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Potential Buccaneer Draft Targets: Running Back

The Bucs could be in position to nab one of this year's top tailback prospects if they want to go that route, but as usual there will be interesting prospects available at that position throughout the draft

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In the 2005 NFL Draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took Auburn's Cadillac Williams with the fifth overall selection, easily the highest pick the franchise has used on a running back in the last three decades. Amazingly, Williams was the third running back drafted that year, behind his Auburn teammate, Ronnie Brown (second to the Dolphins), and Cedric Brown of Texas (fourth to the Bears).

Eighteen years later, that scenario is almost inconceivable. Only one running back has even gone in the top 20 picks over the last five drafts – Saquon Barkley to the Giants at the second pick in 2018. Barkley has been undeniably good, when healthy, but there are still many who believe that New York failed to get proper value for that high of a selection.

Williams was undeniably good, when healthy, too. He was the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year and his cleats went to the Pro Football Hall of Fame after he opened his career with a historic three-game run. Unfortunately, a pair of devastating knee injuries meant that 2005 was his only 1,000-yard season, and his career was capped at seven seasons.

Bijan Robinson of the University of Texas is widely considered the best running back prospect to enter the draft since Barkley, but virtually no one expects him to go in the top five. As it turns out, the Buccaneers are not picking in the top five this year, but rather are slotted into number 19. Would they shutter the running back position on their draft board during the first round, regardless of the talent available?

"No," said General Manager Jason Licht last week, "not if you feel like it's going to be a special, special player."

Over the next week, we're going to look at potential draft targets for the Buccaneers at six different positions, which are listed below. Some of these players will probably end up as first-round picks, but we'll also look at some later-round options that could fit what the Bucs need. Today our focus is on the offensive backfield.

Monday, April 17: Quarterback

Tuesday, April 18: Offensive Line

Wednesday, April 19: Running Back

Thursday, April 20: Edge Rusher

Friday, April 21: Defensive Backs

Monday, April 24: Tight Ends

(NOTE: The following is the analysis of the author alone. It is not meant to reflect or reveal thoughts or strategies regarding the 2023 draft by Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht, Head Coach Todd Bowles or any member of the scouting or coaching staffs.)

The problem for running backs hoping to be taken very high in the draft is twofold. First, they play a rough-and-tumble position that not only carries a higher risk of injury – as Barkley and, to a greater extent, Williams, experienced – but also leads to careers that are shorter on average than most other positions. Second, teams have increasingly discovered that they can find effective running backs all over the draft and even after the final pick sometimes. Just last year the Buccaneers' rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, nabbed BYU's Tyler Allgeier with a fifth-round pick and watched him rush for 1,035 yards and 4.9 yards per carry.

Put it all together and you have a position with a higher likelihood of roster turnover and a lower likelihood of producing a player who will get a second long-term contract after his rookie deal. However, it can also be a very impactful position, and in the Buccaneers' case, it seems likely they will be emphasizing the ground game much more under new Offensive Coordinator Dave Canales.

"I think it has changed a little bit over the years in that regard," said Licht of running backs being targeted less often in the first round. "You ideally want to pick a player that is going to be on your roster – if you're picking high – for a decade. But, they're very few and far between. It's an offensive dominated league right now and you want as many playmakers as you can get."

Will the Buccaneers add a playmaker for their backfield this next week, just one year after using a second-round selection on Arizona State running back Rachaad White? If so, here are some options.

Bijan Robinson, Texas

Let's start at the top, since the devalued nature of the position means a prospect who might be in the top 10 in terms of shear talent could be available in the back half of the first round. Is Robinson the "special, special player" that would make Licht select a running back on the first night of the draft for the first time since he arrived in Tampa in 2014? Just two days ago, Yahoo! Sports' Charles McDonald made that very decision for the Buccaneers at pick number 19 in his latest mock draft.

Robinson is the complete package at running back, boasting power, instincts, acceleration, quick cutting ability, elusiveness and natural receiving ability. He's a compact load at 5-11 and 215 pounds, and he can either run through defenders or leave them grasping at air (led the FBS in missed tackles forced last fall). In just 12 games he ran for 1,580 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2022, averaging 6.1 yards per tote. While his receptions total from 26 in 2021 to 19 last year, he still averaged a stunning 16.5 yards per grab.

Robinson has experience running the zone blocking scheme the Buccaneers are expected to emphasize under Canales, and getting him to focus even more on making just one cut in the backfield could take his already impressive game to another level. He has all the skills to be a three-down back in the NFL, though he will probably need to improve in pass protection before he actually assumes that big of a role.

Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama

Gibbs has slipped into the first round in some mock drafts over the last month or so, usually when the predictor has Robinson going in the top 15. Still, there's a reasonable chance he would be available in the second round; whether he comes off the board early on Friday night or slips into the Bucs' range at number 50 remains to be seen.

Gibbs, who transferred to Alabama in 2022 after two seasons at Georgia Tech, has speed to burn (4.36-second 40-yard dash at the Combine) and get into top gear quickly and then make cuts without slowing down. Once he gets through the initial hole, he is a threat to add on a lot more yards with extremely sharp cuts and lateral agility.

The 5-9, 199-pound Gibbs is a fully-formed receiving threat, too, after leading Alabama with 44 receptions last year to go with his 926 rushing yards. He averaged 6.1 yards per tote and 10.1 yards per reception and showed off great hands, with no fumbles and only one dropped pass. Alabama trusted him in pass protection and he was adept at bringing down free blitzers.

Gibbs could potentially offer the Bucs value as a kick returner as well; he averaged 23.9 yards per return during his college career. He is not as big or powerful as Robinson but he could form a great one-two punch with returning second-year back Rachaad White.

Roschon Johnson, Texas

Johnson understandably played second fiddle to Robinson in Austin but the way he handled that role and threw himself full-steam into special teams work has impressed evaluators beyond his evident talents as a running back. He is a natural leader who will look for ways to help his team any way he can, and he would probably make an impact on special teams right away at the next level.

Johnson (6-0, 219) is big and powerfully built, making him hard to bring down. In his rotational role last season he ran for 554 yards and caught 14 passes, averaging 6.0 yards per carry and 9.1 per catch while scoring a total of six touchdowns. He also recorded a team-leading seven kick-coverage tackles. Johnson uses his size well in pass protection but could still use some improvement in that area at the next level. He was actually a highly-regarded dual-threat quarterback in high school and initially went to Texas to play that position but made the move to running back right before his freshman season due to the team's injuries at the position.

If the Buccaneers want to add Johnson to their backfield to share the load with White, they might have to devote their third-round pick to him. In his most recent three-round mock draft, Josh Edwards of CBS Sports had Johnson landing with the Chargers at pick number 85, three spots after where the Bucs are currently scheduled to pick in Round Three.

Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State

Would the Bucs want to take a shot on an extreme NFL outlier if he's available on Day Three? They do have two fifth-round picks and three sixth-round selections to play with on Saturday. If Vaughn is available at that stage of the draft despite leading the FBS with 1,936 all-purpose yards last year (including 1,558 rushing yards) it will be because he measured in at 5-5 and 179 pounds at the Combine. There is not much history of players of that stature, and running backs in particular, making an impact in the NFL.

Still, Vaughn is an impressive playmaker – more quick than fast (4.56 40 at his Pro Day) – who made the most of his talents at Kansas State. He ran for 3,604 yards and 34 touchdowns in 37 games, averaging 5.5 yards per tote. He obviously doesn't have a very wide catch radius, but he still racked up 116 receptions for 1,280 yards and nine scores. Though he doesn't have a lot of experience returning punts or kickoffs yet, his NFL team may see if he can add value in that area given his shiftiness in the open field.

Vaughn was a team captain in his final year in Manhattan and he displays the type of leadership that Buccaneer evaluators look for in their draft picks. He also showed durability despite his size, as he didn't miss a game over the past two seasons and logged over 600 touches in that span.

Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota

Like Vaughn, Ibrahim is a shorter back (5-7) who was extremely productive in college. He played five seasons at Minnesota, getting an extra campaign due to COVID, and left as the school's all-time leading rusher. Last year he set school records with 1,665 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns, and at one point he produced 19 consecutive 100-yard rushing games.

Where Ibrahim is unlike Vaughn is in the nature of his game. He's a powerful runner with a compact 205-pound frame and he rarely loses ground upon contact with a defender. Since he isn't as explosive as some of the other backs available in this year's class and has little experience as a pass-catcher, he will probably be available on Day Three, perhaps even in the seventh round. As noted above, the Buccaneers have seven picks in the four rounds of that day of the draft.

The Buccaneers have used sixth and seventh-round picks on running backs fairly regularly over the last decade-plus, most recently taking Louisiana-Lafayette's Raymond Calais in the seventh frame in 2020. At that stage of the draft, teams are looking for players with a specific trait or traits they hope they can develop into a useful role. In Calais' case, it was open-field shiftiness. In Ibrahim's case, the Bucs could be looking for a power complement to White in the backfield and a player who would be a threat around the goal line.

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