Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Draft Watch: Running Backs

Our pre-draft analytical series continues with the men who tote the rock

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FB Mike Alstott could see more open field in 2001 if the Bucs are successful in re-establishing his rookie-year receiving prowess

He's not yet sure what hand he'll lay down, but Tony Nathan knows he has good cards.

Nathan has an ace in Warrick Dunn and a very valuable Jack-of-all-trades in Mike Alstott. Rabih Abdullah and Aaron Stecker are interesting wild cards, and Charles Kirby's blocking is a 10.

And it's a good thing Nathan has the makings of a winner, because the Bucs are in no position to bluff.

"I don't think we're going to put it in the air any more than we have in the past," said the Bucs' sixth-year running backs coach. "It could come down to us not throwing it as much this year as we did last year, actually. We're definitely going to try to get both of those cats (Alstott and Dunn) involved in the offense in some phase, in some form. Right now, we're looking at the little man being the guy we go to."

Since Head Coach Tony Dungy arrived in 1996, the Buccaneers have been one of the NFL's most determined running teams. Revel in the signing of Brad Johnson, believe in an upswing of Keyshawn Johnson's numbers, dream of Jacquez Green catching balls downfield – but don't expect the Bucs' love affair with the run to end.

Under Dungy, the Bucs have invested high draft picks in Dunn and Alstott and molded both into multiple Pro Bowlers. Dunn has had two 1,000-yard seasons and Alstott has gone as high as 949. Both have had 60-catch seasons. Two of the franchise's top four rushing seasons ever, as a team, have occurred during the 'WD40' era. Last season's 4.22 yards per carry mark set a new team record.

Accordingly, Nathan was very pleased with the work of his backs in 2000.

"Overall, I think we did very well," he said. "We got Warrick over 1,000 again last year (1,133, to be exact). Unfortunately, Mike got hurt, but he was doing well before that. Rabih and Aaron filled in whenever they had a chance to and did great. We had Charles as a new addition, and he came in and did some things that, at the beginning of the year, we didn't have anybody to do after losing Kevin (McLeod). So, he was a pleasant surprise."

How does that crew stack up for 2001? Let's take a look at the raw numbers:

Running Backs Under Contract: 4 Pending Free Agents: 1 Typical Training Camp Running Backs Total: 8 NFL Rushing Offense Ranking: 9 Bucs Among NFC Leaders: Warrick Dunn, 8th in rushing yards, 8th in total yards from scrimmage, T-9th in touchdowns; Mike Alstott 18th in rushing yards 2000 Rushing Yards Leader: Dunn, 1,133 2000 Rushing Touchdowns Leader: Dunn, 8 First-Round Picks Spent on Running Backs, 1976-2000: 3 (Dunn, 1997, Bo Jackson, 1986, Ricky Bell, 1977) Total Picks Spent on Running Backs, 1996-2000: 4

Expect the Bucs to basically double their running back corps between now and camp, using the draft and/or free agency. The one unsigned player in the group, to this date, is restricted free agent Rabih Abdullah. Traditionally, the great majority of the Bucs' restricted free agents who are extended tender offers eventually re-sign with the team, and Abdullah has been participating in the recent voluntary field work.

Nathan is using this extra time with his backs as the other position coaches are, to iron out little inconsistencies here and there, weaknesses that can hurt a player's game in the fall.

"Everybody has as a little kink in his armor," said Nathan. "Those are the things we can go back and look at now and see what we need to work on. We'll also see which direction are offense is going to go in and then start pushing those things that you think we're going to do a lot more of. That's the phase we're in now, getting them comfortable with those things so that they become second nature to them. That way, it won't be like we're learning something new during the season."

Here's a quick look at what those directions are that Nathan envisions for his stable of backs, at least now in early April.

Dunn: "He got right around 1,100 yards last year. If we get the ball to him more, I think we can get him around 1,500 or 1,800 yards. That's what I believe, barring injury. I really think he can do that."

Alstott: "As for Mike, we look at his rookie year, when he caught 60-something balls (65). With the offense shaping up the way it is, we're hoping we can get him back on that track – get the ball in his hands and keep him involved in the offense. But we're also going to give it to him in the backfield in certain situations and just let him roll. He's going to touch the ball both ways."

Kirby: "Charles, now that he has a year under his belt, will hopefully have a better understanding of what we're trying to get done. Hopefully, he'll know his role – he's here to be a battering ram. He should accept that challenge and do what he can do with it. He should be able to do it. We kept him because that's what his strong suit is."

Abdullah: "We're talking about moving Rabih over to fullback a little bit, and we'll see how that works out. Hopefully, he'll respond to that challenge."

Stecker: "Aaron is a delight to have around, as far as somebody you can go to get Warrick a breather. He's an exciting little individual, so we'll see how he fits. Both he and Rabih – and Charles – we'll play an important role on special teams and make it hard for us to decide which one we're going to (make inactive) each week."

That's also a fairly young group, with an average opening-day age of 25.8 years old. Of course, that's often true of a team's running back corps – your Marcus Allens and Emmitt Smiths notwithstanding – but the primary Buc ball-carrying duo of Alstott and Dunn appear to be in the primes of their careers.

Still, the draft will offer some interesting prospects, and the Bucs have dipped into that well on the average of about once a year since Dungy took over. In addition to the first-rounder spent on Dunn in '97 and the second-rounder used on Alstott in '96, the Bucs spent a seventh-round pick on RB Autry Denson in 1999 and a sixth-round selection on FB Lamarr Glenn that same year.

Buccaneer coaches and personnel men won't be uttering a peep about potential draftees between now and April 21, but there are some established top prospects at the running back and fullback position. This group may not have the buzz of last year's crop, which produced three of the first 11 picks in the draft and endless debate over what order the runners would be taken in, but it does have some potential stars.

At running back, the players drawing the most early-draft speculation include Mississippi's Deuce McAllister, TCU's LaDainian Tomlinson, Wisconsin's Michael Bennett, Michigan's Anthony Thomas, Maryland's LaMont Jordan, Tennessee's Travis Henry, Pittsburgh's Kevan Barlow and Auburn's Rudi Johnson.

At fullback, a few of the hotter names are Kansas' Moran Norris, Auburn's Heath Evans, TCU's George Layne and tiny Grove City's R.J. Bowers.

Will the Bucs' run after one of these players? No definitive answer yet. Will they run the ball in 2001? One very definitive answer: Yes.

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