Tampa Bay's running back position is somewhat up in the air in 2008 due to the fact that Michael Bennett and Michael Pittman are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents and the rehab associated with Cadillac Williams' knee injury suggests he may not be a significant contributor next season.
The Bucs traded conditional 2008 and 2009 draft picks to the Kansas City Chiefs in exchange for Bennett in mid-October after losing Williams to a season-ending patellar tendon tear in a Week 4 contest vs. Carolina and Pittman to a high ankle sprain the following week.
Bennett, 29, carried the ball 41 times for 189 yards (4.6 avg.) and one touchdown and caught five passes for 54 yards and one touchdown while playing in eight games (one start) with the Bucs.
The former 2001 first-round draft pick with Minnesota has played with three teams during his seven-year career. He would like to re-sign with Tampa Bay, but Bennett also could elect to explore other opportunities in free agency first.
"I definitely want to be here," said Bennett. "It's a great place. It's unfortunate that I had to catch it in the middle and not in the beginning. Hopefully if they want me around I will have a chance to be here early to get ready for everything."
The 5-foot-9, 207-pound Bennett has started 59 of the 80 career games he's played in since entering the NFL out of Wisconsin. He has used his impressive speed to rush for 3,615 career yards (4.5 avg.) and catch 150 passes for 1,218 yards and score a total of 19 touchdowns.
Despite the fact that he arrived in Tampa Bay nearly midway through the 2007 regular season, Bennett produced plays of 28, 23 and 19 yards in limited action. Bennett admitted he's intrigued by what he might be able to do in head coach Jon Gruden's offensive system with an entire offseason, training camp and preseason under his belt.
"I think it's the perfect system," said Bennett. "Coach Gruden does a great job of getting the ball to all of the guys. It's too bad there's only one ball. I'm just looking forward to resting and getting some time to be with my family. I'm hoping to be here.
"Anytime you're a player of my caliber you want to come in and play and be on the field. I had to learn a complex system on the run. I was able to learn a lot while I was here in terms of the basics. I'm still very optimistic. I had a lot of fun while I was here. This is a great locker room full of a great group of guys. There are great veterans and great leadership."
Bennett could elect to wait to see what the Buccaneers do at the running back position before he decides whether to re-sign with Tampa Bay. That's because Pittman is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and Earnest Graham, who rushed for 898 yards (4.0 avg.) and 10 touchdowns and hauled in 49 passes for 324 yards as Tampa Bay's primary ball carrier in place of Williams and Pittman and en route to helping the Bucs finish the season ranked 11th in the NFL in rushing, is under contract next season, but will be looking for a new deal.
"We saw that he can certainly carry the load," Gruden said of Graham. "We saw that he can stand in there on a down to down basis and only play good, but play great at times. Obviously the situation that he was thrust in to, for him to excel the way he did, certainly proved that he is a quality NFL back and a guy that we can win with. I tip my hat to him. We lost our fullback [B.J. Askew] for a few weeks, which didn't help him. [Quarterback] Jeff [Garcia] had his injury, so we had to lean on Graham, and that we did. I think, certainly, he can be a guy that we can give the ball to and ask a lot from. We also need to continue to add to our backfield."
Williams is just beginning to rehab his surgically repaired knee and some believe he will not be able to play in 2008. Gruden even admitted Monday that Williams, who was the 2005 NFL Rookie of the Year, has a long road ahead of him.
"It's a dark lonely world right now that he's in," Gruden said of Williams. "It's going to be a grind. All I can say is that we have as many people on it, on his situation that you can imagine. He's in here early. He's going to be pushed, it's not going to be easy, but if there is any guy that can get it done, he can get it done. It's important to him and it's a long road ahead of him. I'm cautiously optimistic because of the kid we're talking about and the work ethic that he possesses."
Graham impressed in the place of Williams and Pittman, but the Bucs could attempt to upgrade the running back position even more during the offseason, which is when players like Michael Turner (San Diego), Mewelde Moore (Minnesota) and Julius Jones (Dallas) are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.
Even if the Buccaneers decide to sign one of those free agent running backs, Bennett could still opt to re-sign with Tampa Bay as long as he feels he'll have an opportunity to contribute on a consistent basis.
"I just want to be out on the field," said Bennett. "You don't have to give me 35 carries a game or 35 plays a game. I just want to be on the field because I know I can bring that spark and bring that energy and make things happen. Not to be overconfident in my abilities, but I can make some things happen once the ball is in my hands."
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