Given the current construction of their roster, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers do need to put in some work in the offensive backfield. The Buccaneers have only two tailbacks from the 2017 squad who will still be under contract after March 14. In addition to Peyton Barber and Jacquizz Rodgers, the Bucs recently signed running back Dalton Crossan, but as an undrafted free agent who has yet to play a regular-season down in the NFL, he's obviously an unknown commodity.
Charles Sims is due to become an unrestricted free agent and may not be back. Doug Martin was released last week. Austin Johnson, re-signed to a reserve/futures contract in January, is a fullback/H-back type. The Buccaneers' running back corps may be a position in flux right now, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's one of the team's most glaring needs.
For one thing, the 2018 starter may already be on hand.
"Okay, you're saying we need a running back," said Koetter on Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine, where he will soon be watching this year's draft-eligible running backs go through drills. "Well, our best running back's coming back – Peyton Barber. He was our best running back at the end of the year and he's coming back."
Rodgers was the Buccaneers' starting tailback to begin the season as Martin was serving the last three games of a league suspension that began at the end of 2016. Martin got the job back upon his return but wasn't very productive, and when he wasn't available in Green Bay in Week 13 Barber took advantage with his first career 100-yard game. That prompted the Bucs to push the second-year back to the top of the depth chart for the last month and Barber rushed for at least 50 yards and at least 3.9 yards per carry in each of the last four games.
In one sense, it should be obvious that Barber is a strong candidate to start in the Bucs' backfield in 2018. He was the starter at the end of last season so it is technically his job to lose. Then again, Joe Hawley was the starting center at the end of last season and it does not appear as if he'll be back in 2018. Sometimes circumstances dictate the starting lineup rather than sheer talent, especially when injuries pile up like they did at the end of the Bucs' 2017 campaign.
That's not necessarily the case with Barber, however. He made the team as an undrafted free agent out of Auburn in 2016 and had a couple nice moments as a rookie but nothing to indicate he was a lock to be the long-term answer in the backfield. Still, Tampa Bay coaches saw something they liked and gave Barber time to develop. He appeared to have better command of the offense and a bit more elusiveness in his second season. He could reasonably be expected to be even better in his third season.
"We do like Peyton Barber," said General Manager Jason Licht. "At the end of the year, when he was given the carries, I think that he thrived. He's a big guy – he's 235, 238 pounds. He's got good wiggle to him, he's got good vision, he's got good power. I've seen players like him, with his skillset, go on to be productive starters in the league."
A comparison that might seem fitting by some Buccaneer fans is Earnest Graham. Both Barber and Graham had one season as a full-time starter in their respective college careers, though Graham played more in a longer stay at Florida while Barber left Auburn after his redshirt sophomore year. In that final year at Auburn, Barber ran for 1,017 yards and 13 touchdowns. In his last year as a Gator, Graham ran for 1,085 yards and 11 touchdowns. Graham came to Tampa as an undrafted free agent, too, and was a runner of a similar sized and style to Barber. He had to wait his turn, but in 2007 he took advantage of a chance to start due to injuries and four two years was a very productive player in the Bucs' backfield.
Graham just needed a shot, and by the time he got it, he was a better and more physically-toned runner. The same could prove true for Barber.
As for Martin, Buccaneers brass spoke about his release for the first time since the decision was made on February 20.
"Unfortunately, in this business, for all of us, it's a results-oriented business and the production wasn't matching where he was at, so we had to make a decision," said Licht. "That's just the way it is with your entire roster. Sometimes, production can be [such that] stats don't tell the whole story, but with any player if, over time – and I'm not singling out Doug here – if they're not producing then it's time to move on."