The elusive Warrick Dunn is the most recent in a long line of highly-drafted Buccaneer running backs
As much as NFL scouts love to uncover that 'make-you-miss' ability in a running back prospect, they dread the same quality on draft day.
The running back crop is always one of the more interesting topics on draft weekend, in part because predicting its eventual NFL success is difficult. One need not look far back in draft history to find opening-round running back picks that have made their teams miss; perhaps that's why the second and third rounds are often more backfield-busy than the first.
Over the last five years, the number of running backs selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft has remained very steady (11, nine, 11, 10, 12). Only once in that span (1998), has the first round been the most active of the three.
While such high picks as Lawrence Phillips (St. Louis, 1996), John Avery (Miami, 1998) and Ki-Jana Carter (Cincinnati, 1995) have not yet provided fantastic returns, some second and third-rounders like Corey Dillon, Duce Staley and Curtis Martin have emerged as consistent threats. Obviously, some other first-rounders – Indy's Edgerrin James, Jacksonville's Fred Taylor and Tennessee's Eddie George come to mind – have quickly delivered on their promise.
As it turns out, the Bucs have had success with both approaches, getting waterbug tailback Warrick Dunn with the 12th overall pick in 1997 a year after nabbing Pro Bowl fullback Mike Alstott in the second round (35th overall) in '96.
With Alstott and Dunn forming one of the league's most dangerous offensive backfield combos, many fans may move quickly past the running back position when assessing this year's draft. Whether the Bucs' personnel department will do the same is conjecture, and Buccaneers.com will not speculate on the team's draft strategies or interests. However, it can be useful to assess the team's current situation at the position.
First, some numbers that we have applied to each position (contract situations as of 3/28):
Starting spots/Returning starters currently under contract: 2/2
Total players under contract: 8
Unrestricted/Restricted free agents: 1/0
Relevant 1999 NFL rankings: Tampa Bay ranked 15th in rushing yards per game, 22nd in yards per carry and 28th in total offense
1999 Pro Bowlers/AP All Pros: 1/1
First-round draft picks spent on the position in team history: 3
Overall draft picks spent on the position in the last five years: 4
Tampa Bay's eight runners under contract are split neatly between four tailbacks and four fullbacks, with late-season RB signee Fred McAfee standing as the only free agent. Obviously, Alstott and Dunn, with four Pro Bowl appearances between, receive most of the playing time and are virtual locks to start in 2000. Behind them, the Bucs' retain backup blocker Kevin McLeod and two other fullbacks signed since season's end: Jim Kitts and Jameion Spencer. Rabih Abdullah also remains on the roster after emerging as Dunn's primary backup and a strong special teamer in 1999. However, he will face competition from Jerry Ellison, back for a second stint in Tampa after serving as one of the team's top special teamers from 1995-98. Ellison also owns a robust 5.0-yard career rushing average. First-year player Aaron Stecker, a midseason addition to the Bucs' practice squad last year, rounds out the unit.
New offensive coordinator Les Steckel got top-notch production out of big back Eddie George in Tennessee, which could be seen as even more good news for Alstott fans. The Bucs' nimble yet bruising fullback set a new career high with 949 rushing yards in 1999 and has a career per-carry average of just under four yards. Still, Steckel has indicated that he also hopes to get significant production from Dunn, who led the team in 1999 with 64 receptions but also had a career-low 616 rushing yards in a somewhat altered role.
Both Alstott and Dunn were immediately successful as rookies – Dunn was the only rookie in the 1998 Pro Bowl and Alstott was an alternate for that honor after his first campaign – something that can often be expected at that position. The NFL's only two first-round running backs in 1999, James and New Orleans' Ricky Williams, were instantly productive, though Williams was slowed by a variety of injuries. After those two, the rest of the league held off until the second round of the draft before taking six more backs, many of which played significant roles with their new teams. That group included Miami's J.J. Johnson and Rob Konrad, New England's Kevin Faulk and the Giants' Joe Montgomery.
Tampa Bay's running back history in the draft is rich. After hitting the jackpot with the first overall pick in the team's inaugural season of 1976, taking eventual Hall of Fame DE Lee Roy Selmon, the Bucs were on the mark again in '77 with Ricky Bell in the top spot. Though he would not hit the career highlights of Dallas' Tony Dorsett, taken by Dallas with the next pick, Bell was an electric runner before his career was cut short by a rare muscular disease called dermatomyositis. Bell hit his stride in 1979 with 1,263 yards on 283 carries, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Nine years after drafting Bell, the Bucs used the first overall pick on a running back one more time, drafting Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1986. Jackson then turned to a baseball career and never played for the Buccaneers. Ten years later, Dunn was the next first-round RB tabbed by Tampa Bay.
The Bucs' second-round running back ledger is even longer, starting with Jimmy DuBose in 1976 and moving on through Johnny Davis in '78, James Wilder in '81, Lars Tate in '88, Reggie Cobb in '90, Errict Rhett in '94 and Alstott in '97. Wilder, Cobb, Rhett, Alstott, Tate, Davis and DuBose rank first, second, fourth, fifth, ninth, 15th and 16th on the team's all-time rushing chart, and Wilder owns the two most prolific single-season totals in franchise history.
Again, Buccaneers.com offers no speculation on which players or positions the team is actually considering. However, should the Bucs look for first or second-round magic at the running back spot one more time, the names most often mentioned as likely early-round picks this year are Virginia's Thomas Jones, Wisconsin's Ron Dayne, Tennessee's Jamal Lewis, Alabama's Shaun Alexander, Virginia Tech's Shyrone Stith, Arizona State's J.R. Redmond and Miami (Ohio)'s Travis Prentice.
Tampa Bay, as any casual fan knows, is not shy about using its backs, choosing to run one of the more ground-oriented attacks in the league. As is evident above, the Bucs also have not shied away from that position early on draft day. Will they choose to run in that direction again in 2000? We'll have to wait a few more weeks for the answer.