was made the first overall pick in 1986, Jimmy DuBose (second round, 1976), Johnny Davis (second round, 1978) and Don Smith (second round 1987).
Here's a rundown of all backs the Bucs have taken in the first three rounds:
Running Backs Drafted by Tampa Bay in the First Three Rounds, 1976-2009
- RB Jimmy DuBose (2nd), 1976...Second draft pick ever by Bucs...Played three seasons in Tampa with 33 games, 15 starts, mostly at fullback....Gained 704 yards and four touchdowns on 184 carries.
- RB Ricky Bell (1st), 1977...Sixth-leading rusher in team history...Key member of 1979, 1981 playoff teams...Led '79 team with 1,263 yards and 4.5 yards per carry...Promising career cut short by illness.
- RB Johnny Davis (2nd), 1978...Very similar to DuBose...Played three seasons in Tampa with 38 games, 20 starts, mostly at fullback...Gained 721 yards and six touchdowns on 195 carries.
- RB Jerry Eckwood (3rd), 1979...Seventh-leading rusher in team history with 1,845 yards...Led team in rushing in 1981...Started 30 games but played only three seasons.
- RB Rick Berns (3rd), 1979...Played in all 32 games with three starts over two seasons with the team...Rushed 62 times for 233 yards.
- RB James Wilder (2nd), 1981...Leading rusher in team history...First Buc running back to make the Pro Bowl (1984)...Gained 5,957 yards and 37 touchdowns on 1,575 carries in nine seasons (1981-89)...Holds Buc single-season records for rushing yards (1,544), attempts (407), combined yards (2,229), yards per carry (4.6), rushing touchdowns (13), total touchdowns (13), receptions by a running back (85), receiving yards by a running back (685).
- RB Bo Jackson (1st), 1986...Never played for Buccaneers.
- RB Don Smith (2nd), 1987...A quarterback in college, was tried at both RB and WR with Bucs, but lasted just two seasons, with 21 games and three starts...Missed rookie season due to injury.
- RB Lars Tate (2nd), 1988...Promising career cut short by injury after two seasons...Played in 30 games and started 19, rushing for 1,056 yards and 15 touchdowns on 289 carries...Led team in rushing as a rookie with 589 yards.
- RB Reggie Cobb (2nd), 1990...Fourth-leading rusher in team history...In four seasons with Bucs, started 47 games and played in 60, picking up 3,061 yards and 21 touchdowns on 878 carries...Led team in rushing in '91, '92 and '93, with a high of 1,171 yards and nine TDs in '92.
- FB Robert Wilson (3rd), 1991...Played one season in Tampa, starting 15 games...Averaged 4.3 yards per carry on 42 totes...Later played in Dallas and Miami.
- RB Errict Rhett (2nd), 1994...Sixth-leading rusher in team history with 2,853 yards and 24 touchdowns on 823 carries...Owns Buc rookie records for rushing yards in a season (1,011) and a game (192)...Contract holdout in 1996 derailed productive career in Tampa.
- FB Mike Alstott (2nd), 1996...One of the top performers at any position in team history...Made six consecutive Pro Bowl trips...Is franchise's all-time leader in touchdowns (71) and rushing touchdowns (58), and ranks second in rushing yards (5,088)...Also fourth in team history with 305 receptions...Played both fullback and tailback.
- RB Warrick Dunn (1st), 1997...Third-leading rusher in team history with 4,986 yards...Made Pro Bowl as a rookie...Returned to Bucs for one season in 2008 and led the team with 786 rushing yards...One of only six players in NFL history with 10,000 rushing yards and 500 receptions.
- RB Carnell Williams (1st), 2005...NFL Rookie of the Year in '05 after team-rookie-record 1,178 yards...Set Buccaneer record with six 100-yard rushing games as rookie...Has overcome two very serious knee injuries to return to form, regaining starting job in 2009.
The Buccaneers have had some success in recent years on the free agent market when restocking their backfield, a record that will improve if Ward, as expected, finds more opportunities to run in his second year. The Bucs also got decent production out of Dunn in his return from Atlanta in 2008 and were more than pleased with the contributions made from former Arizona back Michael Pittman from 2002-07.
Pittman was signed away from the Cardinals in 2002 and so far probably stands as the most impactful back the Bucs have acquired in that manner. The 10-year veteran rushed for 3,363 yards and 10 touchdowns in his six seasons with Tampa Bay. Some other veterans who have at least been somewhat productive after arriving in Tampa have included Gary Anderson (1990-93), Vince Workman (1993-94) and Thomas Jones (2003), who was actually a trade acquisition.
One back who might have been highly sought after on the free agent market this year was San Diego's Darren Sproles, but the Chargers reversed course before the market opened and chose to extend a tender offer to the speedy scatback. That made Sproles a restricted free agent, and he re-signed with his original team. Thus the highest-profile move at the position was probably that of former Viking Chester Taylor to the Chicago Bears in early March.
Even with players like Lewis and Westbrook still searching, some of their fellow "older" backs did find new homes after they were released. That included Thomas Jones, who left the Jets and landed in Kansas City, and former Charger LaDainian Tomlinson, who stepped into Jones' former spot in New York. Willie Parker, late of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is now a Washington Redskin, as is Larry Johnson, who spent the latter part of 2009 in Cincinnati.
Obviously, the free agent market has been scoured fairly thoroughly over the past six weeks, and it was thinner to begin with anyway thanks to the altered rules this spring. Obviously, many of the players still remaining have had relatively long careers already. Given the sometimes brief careers of backs, and the manner in which they often end suddenly, it's difficult to guess which of the veteran runners could still be an asset to some team. Still, here are some of the other running backs and fullbacks that became unrestricted agents on March 5 or were released by their club:
- Ladell Betts (Released, Washington) - Though a backup for most of his eight years in Washington, was always productive, with 3,176 total rushing yards, 4.1 yards per carry and 165 receptions...Started career-high nine games in 2006 and produced 1,154 rushing yards and 53 catches.
- Chris Brown (UFA, Houston) - Still only 28, Brown was often part of a crowded backfield in Tennessee, where he played six season and produced almost 3,000 yards...Spent 2009 in Houston but topped out at 79 carries and 267 yards in 14 games.
- Justin Fargas (Released, Oakland) - Like Fargas, was usually part of a multi-back rotation over the past seven years...Now 30, he has 3,369 career rushing yards and an average of 4.1 yards per carry.
- Samkon Gado (UFA, St. Louis) - Something of an out-of-nowhere sensation with the injury-ravaged Packers in 2005, Gado produced 582 yards in just eight games and five starts that year, but has yet to match that total in 33 more games with Green Bay, Houston, Miami and St. Louis over the past four years.
- Jamal Lewis (Released, Cleveland) - The 30-year-old Lewis had by far his least productive NFL season last year in Cleveland, after breaking the 1,000-yard mark the previous two campaigns...Owns over 10,000 career rushing yards, 58 touchdowns and a 4.2 yards-per-carry average.
- Brian Westbrook (Released, Philadelphia) - Let go after an eight-year career in Philly that was both brilliant and riddled with injuries, the 30-year-old Westbrook has stated a desire to continue his career even after his concussion problems of 2009... One of the NFL's most dangerous threats when healthy, with 6,000 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 426 catches and a total of 66 touchdowns in his career.
There are a handful of backs who are restricted free agents, as well, but like Williams they will probably stay put with their current squads. That list includes Miami's Ronnie Brown, Cleveland's Jerome Harrison, Baltimore's Le'Ron McClain, Atlanta's Jerious Norwood and Jason Snelling and New Orleans' Pierre Thomas.
Obviously, the Buccaneers made their big move in the backfield last year when they grabbed Ward, and they have not been major players overall in free agency this spring, as planned. However, the team has 11 picks in the seven rounds to play out from April 22-24, and because the running back position is so volatile, it would be unsurprising to see at least one of those picks used for that purpose. The Buccaneers want to foster competition at every spot on the depth chart, and even with the proven trio of Williams, Ward and Graham on hand there is always room for more competitors.