BUCS’ RUNNING BACKS FREE AGENCY PREVIEWWith free agency scheduled to begin at 4:00 p.m. on March 11, PewterReport.com beings you its annual free agency preview by position. Starting Monday, PewterReport.com will take a look at what Bucs will become free agents at each position, who the Bucs have under contract at the previewed position, then take a look at five players that could fit into Tampa Bay’s plans, known as the Bucs’ Best Bets. Today it’s Tampa Bay’s running backs, followed by wide receivers tomorrow.
BUCS’ PENDING FREE AGENTSTampa Bay’s starting fullback Erik Lorig, backup fullback Spencer Larsen and Brian Leonard, who was a third-down back last year, will be unrestricted free agents. Lorig has a chance to return, but Leonard, who played for former head coach Greg Schiano at Rutgers and just turned 30, likely won’t be offered a new contract. With the team opting for Lorig as its fullback, Tampa Bay may not re-sign Larsen in March.
WHAT THE BUCS HAVERunning back may be the most well stocked position in Tampa Bay, and there is a chance the team does not even add a new one in free agency. Instead, the Bucs may just sign an undrafted free agent or two to compete with the likes of Doug Martin, a Pro Bowler in 2012, Bobby Rainey, Mike James, Jeff Demps and Michael Smith.
Martin is coming off an injury-shortened season in which he only rushed for 456 yards and one touchdown in six games. As a rookie, Martin produced 1,454 yards and averaged 4.6 yards while rushing for a franchise-best 11 touchdowns. The Bucs replaced him with James, a rookie, last year when Martin needed season-ending shoulder surgery in Week 8.
James rushed for 295 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per carry, and threw a touchdown pass before breaking his ankle against Miami on Monday Night Football. Rainey, who was signed mid-season as an injury replacement, showed great speed in ripping off a pair of long touchdown runs, including an 80-yarder against Buffalo, to rack up a total of six scores in nine games. Rainey led the Bucs in rushing in 2013 with 566 yards on 150 carries (3.8 avg.).
Demps, who joined the Bucs after track season prior to the start of the season, only played in two games before tearing his groin and being lost for the season. The speedy Demps had one run for 14 yards and three catches for 21. Smith has spent the first two seasons on injured reserve after trying to make the roster as a kick returner and a reserve running back.
At fullback, the Bucs currently have an unproven commodity in Lonnie Pryor, so the team will have to re-sign Lorig, Larsen or find another fullback.
WHAT THE BUCS NEEDTampa Bay offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford will deploy a two-running back system in which carries will be split between a lead back and a change of pace back. Because of his talent, experience and production, Martin is the early favorite to be the lead back, and Rainey and James will likely duke it for the right to be the backup.
Demps is the fastest Buccaneer on the team and the Olympic sprinter might be the fastest player in the NFL. Tedford loves speed and Demps can be used as a situational back and also as a slot receiver. Those four players fit the size and skill set requirements for Tedford and the team may not have to address the running back position in free agency at all outside of possibly trying to re-sign Lorig or add a fullback for short-yardage, lead blocking situations.
BUCS’ BEST BETS1. Tampa Bay FB Erik LorigThe Buccaneers want to keep the versatile Lorig, who can block and catch, and are working on re-signing him to a long-term deal. The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder should be able to be kept for less than $1 million per season, which is what he made in 2013. Lorig missed the preseason and one game with a calf injury last year, but did manage to catch 11 passes for 47 yards. His career best came in 2012 when he had 12 catches for 83 yards and a touchdown while helping block for Doug Martin’s Pro Bowl rookie season.
2. Houston FB Greg Jones Jones has been one of the most underrated blocking backs in the NFL, but just look at what happened to Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville after Jones left. Jones-Drew had three straight seasons of 1,300 yards rushing or more and then fell off to 414 yards in 2012 in an injury-shortened season, followed by a disappointing 803-yard campaign in 2013 without Jones. The 6-foot-1, 251-pounder has rushed for 913 yards and 10 touchdowns in his career, in addition to catching 73 passes for 471 yards and three scores. The only downside for Jones, a Florida State product, is that he is 33 and is more of a stop-gap player than a long-term solution at fullback.
3. Minnesota RB Toby GerhartTedford will deploy a power running game in Tampa Bay and power is Gerhart’s best attribute. Stuck behind Adrian Peterson, the former Vikings second-round pick has only rushed for 1,305 yards and five touchdowns while rushing for 4.7 yards and an impressive 2.8 yards per carry after contact. Gerhart has also caught 77 passes for 600 yards and three touchdowns. At 6-foot-1, 231 pounds, Gerhart doesn’t quite fit the mold of what a Bucs running back looks like under Tedford, but he could come cheap and fit into G.M. Jason Licht’s model of finding value in free agency. Bucs defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier coached Gerhart in Minnesota.
4. Pittsburgh RB LaRod Stephens-HowlingStephens-Howling spent the first four years of his NFL career playing in Arizona before signing a one-year deal with Pittsburgh to play in his home state of Pennsylvania. He tore his ACL in the season opener, but is expected to be healthy enough to participate in OTAs in April. As a Cardinal, Stephens-Howling rushed for 670 yards and five touchdowns (3.6 avg.), caught 58 passes for 545 yards and three scores and returned three kickoffs for touchdowns as a situational player. He might be the kind of value free agent Licht, who spent the past two years in Arizona, is looking for.
5. Tennessee RB Leon WashingtonWashington has returned eight kickoffs for touchdowns while playing for Seattle and the New York Jets, and the Jacksonville native and Florida State product might want to return to his home state to finish out his NFL career. At age 31, Washington wouldn’t be signed to do more than return kicks and punts in Tampa Bay, but he has rushed for 2,214 yards and 16 touchdowns in his nine-year career, in addition to catching 146 passes for 1,127 yards and two scores. In five games last year in Tennessee, Washington averaged 30 yards per kick return for the Titans and had a 95-yard return.
TOP 5 RUNNING BACKS IN 2014 FREE AGENCY1. Denver RB Knowshon MorenoMoreno, a first-round pick in 2009, was a disappointment for his first four years in Denver, but began running with greater toughness and determination in 2013 and eclipsed 1,000 yards. Still, it’s not enough for the Broncos to want to keep the versatile runner-receiver, even at slightly more than his $3.415 million salary last year.
2. Jacksonville RB Maurice Jones-DrewComing off a season in which he made $7.6 million and rushed for 803 yards, the Jaguars feel it’s time to move on to a more affordable, productive option. Jones-Drew is two years removed from three consecutive seasons of over 1,300 yards rushing.
3. Oakland RB Rashad JenningsAfter not making a mark in Jacksonville, Jennings broke out in Oakland where he rushed for 733 yards and six touchdowns playing for the injury-prone Darren McFadden, who is also a free agent. Yet is Jennings a one-year wonder?
4. Indianapolis RB Donald BrownBrown is a good, but not great back that flashed at the end of the season in Indianapolis as Trent Richardson flamed out. The tough-running Brown averaged 5.3 yards per carry in 2013, but he’s not an elite back and shouldn’t get paid like one.
5. New England RB LeGarrette BlountBlount edges Houston’s Ben Tate for the fifth spot based upon how he finished the 2013 campaign. Blount rushed for 772 yards and seven TDs, including 189 yards and two TDs in the season finale against Buffalo and 166 yards and four scores against Indianapolis in the playoffs.
Up Next: Wide Receivers
Scott Reynolds is in his 22nd year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds enjoys giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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