This story is intended to be read by Pewter Insider subscribers only. Sharing of the PI content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers. Copyright 2008

In 2007, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the 11th ranked rushing offense in the NFL. Four different players carried the ball over forty times to help the Buccaneers win the NFC South division championship. For the season the Bucs ran 449 times for 1,872 yards an average of 4.2 yards per carry, and scored 15 touchdowns via the ground game.

After injuries to starter Carnell Williams and backup Michael Pittman, the Buccaneers turned to Earnest Graham to be their primary ball carrier. Graham had a career year, running the ball 222 times for 898 yards, an average of 4.0 yards per carry, and 10 touchdowns. He also contributed as receiver out of the backfield catching 49 passes for 324 yards. That was the most receptions by a Bucs running back since Pittman caught 75 balls in 2003.

Following the season that put him on the NFL map, Graham has decided to avoid the Bucs' organized team activities. The reason is believed to be that Graham is trying to pressure the Buccaneers into meeting his desires for a lucrative contract extension. Graham's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, has been known to have his clients hold out for more money. While Graham probably feels he is doing the right thing, that view could be misguided.

In the latest SR's Fab 5, Pewter Report's publisher Scott Reynolds elaborated on why Graham's starting position is in peril. Many people involved with football, or other sports, feel that if a player is not practicing with the team he does not deserve the right to play over players who are going to practice, voluntarily workouts or mandatory workouts. If Graham were to receive the starting position when he does show up, that could be an insult to the players who are coming and working hard with their teammates. Missing team activities creates other issues as well.

With Graham not participating with the team throughout the offseason, the continuity of last season's team is disrupted. With a new center, Jeff Faine, and the maturation of Tampa Bay's young offensive linemen, Graham is not able to improve the chemistry he has with his blockers. How can Graham have a knowledge of Faine's blocking tendencies and line calls when he is not practicing with him? The Bucs offense puts the decision on line audibles on the center; it would benefit the Buccaneers, and Graham, to get in sync with his offensive line as early as possible.

Aside from Faine, Graham has new blockers in two new tight ends, Ben Troupe and John Gilmore. Tampa Bay uses a lot of multiple tight end formations and those tight ends also are counted on to make crucial blocks on the perimeter during goal line formations. Just like Faine, Graham can't develop an understanding of Troupe and Gilmore as blockers when he is not practicing with them. The teamwork done in the spring leads to excelling in the fall.

The NFL's all-time leading touchdown pass combination of Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison said a big reason for their success was thousands of throws in April and May. From the end of the season in January to the start of training camp in mid-July, a running back has around 20 practices with his teammates in OTAs and a mini-camp. It's hard to rationalize missing those 20 practices in six and a half months of offseason.

Not only is Graham jeopardizing continuity and chemistry, Graham is also missing the installation of new plays and changes to the offense. At the OTA sessions that the media have been allowed to see, the Bucs look like they are installing new wrinkles in their offense. The running backs were involved with some different pass routes. With an athletic center like Faine, the Buccaneers may be able to run more screens in the regular season.

When Graham is back with the team, he will have to learn those new additions to the playbook while the rest of his teammates are working on perfecting those plays, and moving on to new preparatory tasks for the regular season. Pewter Report spoke exclusively with running back Michael Bennett this past week. His comments reflected what Graham is missing, and what he is not doing with his teammates.

When asked about if the Bucs are installing new things into the offense Bennett responded enthusiastically, "Yeah a lot of different stuff, early on last year we didn't get to install everything, and I wasn't here for it, but man, right now it's all really good and it's going great."

Bennett was also excited about the team chemistry and camaraderie.

"Man it's coming along great, especially with our new additions, like Jeff Faine. Everybody is working together to be in here in the Super Bowl next season," said Bennett.

Considering what Graham is missing and how that impacts the team, it is this Pewter Reporter's opinion that he should not be the starting running back going into training camp. That leaves the starting position to be between Warrick Dunn and Bennett. Head Coach Jon Gruden could use more speed out of his running backs. Bennett and Dunn are faster than Graham, and are bigger threats to break big plays. This Cover 2 will debate which of these veterans should be Tampa Bay's starting running back.

Cover 1 – Dunn Should Be The Starting Running Back

After six seasons in Atlanta, Dunn has come back to the city where his NFL career began in Tampa Bay. During his years as a Falcon, Dunn produced some impressive rushing totals and helped Atlanta to have one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL. Considering what he has accomplished, his reliability, and his diverse skills Dunn is the top choice to be the Bucs starting running back.

During his 11-year career, Dunn has rushed 2,483 times for 10,181 yards (4.1 avg.) and 47 touchdowns. He has also been productive receiving the ball, catching 463 career passes for 4,009 yards (8.7 avg.) and 15 touchdowns.

With the Buccaneers, Dunn appeared in two Pro Bowls (1997 and 2000). He is third all-time for rushing yards in Tampa Bay history with 4,200 yards on 1,070 carries for a 3.9 average. As a receiver Dunn is eighth all-time in receptions with 259 catches going for 2,374 yards. Dunn's 26 touchdowns is sixth overall in Buccaneer history.

In 2007, Dunn rushed 227 times for 720 yards (3.2 avg.) and scored four times while catching 37 passes for 238 yards in a rough season for the Atlanta Falcons. After the Falcons signed free agent running back Michael Turner, Dunn asked for and was granted his release. Dunn visited the Buccaneers on Mar. 3 before signing with the team on Mar. 10.

The 33-year-old Dunn will be knocked for his age and critics will point to his underwhelming numbers from last season as proof that Dunn is starting to slow down. However, when one takes a closer look at Dunn's recent production one will see that the age argument doesn't carry much water.

Last year, the Florida State product was playing for a terrible Falcons team that had one of the worst offensive lines in the league. The 5-foot-9, 187-pound Dunn had very little talent around him, and was in an difficult position to carry Atlanta by himself. Prior to 2007, the Falcons had one of the best running games in the league. Dunn was a big part of that, even though he was over 30.

In 2006 at 31, Dunn ran for 1,140 yards and averaged 4.0 yards per carry. In 2005 at 30, Dunn ran for 1,416 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. The 30-year mark is supposed to be the death knell for running backs, but Dunn has ran for over 3,000 yards in his 30's.

Even though 2007 was a down year for Dunn with 720 rushing yards, Bennett hasn't totaled that many rushing yards since his career year of 2002. In fact Bennett hasn't even run for 500 yards once in the past five seasons. Since Bennett's Pro Bowl campaign in 2002, his best season was in 2005 when he ran for 473 yards on 126 carries for an average 3.8 yards per carry and three touchdowns. Last season, Dunn showed he can match Bennett for big play potential. Dunn's longest play was a 38-yard run. Bennett's longest play was a 28-yard run.

Despite being one of the fastest running backs in the NFL, Bennett has not gotten to the end zone much in his career. In seven pro seasons Bennett only has 19 touchdowns running and receiving. In Dunn's career, he has 62 touchdowns rushing and receiving over 11 seasons.

Another reason why Dunn should be the starting running back is his skills as a receiver. By far Bennett's career high for receptions in a season was 37 back in 2002 for the Minnesota Vikings. Dunn has had 37 receptions or more in eight different seasons. His high was 68 in 2001 in his last season as Buccaneer.

Another attribute of Dunn's that he is probably better than Bennett at is blitz pickup. While Dunn is smaller than Bennett, blitz pickup was one of the reasons why Gruden didn't give Bennett more playing time in 2007. Bennett should be improved at this with more time in the Bucs offensive system, but Dunn has a reputation as more of a complete player than Bennett and is viewed to be more reliable in picking up blitzes.

A good comparison is to look at what they did against a common opponent. The best team for that comparison is the Carolina Panthers. That was one of two games last year where Bennett received double digit carries.

In Week 17 against Carolina, Bennett had 15 carries for only 39 yards. He caught two passes for 28 yards. One of those receptions was for a 23-yard touchdown. Bennett averaged 2.6 yards per carry in that contest.

Last year in two games against Carolina, Dunn had 37 carries for 144 yards and an average of 3.9 yards per carry behind a struggling Falcons offensive line. That included a 30-yard touchdown run. Dunn caught seven passes for 64 yards in those two contests.

Another important factor to consider is the injuries. Dunn has played in every game over the past four seasons. In fact Dunn has only missed nine games in his 11 seasons. Bennett has had injury issues. Due to injury, Bennett has missed 21 games over seven seasons. Being in the lineup and getting more carries might lead some to say that Dunn has taken a bigger pounding then Bennett and will not be as fresh in 2008.

At last Thursday's practice, Dunn looked like the same player he was in his first tenure with the Buccaneers. Dunn jetted through holes, created separation as a receiver, and ripped off yards in chunks. The Bucs have a fast defense and Dunn's speed was evident when he gashed the defense for some nice runs on pitches and counters. Not only did Dunn look fresh, but also his skill set looked great in Gruden's offense. There are no reasons to think that Dunn couldn't put up a big total of combined yards if given the opportunity.

Over their careers, Dunn has proven to be a better rusher, receiver, and pass protector. Dunn also has been able to avoid injuries and has been a mainstay in the lineup contributing to his team. Dunn should be Tampa Bay's starting running back in 2008.

Cover 2 – Bennett Should Be The Starting Running Back

Nobody can deny that Dunn has been a productive back in the NFL. Over his career, Dunn has been a consistent producer for his teams. However the fact remains that Dunn is 33, and it would be foolish to rely on him to be a primary ball carrier at this point in his career. Dunn can still be an effective contributor and can definitely be a real weapon for the Buccaneers. The reason why Dunn should not be the starting running back is not only his age, but his dropping production as well.

In 2008, Bennett will be three years younger than Dunn and has incurred much less punishment over the past few seasons. After the injuries to Williams and Pittman, Bucs general manager Bruce Allen traded for Bennett to give the team some depth and insurance at the running back position.

Last season, Bennett saw only limited duty as he tried to learn Gruden's complex playbook during the season. Bennett averaged 4.6 yards per carry in rushing for 189 yards and one touchdown on 41 carries as a Buccaneer. He caught five passes for 54 yards and another touchdown in 2007. The best game of the season for Bennett was against Atlanta on Dec. 16. Bennett ran the ball 10 times for 65 yards.

While Bennett did not get a lot of carries last season, he illustrated his speed and explosiveness. He had a 19-yard touchdown against Jacksonville. He had a 28-yard run against at Atlanta, and the 23-yard touchdown catch against Carolina.

In his career Bennett has ran for 3,615 yards and 13 touchdowns on 810 carries (4.5 avg.), and has also caught 150 passes for 1,218 yards (13.7 avg.) and six scores throughout his career. Bennett has also had three seasons where averaged over five yards per carry (2006, 2003, and 2002).

Bennett proved he has the talent to be one of the best running backs in the NFL in 2002. He made the Pro Bowl after rushing for 1,296 yards and five touchdowns on 255 carries (5.1 avg.), in addition to hauling in 37 receptions for 351 yards and one touchdown.

Looking at the Bucs current stable of running backs, the numbers indicate that Bennett has the most explosiveness in the group. If you take Bennett's average yards per carry with the Buccaneers, he had the highest average of the Buccaneers running backs from last year, and their backs for this year.

Bennett 4.6
Pittman 4.2
Graham 4.0
Williams 3.9
Dunn 3.2

That would suggest that Bennett has the most life in his legs. He certainly has the least wear and tear. Over the past two seasons Bennett has the least number of carries of any of those backs.

Dunn 513
Williams 279
Graham 233
Pittman 118
Bennett 97

Not only has Dunn had a lot of pounding for a running back over 30, but also his ability to produce seems to be declining. Dunn has seen his yards per carry drop from 5.1 to 4.0 to 3.2 over the past three seasons. His yards per game have also fallen drastically. Over the same three seasons Dunn went from 88.5 to 71.2 to 45.0. Considering his age it seems foolish to expect Dunn to be able to rebound to his peak years of 2003-05.

Just because Bennett hasn't ran for 500 yards in the past five seasons doesn't mean he couldn't have a big 2008. Graham had hardly any rushing totals before running for almost 900 yards last season. The ability of Graham to run inside the tackles also has to be considered when choosing between Bennett or Dunn as a starter.

In his career, Bennett has had success running the ball up the middle as well as running the ball on the perimeter. Dunn ran well between the tackles as a member of the Falcons, but he had his best years running up the middle when Atlanta employed a zone-blocking scheme. The Buccaneers do not run the zone-blocking scheme, and it is not difficult for Buc fans to remember the maddening ineffectiveness of Dunn getting carries up the middle for little or no gain when he was a Buccaneer. To be most effective Dunn needs to get the ball in space where he can use his shiftiness and quickness to run past defenders.

Bennett is not a hard nosed up the middle runner like Graham, Williams, or retired Tampa Bay great Mike Alstott. However, between Dunn and Bennett, it is the latter that is better suited to run between the tackles. He did that for the Vikings in 2002, and could do that again behind the Buccaneers' young talented offensive line. The young line last year had success opening holes up the middle and on the outside. With Bennett's abilities it would make sense for him to be the primary ball carrier. Not only is Bennett better suited to running inside and outside, he also has more deep threat speed than Dunn.

Last season, the Bucs lack of speed outside of wide receiver Joey Galloway hurt the team's ability to convert field goal producing drives into touchdown producing drives. Bennett has the speed that Gruden craves on offense and is one of the fastest players in the NFL. With Bennett starting at running back the juice he brings to the offense will give the Buccaneers a touchdown threat on every carry from any part of the field.

Bennett also has greater familiarity with Gruden's offense than Dunn. Bennett has half a seasons of game experience with Gruden, and has been able to build on that this offseason. He feels that his knowledge of the offense is where it needs to be.

"It's definitely coming along great. I've had the whole offseason to sit here and learn and its looking good," said Bennett.

The 5-foot-9, 207-pound Bennett was used in screen passes as a running back and also in bubble screens as a wide receiver in the OTA's. Of all the players on the Bucs offense, Bennett looked like he was the fastest player on the team at the OTA's the media has been able to watch. While Dunn is a mismatch for linebackers with his quickness, Bennett is a mismatch for cornerbacks or any defender with his elite speed.

Dunn is still a good player and could be a real asset for the Bucs on third downs, but at his age he should not be relied upon to be the starting running back. The numbers indicate that Bennett has fresher legs and taken much less pounding. With his speed, receiving skills, and playmaking ability Bennett should be the Buccaneers starting running back

Conclusion

After considering both covers, Bennett should be penciled in as the primary ball carrier for the Buccaneers. At this point in his career, Dunn will give the Buccaneers the most bang for the buck as a situational runner. Bennett is in a better position to handle a high number of carries, and he provides the biggest playmaking threat of all of Tampa Bay's running backs.

The reality of the situation is that the Buccaneers have not chosen Dunn or Bennett as the primary ball carrier. Pewter Report spoke with Rich Bisaccia, associate head coach- special teams and running backs, about the distribution of carries.

"As crazy as this sounds a lot of guys are getting equal reps," said Bisaccia. "We got some young guys that just got here the other day and we're trying to get them worked in to take care of some of the other guy's legs. Warrick's getting his reps at halfback as well as Michael Bennett."

Bennett confirmed the even distribution of snaps with the first-team offense.

"Right now it's about the same. He'll go in for certain things. I'll go in for certain things. We both go in at times," said Bennett. "It's kind of a back and forth. Right now nothing is solidified nothing is stitched in stone. The biggest thing for us is to get better as a group and continue to get each other better."

Everything could change if Graham started to show up for OTAs and worked to compete with Bennett and Dunn. Nevertheless, Bennett and Dunn are the ones there working on improving the Bucs for next season.

"Right now I don't know, and it's really not my concern, my concern is to continue to work and get better," said Bennett. "When that time comes for the coaches to make a decision, whatever the decision they make I'm going to go with it. My job is to continue to work and get better to improve from where I came last year to where I am now. That has definitely been a big jump, so my thing again is continue to improve, get better and show them I can play and I am willing to be in whatever situation they put me in."

In choosing between Bennett and Dunn as the starting running back, this Pewter Reporter is selecting Bennett to be the Bucs first-string ball carrier.


Want the inside scoop on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2008 offseason plans? Want to find out who the Bucs are targeting in free agency and the NFL Draft this year? Subscribe to PewterReport.com's Pewter Insider by clicking here.

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