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Tampa Bay had its best ground attack under head coach Jon Gruden in 2007 and it is looking to build on that success in 2008.
The Buccaneers managed to produce the 11th-ranked running game in the NFL last year despite losing running backs Carnell "Cadillac" Williams (torn patellar tendon) and Michael Pittman (ankle) to injury.
Williams, who rushed for 208 yards (3.9 avg.) and three touchdowns before suffering the season-ending knee injury in Week 4 vs. Carolina, is currently rehabbing the knee ailment.
Some, including people in the Bucs organization, do not believe Williams will return to action in 2008 due to the long rehab associated with his knee injury. Some have even suggested the 2005 first-round draft pick's career is in jeopardy until he proves otherwise.
The uncertainty surrounding Williams' future and Pittman's free agent status prompted the Bucs to make two significant moves this offseason, re-signing RB Michael Bennett and inking Atlanta Falcons free agent RB Warrick Dunn to a two-year, $6 million deal.
The Bucs might not be done on the contract front as far as running backs are concerned. Earnest Graham is entering the final year of his deal and is looking for a new one after rushing for 898 yards (4.0 avg.) and 10 touchdowns and catching 49 passes for 324 yards while starting in place of Williams and Pittman.
Graham did not participate in Tampa Bay's first set of voluntary organized team activities last week, but Graham reportedly stated that it was due to a family vacation, not his contract.
Tampa Bay's front office currently is working with Graham's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, on a contract extension, but more progress must be made before both sides can agree to what could wind up being a multi-year, multi-million contract.
But the Bucs might not be prepared to throw a ton of money at Graham, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent and made the first 10 starts of his career last year. He will also turn 29 next January, which isn't considered young in running back years.
Bennett made his debut in Tampa Bay last October after the Bucs had traded with Kansas City to acquire him. He rushed 41 times for 189 yards (4.6 avg.) and one touchdown while hauling in 15 passes for 101 yards and one touchdown. That production was enough to convince the Bucs to sign him to a three-year extension that included a $750,000 signing bonus in February.
A former first-round pick with Minnesota, Bennett should fare better in 2008 with a full offseason under his belt. That will allow him the time needed to study and digest Gruden's thick playbook and version of the West Coast offense.
Gruden likely will work Bennett, who has outstanding speed, in as a situational-type player that could be a factor on screen and swing passes as well as some running plays.
Although he's 33, Tampa Bay believes Dunn will serve as an upgrade over Pittman, who turns 33 in August and still is an unrestricted free agent.
Dunn originally entered the NFL in 1997 as a first-round pick with the Bucs. He left Tampa Bay after five seasons to join Atlanta in free agency and has now re-joined the Bucs after a six-year stint with Atlanta.
The 5-foot-9, 187-pound Dunn has held up surprisingly well for such a small back and one that has rushed for over 10,000 yards (4.1 avg.) during his career.
Gruden is excited to have the opportunity to work with Dunn, and he'll likely use him as a receiver and blocker. Dunn has hauled in 463 career passes for 4,009 yards (8.7 avg.) and 15 touchdowns and should have a decent amount of passes thrown his way as long as he stays healthy.
Dunn is under contract for two years, but there's a chance he will only play one season before contemplating retirement since he turns 34 next January. In addition, Bennett turns 30 in August and Graham will be 29 next January.
That, along with 2007 seventh-round draft pick Kenneth Darby appearing destined for the practice squad again, explains why the Bucs could be in the market for a running back heading into the 2008 NFL Draft.
The Buccaneers could consider taking a running back as early as the first round (20th overall pick) such as Oregon's Jonathan Stewart, who has some injury issues, or East Carolina's Chris Johnson, who has the speed and pass-catching ability Gruden craves in a running back.
Tampa Bay could also consider drafting Tulane RB Matt Forte or Texas RB Jamaal Charles on the second day of the draft.
Although Mike Alstott retired this offseason, the Buccaneers don't appear to have a pressing need at fullback since they like what B.J. Askew, 27, did as a blocker and receiver last year. The team also feels like Byron Storer fared okay, especially as a blocker, in his Buccaneer debut.
The Bucs likely will feature plenty of two-back sets that include Graham and Bennett, Graham and Dunn, and Dunn and Bennett, which could limit the amount of opportunities the fullback has to see the field anyway, especially if the team drafts a quarterback this month.
Look for the Bucs to remain focused on extending Askew's contract beyond this season while considering the possibility of taking a running back in the 2008 NFL Draft.
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