Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Pre-Draft Position Analysis: Running Backs

As we continue our position-by-position look at the Bucs' roster prior to this month's NFL Draft, we look next at the running back corps, which already got a big boost this offseason with the signing of former Giant Derrick Ward

graham04_22_09_1.jpg

RB Earnest Graham will have help in the Buccaneers' backfield this season

As in previous years, Buccaneers.com will use the weeks leading up to the NFL draft to take stock of each position on the team. We will look at the team's draft history at that position, recent additions, current depth and potential starters and what players might be available to the Buccaneers through free agency and the draft. As usual, this analysis is not intended to reflect the intentions or strategies of the team's personnel decision-makers. Today we focus on the offensive backfield, where the Bucs have a deep group of running backs that could prove to be one of the team's major strengths in 2009.

Last year, the Atlanta Falcons signed running back Michael Turner away from the San Diego Chargers as their prized free agent pickup, then watched ecstatically as Turner ran for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Turner obviously made an enormous difference to his new team, which went from 4-12 in 2007 to 11-5 and in the playoff field.

Atlanta wasn't the only team to get a boost in the backfield in 2008. Five of the other top 25 rushers in the NFL last year were new to their respective towns. However, only San Diego lost a back who would go on to star elsewhere.

That's because the other five newcomers to the top 25 were all rookies, young men who came into the league through the 2008 draft and stepped instantly into an important and productive role. That group included the sixth, seventh and eighth leading rushers in the league – in order, Houston's Steve Slaton, Chicago's Matt Forte and Tennessee's Chris Johnson – as well as Kevin Smith in Detroit and Jonathan Stewart in Carolina. What's more, several other 2008 draftees contributed quite well to platoon situations and showed great promise for the future, including Oakland's Darren McFadden, Baltimore's Ray Rice and Dallas' Tashard Choice.

The point is, running back is one position at which rookies commonly can make a big difference; the learning curve is far less steep than at, say, quarterback or linebacker. With tailbacks generally enjoying a shorter average career span in the NFL than many other positions, the opportunities to grab a young, emerging star in free agency – as Atlanta did with Turner last year – are sometimes few and far between. Other than Turner, Dallas' Marion Barber was the only back in that category to become a free agent last year, and he was hastily retained by the Cowboys.

And yet, here are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, preparing for a new season and a new offensive attack with a recently-imported 1,000-yard back in former New York Giant Derrick Ward. Ward is 28, but he has fresh legs for the league, having only become a part of the Giants' backfield rotation in the last two years. The Giants committed heavily to starting tailback Brandon Jacobs after 2008, which is how a rare commodity like Ward came to be available on the free agent market.

For the Buccaneers, Ward isn't the savior, the solution to a gaping problem in the backfield. Tampa Bay actually ran the ball quite well during the first half of the 2009 season with a combination of Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn, before Graham was lost to an ankle injury. And 2005 NFL Rookie of the Year Cadillac Williams came back strong in December from a serious 2007 knee injury before sustaining another torn knee ligament in the season finale. Graham is back and ready to start blasting through tacklers again, and Williams is confident he can once again return from injury, especially since this one was somewhat less severe.

Rather, Ward is part of a new answer for a Buccaneers team that apparently intends to emphasize a rugged running game in 2009 and beyond. Graham and Ward and hopefully Williams will share the load and make each other better, and hopefully build the type of varied and sustainable rushing attack that took the Giants to the top of that statistical chart in 2008.

So it's safe to say that the Buccaneers have addressed the tailback position already in 2009, even before the start of this weekend's draft, where most teams in need of backfield help will look. At fullback, Tampa Bay has reason for optimism, too, given the return to health of both B.J. Askew and Byron Storer (currently an exclusive rights free agent) and the presence of Jameel Cook. Graham selflessly and ably filled in at fullback for some time last year when Askew and Storer both went down, but Tampa Bay will likely look to assure its depth at that position in 2009 to avoid having to make that move again.

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 2009.

**Running Backs Currently Under Contract**
**Player****Exp.****2008 (No.-Yds.-Avg.-TDs)****Career (No.-Yds.-Avg.-TDs)**
B.J. Askew (FB)77-14-2.0-234-116-3.4-2
Jameel Cook (FB)90-0-0.0-115-43-2.9-0
Earnest Graham6132-563-4.3-4406-1,676-4.1-14
Clifton Smith28-40-5.0-08-40-5.0-0
Derrick Ward6182-1,025-5.6-2342-1,750-5.1-5
Carnell Williams563-233-3.7-4632-2,417-3.8-14

It should be noted that the addition of receiving stats to the chart above would make that group look even more productive and promising. Graham, Ward, Askew and Cook are all considered very good pass-catchers out of the backfield.

That's a list that has to make the Buccaneers feel much more comfortable about their backfield than they were heading into the 2008 offseason. Fullback Mike Alstott had retired after missing the '07 season with a neck injury, versatile back Michael Pittman wasn't pursued when he hit free agency and the depth behind Graham was untested. Michael Bennett re-signed but he never quite fit into the Bucs' offense and was released the following fall. The only other tailback was first-year man Ken Darby, a seventh-round pick in 2007, though Dunn was added quickly when free agency began.

The addition of Ward gives the Bucs depth and firepower in 2009. They also had little to worry about regarding their returning backs – none of the 14 players due to become unrestricted or restricted free agents after the 2008 campaign ended were running backs. There was only one fullback on the list of free agents, and he was the team's lone exclusive rights free agents.

**Free Agent Running Backs from the 2008 Buccaneers**
**Player****Exp.****2008 (No.-Yds.-Avg.-TDs)****Career (No.-Yds.-Avg.-TDs)**
Byron Storer (FB) *30-0-0.0-00-0-0.0-0

* As an exclusive rights free agent, Storer can negotiate only with the Buccaneers. He is virtually certain to re-sign with the team this spring.

As mentioned above, the Buccaneers' running game was showing considerable promise in 2008 even before the recent addition of Ward. Six weeks into the season, Tampa Bay ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing yards per game (136.0), and even after nine weeks the Bucs were still ninth in the league. However, the fullback position was decimated by injuries, Graham went down on the first play of the 10th game and Dunn, in his 12th NFL season, wasn't as effective as the every-down back as he had been as Graham's partner.

Obviously, some of that fine work early in the season was the product of a young, talented and athletic offensive line. That group, anchored by Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph, returns intact in 2009 and will now be operating in a new zone-blocking scheme that has produced outstanding results in places such as Denver and Atlanta. There is also hope that the addition of tight end Kellen Winslow will improve the options in the passing game to the point that it will be much more difficult for opposing defenses to load up against the run.

Thus, there is significant reason for optimism in the ground game in 2009. Here are some other key numbers pertaining to the Bucs' running back position:

Running Back Position Numbers:

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.
Advertising