Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Two for the Future

With the first tandem to lead NFL rookies in rushing and receiving in more than four decades, the Bucs possibly have the foundation for an explosive offense for years to come

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In 2010, Mike Williams led all NFL rookies with 964 receiving yards on 65 catches.  Williams' teammate with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, LeGarrette Blount, led all NFL rookies with 1,007 rushing yards on 201 carries.

Of course, somebody has to pace all newcomers in those two categories every season, and this is not the first time that somebody was a Buccaneer.  In 2005, for instance, Cadillac Williams won the NFL Rookie of the Year award after dominating his class of running backs.  The year before, Michael Clayton had been the fifth receiver out of seven drafted in the first round but by season's end he was the top rookie pass-catcher.

But the Buccaneers had never had the league's top rookie runner and top rookie receiver in the same season before.  That's not surprising, given that no team in the NFL had featured such a tandem since the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968.  (Those Bengals were actually in the AFL, two years before the AFL-NFL merger, but AFL seasons are considered part of NFL history for record-keeping purposes.)

The '68 Bengals were even rookies as a franchise, that being their inaugural season of play, and running back Paul Robinson combined with tight end/wide receiver Bob Trumpy to form the league's best offensive rookie duo.  Obviously, those were the first skill-position rookies ever to excel for the Bengals.  Not surprisingly, the expansion Bengals struggled to last-place finishes in their first two seasons, but in the first year of the merged league, 1970, Cincinnati won the AFC Central.  Robinson and Trumpy were still huge parts of an offense that scored the seventh-most points in the NFL.

Just as obviously, Blount and Williams are not the first rookie skill-position players to excel for the Buccaneers, though their debut seasons are among the best in franchise history.  Williams happened to set a team record for all players, not just rookies, with 11 touchdown receptions; Blount blasted past 1,000 yards while playing roughly two-thirds of the season.

That would seem to bode well for the Buccaneers' immediate future.  So, too, does the fact that the team acquired Williams and Blount for a surprisingly small investment.  Williams was a fourth-round pick who returned first-round numbers.  Blount was nabbed off the waiver wire seven days before the start of the regular season.  Had the Bucs not found Williams and Blount in this way, they might be heading into the 2011 draft with a greater need at both positions and possibly leaning towards spending high picks on those spots.  Instead, they are afforded a greater degree of freedom with what they want to do in the first few rounds.

Having such effective rookies at both positions has the Bucs believing they are just at the beginning of a long run of productivity with both players.  Should they feel this way?  For the most part, yes.  Let's look at the top five rookie seasons in Buccaneers history, in both rushing and receiving yards.

TOP 5 ROOKIE RUSHERS IN TAMPA BAY HISTORY

* *

Player

Year

No.

Yds.

TDs

Cadillac Williams

2005

290

1,178

6

Errict Rhett

1994

284

1,011

7

LeGarrette Blount

2010

201

1007

6

Warrick Dunn

1997

224

978

4

Jerry Eckwood

1979

194

690

2

TOP 5 ROOKIE RECEIVERS IN TAMPA BAY HISTORY

* *

Player

Year

No.

Yds.

TDs

Michael Clayton

2004

80

1,193

7

Mike Williams

2010

65

964

11

Lawrence Dawsey

1991

55

818

3

Horace Copeland

1993

30

633

4

Kevin House

1980

24

531

5

On a quick glance, that's a list of very well-known Buccaneers, and it includes some hits and some misses in the long run.  Most notably, Warrick Dunn and Kevin House remain two of the most accomplished offensive players in franchise history, while Clayton failed to ever match his rookie total and Rhett ended up with a Buc tenure much shorter than one might have expected at the end of 1994.

However, for the most part, that's a list of players who lived up to expectations in the years following their rookie explosions, and often in subsequent seasons.  Let's take them one by one.

  • Williams hit a few injury snags in his second season and saw his yardage and touchdown totals drop.  Injuries killed the Bucs offense as a whole in 2006, particularly at quarterback, but Williams was still the focal point of the rushing attack and he essentially doubled his receiving totals.  His injury fortune took a serious turn for the worse in the next two seasons, but in 2009 he made one of the most impressive rebounds in all of the NFL and in 2010 he was a perfect backfield compliment to Blount, emerging as a very effective third-down back.
  • Rhett more than delivered on the promise of his rookie season, when he only really became heavily involved in the rushing attack in November and yet still made it to 1,000 yards.  It remains one of the most impressive half-seasons in team history.  In 1995, he upped his totals considerably to 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns, and that latter number is still the second-best mark in that category in team history.
  • Dunn made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 1997 but his second season was his best as a Buccaneer.  He ran 245 times for 1,026 yards in 1998, averaging 4.2 yards per carry, and also finished second on the team with 44 catches.  When his powerful running mate, Mike Alstott, went down for a month in the second half of the season, Dunn exploded, and the Bucs would end up with their highest ranking ever in the NFL's rushing yardage rankings, at #4.  Obviously, Dunn didn't stop there – he is the third-leading rusher and third-leading pass-catcher in franchise annals.
  • Eckwood's career as a Buc was short, just three seasons and 47 games.  But he was a fantastic compliment to power back Ricky Bell during Tampa Bay's breakout division-championship season of 1979 as a rookie, and he was at least that good, if not better, in his next two campaigns.  He finished second in both rushing yards (504) and receptions (47) among Buccaneers in 1980 and then in 1981 was the team's leading rusher with 651 yards.
  • Clayton's six-year Buccaneer tenure was a well-charted struggle of ups and downs.  The follow-up to his great rookie campaign was particularly difficult, as injuries helped limit him to 32 catches and no touchdowns.  Joey Galloway became the Buccaneers' go-to man in the passing game in 2005 and remained as such for much of Clayton's time in Tampa, only to be succeeded by Antonio Bryant.
  • Dawsey was a revelation as a rookie, a third-round pick who immediately emerged as the team's leading receiver.  He formed a fine duo with Mark Carrier, the Bucs' best receiver for the previous three years, and even had a career-best 14.9 yards per carry in that rookie season  of 1991.  Dawsey was a strong contributor the following season, as well.  He upped his catch total to 60, though for slightly fewer yards.  After injuries clipped most of his 1993 season, Dawsey came back with one more very good season in Tampa in 1994, leading the team with 46 catches for 673 yards.
  • Copeland might be one of the more enigmatic figures in the Bucs' history of receivers; it would be interesting to see what he would have accomplished had his own battle with injuries not cut his career short.  Copeland caught only 30 passes in his first season, after coming to the Bucs as a fourth-round pick, but he was such an effective downfield threat that he turned those into 633 yards, or a thrilling 21.1 per catch.  His numbers dipped to 17 catches in his second season, though he still averaged 18.1 yards per grab.  Late in 1995, after overcoming his own finger injury, he moved into the starting lineup following an injury to Dawsey and was very productive down the stretch, finishing with 35 catches and 17.3 yards per reception.  He was expected to be a big part of the Bucs' offense in 1996, Tony Dungy's first season at the helm, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury during the preseason.  Copeland ranks just 18th in team history in career receiving yards, but his 17.2 yards per catch is among the best in team history.
  • Like Copeland, House had an extremely high yards-per-catch figure for his career, but he managed to stay on the field enough to be the second-leading receiver (in terms of yards) in franchise history.  House's 4,928 yards on 286 catches is second only to the 5,018 yards on 321 receptions posted by Carrier.  Among the top 40 receivers in team history, only Morris Owens (17.8) has a higher yards-per-catch figure than House (17.2) and Owens had less than half of House's career receptions.  In terms of immediate returns, House delivered very nicely on his promising rookie season; in 1981 he caught 56 passes for 1,176 yards and nine touchdowns.  That yardage total is still sixth-best in Buccaneers history, while the nine scoring catches is tied for third-best.

Not every great rookie season portends an amazing NFL career.  That has proven true in the Buccaneers' own 35-year history.  But Blount and Williams appear to be in good company, and the Buccaneers can reasonably believe that both will be very productive in 2011, and potentially far beyond.  That the team is looking forward to both of these breakout rookies contributing big things at the same time is particularly encouraging, and something few NFL teams have ever had the pleasure of contemplating.

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