It's no secret that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are missing a playmaker on the offensive side of the ball. The Bucs desperately need a player on offense that is a threat to score a touchdown every time he touches the football, especially in the running game. This is evidenced by the team having zero plays over 40 yards on the ground this season, which ties for last in the league.
What may be a secret, however, is that Tampa Bay could already have a player on their roster with the potential to be the big-time playmaker that is needed on offense. That player is rookie running back Kareem Huggins.
Buccaneers center Jeff Faine gave praise to Huggins earlier in the year on his weekly radio show. Faine talked about how impressed he was with the rookie's performance on the practice squad and said that the Hofstra product was going to be something special in this league.
For the second time this year, Huggins was talked up on 1010 CBS Sports Radio. This time it was by running back Earnest Graham on his weekly radio show last Tuesday. Graham, 29, works closely with Huggins in practice and witnesses the rare skills and abilities that Huggins shows on a daily basis.
"I would compare Kareem [Huggins] to Willie Parker," Graham said. "Huggins is a guy that's going to hit some big plays if [the opposing defense] gets out of position. He's a guy that's really, really explosive. I would imagine he's one of the fastest running backs in the NFL. Kareem ran a 4.28 coming out of college. He's one of the fastest backs in the NFL with out a doubt and one of the more explosive guys."
Like Pittsburgh's Parker, Huggins also went undrafted. Other NFL teams had overlooked him in the draft mainly due to his small size and the lower level of competition he played against at Hofstra, although he put excellent play on film . The Bucs then signed Huggins as an undrafted free agent and he had to fight his way up onto the roster. Huggins initially didn't make the team and spent most of the year on the practice squad before being brought up to the 53-man roster for the last three games of the season after Pro Bowl kick returner Clifton Smith was placed on IR. The 23-year old only saw action in a 24-7 win against the Seattle Seahawks, returning two kicks for 52 yards.
"He was undrafted because he was a smaller guy," said Graham. "I think from what he told me, he got cut in rookie camp, which means that he really didn't get a chance to show what he has on the football field. I think he's a guy that's a really explosive back, but I don't know if he's a guy that's going to carry for you on every down. I think he's somewhere around 190 pounds, but we do have backs in this league that can do it, and he's a guy that definitely has big play ability."
Parker and Huggins also have a similar build and both have game-breaking speed. Parker didn't play much in his rookie season with the Steelers and really came on during his second year in the league, rushing for 1,202 yards and four touchdowns with three runs over 40 yards. The 5-foot-9, 198-pound Huggins may also have the opportunity to put together a big year in his second season, depending on what happens to the Bucs current stable of running backs in the offseason.
Including Huggins, Tampa Bay currently has five running backs on their roster. The other four players are Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, Derrick Ward, Earnest Graham, and Clifton Smith. Ward and Graham are under contract next year, but if the team decides to get younger at the position or possibly trade a running back to acquire another draft pick, one of those players may not be back with the team. Smith is primarily being used in the return game, and Williams is scheduled to be a restricted free agent, but has made it known that he wants to come back to the team.
Graham also hopes that Williams will be re-signed in the offseason. Williams, 27, finished in second place for the Comeback Player of the Year Award after compiling 1,040 yards in total offense and seven touchdowns. This was also the first season of his career that he played in all 16 games of the regular season.
"I do know that this organization loves Cadillac Williams as a person and as a player," said Graham. "I've been around the league for a long time and I don't think they start [Williams] this year at halfback if they didn't have the intention of having him around here for the future. I think that's definitely something that needs to get done and I'm sure Cadillac wants to get it done because he knows what he means to the community and what he means to the team. He's a guy that we definitely need around here, so hopefully that happens."
If Williams is not re-signed or if either Ward or Graham are not back with the team next season, it will give Huggins the opportunity to step up and prove that he deserves a bigger role in the offense. Graham took Huggins under his wing and they plan to get started training and working out early in the offseason. Graham, like Huggins, was also undrafted and had to earn his opportunity to get playing time, eventually becoming a starter in 2007 after injuries to Williams and former running back Michael Pittman.
"I talked to Kareem and I'm going to start my workouts in February," said Graham. "He talked about calling me and working out with me here because that's when I tend to get started. You don't want to sit out too long in this game because a lot of things can set in like weight and getting back in shape is sometimes too long, so I think as leaders we have to call these young players and get them in the building. [We need to] get them out, get them in shape, start talking football, and get their mind on football."
Running backs coach Steve Logan played an instrumental role in the development of Huggins this year, and will continue to help him in the offseason. Despite being brought in with former offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, Graham thinks that Logan will be back next season.
"Coach Logan is probably the best coach I've ever had at that position without a doubt," said Graham. "I'm sure he'll stay. He's a guy that's well liked in the locker room. He's really a guy that we respect, so I definitely expect him to be back."
The team may still look to add a playmaker to the offense in April's draft like Mississippi's Dexter McCluster, but they know they may not have to look any further than their own roster to find that guy. If Huggins pans out and develops into the playmaker the Bucs are looking for, you can add him to an impressive list of undrafted free agent gems that general manager Mark Dominik and the front office have found the last few years.
"I think there's a lot we still have to see from Kareem, but I think he's a guy that definitely has some ability," said Graham.
To learn more about Huggins' progress, read Pewter Report's December Issue featuring the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders.