Now that Cadillac Williams is officially out of the picture in Tampa Bay, one of the biggest training camp battles of the summer is starting to heat up. The Bucs are looking for a new candidate to emerge as LeGarrette Blount's primary backup and handle the third-down back responsibilities. Williams, the team's first-round pick (fifth overall) in 2005, previously held this position last year, but signed with the St. Louis Rams on Wednesday. The team decided to move on from the seven-year veteran to see what it has in its other backs.
The early favorite for the job is eighth-year pro Earnest Graham, but Kregg Lumpkin and Allen Bradford are slowly emerging and making a strong push for the job. That doesn't faze Graham, who is as focused as he's ever been and is continuing to work as hard as he's worked in previous years.
"[My goals are] the same as usual," Graham said. "I am just coming out, competing, and trying to find a spot on the team. I've been called on to do pretty much everything there is to do at [the running back] position. It's something I'm very comfortable with and it's something that I'm definitely going to have to gain the organization's trust with and Josh [Freeman]'s trust."
The 5-foot-9, 225-pound Graham can still contribute at fullback like he has in previous years, but he seems to be moving on from that position with the emergence of second-year pro Erik Lorig. Lorig is settling into that role after his solid play at fullback during the 2010 season. Graham feels the team is in good hands with Lorig as the fullback.
"He's doing an excellent job," Graham said of Lorig. "He's a very athletic kid. He could probably play tight end if they needed him to. He has excellent hands and is great at the point of contact. He's smart enough to play the position. Fullback is a position that you definitely have to think at as well, so he's definitely in the mode to play that position and play it for a long time. I think it's going to be great for him and I definitely think he can handle the job."
Even though Graham has passed the torch to Lorig at fullback and is putting his focus on the running back position, he will still remain a team player no matter what happens and will look to contribute in any way possible to the team even if he doesn't win the third-down back role. One thing that Graham looks forward to is getting his hands on the ball more and offensive coordinator Greg Olson plans to do allow him to have that opportunity this season.
"If it's called on for me to carry the ball and do some stuff in a two-minute or four-minute [offensive situation], or whatever it is I have to do, I'll get it done," said Graham. "I've got it done since I've been here so I don't expect anything to be different now."
Lumpkin, who is entering his third season in the NFL, is making just as strong of a push for the third-down back role as anyone on the team. The Bucs picked up Lumpkin after the Packers cut him at the start of the regular season last year. The 5-foot-11, 228-pound Lumpkin spent a couple of seasons on Green Bay's practice squad and excelled in preseason action when he got the chance to play.
The team is excited to see what they have in the Georgia product after he got the chance to digest much of the playbook last season. Lumpkin knows the challenges that lies ahead of him and is going into this battle with the right mindset.
"I'm just hungry," Lumpkin said. "I want to make this team and do whatever I can to make this team. I'm staying humble and staying in my playbook."
Outside of the right tackle position, the third-down back role may be the most competitive job battle at training camp this year with multiple players fighting for this very important position. Lumpkin knows what's at stake and is well aware of all of the competitors fighting for this position.
"It's very competitive," said Lumpkin. "We have Allen Bradford coming in, Mossis Madu and Armando Allen. All of us are competing to earn a spot on this team. Third-down back is a spot that is open right now. All of us are competing really hard to get that job."
Lumpkin knows what he needs to do on the field and in the class room to impress the coaching staff and feels that he is ready to take over the role. This is a rare opportunity for Lumpkin and one that he is taking full advantage of.
"I'm just going out there and trying to be fundamentally sound," said Lumpkin. "I Know my protections and know where my routes are, who I am susposed to block, and what holes to hit while I'm running. I'm ready, but everybody has to wait their turn. When my opportunity comes I'll just try to take advantage of it."
Sixth-round draft pick Allen Bradford may have the least advantage out of Graham and Lumpkin to take over the third-down back role. As a rookie, Bradford is naturally still learning the playbook. He is also still learning the ins and outs of the the running back position as he went to USC as a safety and was later moved to running back.
Bradford averaged 7.2 yards per carry as a senior, which was the second-best average in college football, and in 52 games at USC, Bradford had 1,585 yards rushing on 267 carries (5.9 avg.) and 16 touchdowns. He also recorded 14 receptions for 176 yards and four touchdowns. Last season, Bradford also recorded three 100-yard rushing games with a pair of 200-yard games.
Even if Bradford isn't able to play on third down at this stage in his development, the USC product still may have an opportunity to contribute on offense. The 5-foot-11, 235-pound Bradford has a surprising burst for a running back of his size and like Blount, Bradford is a phycial running back that tries to punish tacklers. Bradford can start his career with the Bucs as Blount's backup and spell the starter when he gets tired.
"Once I learn the playbook and feel comfortable then I'll be able to play fast," Bradford said. "Adjusting to college [from high school] was just learning the playbook, and that's the same as the NFL. Once you adjust and learn the playbook it will help you play faster."
Head coach Raheem Morris is keeping a close watch on the third-down back battle and knows how important this position will be to the team.
"Those guys are fighting for a spot," Morris said. "Earnest really is the clincher to that role we're talking about. Lumpkin and Bradford are stepping into that battle. We have some other young guys. Mossis Madu and some other young guys that you may not [be as familiar with]. Look at those guys fight a little bit and play. Everybody knows the ultimate prize there and what that role is. That second back [will be] getting a lot of carries and potentially going out there on third down. Even Blount is trying to step up and play a little bit on third down."
Morris is right not to rule Blount out of the equation. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson thinks that Blount has an opportunity expand his role on offense and win the job himself.
"With LeGarrette, we would like to make him more of an every-down back as opposed to just a first-down back," Olson said. "He's learning protections, he's learning the route concepts, and learning where he's going to be when he gets out on a route."
The 6-foot, 247-pound Blount is working to make an even bigger impact on offense this season by improving his abilities as a pass catcher out of the backfield. Blount has been working on catching passes with a JUGS machine and his work hasn't gone unnoticed as he has shined catching passes so far during training camp.
"We like what he's shown us so far," said Olson. "It's always an ongoing process with LeGarrette. He's really self motivated and is passionate about how he plays and he works at it, so I don't think there's any reason he can't get better as a pass receiver."
The Bucs are confident that between Graham, Lumpkin, and Bradford the team will find someone to fill Williams' shoes. Williams finished out last season with 437 rushing yards on 125 carries (3.5 avg.) and 355 receiving yards on a career-high 46 catches (7.7 avg.). He also brought three touchdowns to the offense last season. The winner of the third-down back battle has the opportunity to match or even exceed Williams' numbers in 2011 and play a big role in keeping Freeman upright as a blocker in the passing game.
– Mark Cook and Scott Reynolds contributed to this story