Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.

Sikkema’s Stat(s) of the Week

You know, it wasn’t too long ago – okay, maybe it was a long time ago – that the game of football didn’t even have passing attacks.

Back in the late 1800’s, Yale and Princeton would be rebels and “illegally” run forward pass plays before it was even instituted into the game’s official rules – those darn nerds. In 1905, The Chicago Tribune reported that 159 players had been seriously injured because of the game of football, and 18 people had even been killed. Because of this, schools participating in the game at the “highest level” formed a Rules Committee that tried to make the game more safe. So, if you want to blame us no longer knowing what a catch is on someone, this is where it starts – kidding, mostly. One of the rules that they implemented was the forward pass, which helped balance out the game. It was then that the game became complimentary.

I say all that to digress a bit and remind you that running the football is quite literally football at its core. Nothing is more football that handing the ball off and running it forward. At that point, it’s just strength versus strength and who can push a pile more. When the game introduced the forward pass that meant that there was a new kind of balance that could exists and that different types of skill sets could not thrive within the game, even if they weren’t the kind that contained the most brute force.

Now we’re in an age where the air raid is all the rage. We’re starting to see teams at both the college and pro level go more four-wide, five-wide, hell, even have linemen and tight ends off the line and be eligible to bring deception and thin out a defense. The top teams in terms of passing yards this season were the Patriots, Steelers, Saints, Rams and Chiefs. Those were teams that averaged the five most passing yards per game, and it’s no coincidence that each of those teams were also in the Top 8 of the NFL in terms of total points score, as well.

So, what does any of that have to do with running the ball? Each of those five teams has quarterbacks who can get it done, and most of which have gotten it done for a long time, Jared Goff of L.A. being the exception. But, though the game of football has gone through its phases, and we are entering into a phase where aerial attacks are the preferred method of scoring, complimentary football still holds its value.

That’s where the run game comes in and remains.

Of those five teams, only one of them was in the Top 10 of rushing attempts per game as well. Expanding it even further, only two of them were in the Top 10 in total rushing yards per game. Does that mean the running game really doesn’t matter that much to have a Top 10 offense? No, and this is why of those five teams, though the majority of them were not in the Top 10 in rushing attempts or even rushing yards, four out of the five teams listed were in the Top 10 in rushing yard efficiency statistics and the one that wasn’t (Pittsburgh) has arguably the best running back in the league in Le’Veon Bell, whom it used in different ways. The common denominator with the Top 5 offenses in the NFL is that not only were they all Top 10 in passing yards, but they were also Top 10 in running back efficiency.

Let’s bring in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs were fourth in the NFL in passing yards per game. They were higher than the Saints, the Steelers and the Chiefs. But, the Bucs were also 27th in the league in rushing efficiency. That’s why instead of seeing the Buccaneers passing attack be rewarded with a Top 5 or even Top 10 scoring offense, instead they were ranked No. 18.

You can throw out whatever scenarios you want and they will all likely be valid, in some degrees. Jameis Winston’s injury, Winston’s garbage time, a bad defense, an inconsistent offensive line, a failing kicking game. All of those things did play a role into filling that No. 18 scoring offense, but I believe the lack of a complimentary rushing attack is what hurt this team the most when it came to closing games out and getting into the end zone.

Bucs RB Peyton Barber –
Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Let’s examine the cast of characters. Doug Martin is toast in Tampa Bay. I don’t even think he’s that bad of running back, even at his age (29), but for the contract the Bucs gave him and how ineffective he was behind the offensive line, his 2.9 yards per carry average can’t be counted on.

Then there’s Jacquizz Rodgers. Rodgers, who will be 28 in 2018, had a 3.8 yards per carry average, but was used more on special teams than in the run game. When he came in on offense it was either because of injury or fatigue.

Charles Sims is the team’s all-time third-down back, which I sort of have a problem with. I don’t blame Sims as much I do the role he’s being put in. Sims is always the running back on third down, it doesn’t matter the down and distance. Because Sims rarely ever gets the ball in a hand off, that takes away from any play-action disguise or even run in a short-yardage situation. That’s not complimentary football; that’s predictable football. Finally we have Peyton Barber, Barber came in and brought a spark to this offense with a 3.9 yards per carry average. I thought he was the Bucs’ most efficient back to end the year, though his workload continued to be cluttered with the other three backs.

Right now, the Bucs have running back talent, but I don’t think it’s in any way complimentary. I think they’re predictable in how they choose to use each, and the fact that they have a four-deep rotation tips teams off to how they’re going to play with each in the game. My suggestion: simplify the running back depth chart and use the guys who are at the top. Don’t play all four running backs just because you have them. Have a plan that can be effective and efficient on the ground on first-and-10, second-and-6, third-and-2 any anything in between anywhere on the field. If you have an efficient run game, sometimes you don’t even have to run the ball for them to make an impact. Just asked the top scoring teams in the NFL.

Martin is due $7 million dollars in 2018, but if he’s cut before June 1st, the team saves all that cap space. The same can be said with Rodgers, who has one year left on his deal, but would save the team $1.6 million in cap if cut before June 1st. Barber is an exclusive right free agent, so he isn’t going anywhere, and Sims is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, so he is free to sign wherever he pleases, perhaps back in Tampa Bay.

You have to think the team going to move on from Martin. Right now he’s the fourth highest paid running back in the NFL, and that just does not add up to his production. If the team committed the running game to Martin totally, that’s one thing, but it doesn’t. I can understand the points of bringing back Sims and/or Rodgers for special teams and just because they’re familiar with the depth chart, but as stated before, if they do that, I think they’re bringing back a predictable rotation and an unhealthy running game overall.

So what if the only running back Tampa Bay choses to keep on the roster for 2018 is Barber? They’ll need to find one or two backs elsewhere.

Here are the top 20 free agent running backs for 2018, via OTC.

Player Pos. 2017 Team 2018 Team Type Current APY ▾ Guarantees
Le’Veon Bell RB Steelers UFA $12,120,000 $12,120,000
Darren Sproles RB Eagles UFA $4,500,000 $500,000
Eddie Lacy RB Seahawks UFA $4,250,000 $2,865,000
Shane Vereen RB Giants UFA $4,116,667 $4,750,000
Frank Gore RB Colts UFA $4,000,000 $6,500,000
Rex Burkhead RB Patriots UFA $3,150,000 $1,100,000
Isaiah Crowell RB Browns UFA $2,746,000 $0
Jamaal Charles RB Broncos UFA $2,500,000 $0
Terrance West RB Ravens UFA $1,797,000 $0
Damien Williams RB Dolphins UFA $1,797,000 $0
Alfred Morris RB Cowboys UFA $1,750,000 $1,800,000
Lance Dunbar RB Rams UFA $1,500,000 $1,375,000
Dion Lewis RB Patriots UFA $1,500,000 $600,000
LeGarrette Blount RB Eagles UFA $1,250,000 $400,000
Cedric Peerman RB Bengals UFA $1,150,000 $100,000
Orleans Darkwa RB Giants UFA $1,100,000 $200,000
Jeremy Hill RB Bengals UFA $938,401 $1,640,510
Carlos Hyde RB 49ers UFA $920,420 $1,954,933
Andre Ellington RB Texans UFA $905,000 $80,000
Benny Cunningham RB Bears UFA $855,000 $80,000

Let’s go into this thinking that there is the top running back spot to fill, or, at the very least, someone who can play with Barber in a two-man rotation.

Le’Veon Bell is obviously the main target for any team looking to upgrade its rushing attack, but with Mike Evans’ contract looming and Winston’s coming the year after, the Bucs likely can’t afford him.

Patriots RB Dion Lewis

My personal favorite target on this list is Dion Lewis. I have no idea why the Patriots went away from Lewis once he got back from his injury, and he’s proven that decision to be silly, as he’s coming on strong over the last half of the season. Lewis would be a perfect replacement for Sims, if the Bucs were to move on, and would be a good compliment to Barber. Lewis is not only a third-down back who can be a difference maker in the passing game, but can also get it done on the ground with a very healthy 5.0 yards per carry average in 2017 and a 4.8 yards per carry average throughout his career – and that’s not even to mention how good he is in the passing game.

If you ask me, Lewis could be a huge boost to what the Buccaneers should be trying to do with their rushing attack, and would be a starter who could play in any situation on any down, leaving Barber to be a great compliment to him (like LeGarrette Blount was) and a great compliment to the passing game overall.

If they can’t snag Lewis and are still looking to get themselves a feature rusher, this running back would be my top target for the Buccaneers in the 2018 NFL Draft…

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  1. No Jerick McKinnon on the Free Agent list? I would be interested in what he could bring to Tampa.

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  2. I like Option A, mainly because getting Chubb, at this point in time, seems to be too much of a stretch. But Option A is good because it should shore up our line, give us a proven DE (with at least some production), and give us a starting RB. Dion Lewis and Peyton combo would be good but not as good as Michel and Barber IMO.

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  3. I doubt we will have a shot at B. Chubb. N. Chubb maybe. IF Koetter would have stucked to the run and stayed with the best performing back, RB might not seem like such a need. With the performance of Zeak last year, Kamara, Hunt, Fournette, and Cook before injury, I suspect the draft value of RBs to rise this year. Good chance Michel won’t be there by our 2nd pick. Our offensive skill positions are good enough. The OL needs an upgrade, just like it did last year! But the defense is putrid! Every draft pick should go to defense with at least the first 3 to the DL. Drafting for need sucks but that’s the hand the Bucs forced on themselves.

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  4. I think there needs to be an option C because I don’t think Ziggy is going to be available and I think there is a good chance Chubb is gone before our pick.

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  5. I like Crowell. Cheap and effective.

    Okay, I’m leaving the front porch light on for all the angry Bucs fans who want to storm my house with torches and pitchforks.

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    • Fan of Crowell as well. Has a stat line of 737 carries/3,118 yds/4.2 avg./21 TD’s/96 recs/770 yds/8.0 avg/1 TD in his first 4 seasons. Doubtful he re-signs with Cleveland. Pretty much every site I’ve read (even dawgpounddaily) says he’s been completely under utilized this year (case in point, he had 5 carries for 72 yds in the 1st half vs the Ravens in Wk 15 and didn’t see another carry the rest of the game). Have to think he’s wanting a change of scenery at this point.

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      • Sitting a RB for the second half after a great first half! Lucky, the Bucs don’t do that, eh? 🙂

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      • I’ve always thought Crowell was criminally underutilized by Cleveland. All he ever does is produce when he touches it,and that’s with no QB so the defenses can’t stack the box.

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        • I agree cg Crowell is a good RB!
          I am not sure about his status contact wise.
          It appears to me that the Bucs need another 1st or 2nd round draft pick.

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          • Add to above could the Bucs trade Cam B. for a 2nd round pick.

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  6. Option B. Chubb will be there. From what I hear, there’s a decent crop of RBs in this draft but not a ton of 4-3 DEs.

    Also who are these “many” who say that Nelson is the best sure-fire prospect of the entire draft class? I didn’t even know his name until 3 days ago so it’d be interesting to know.

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  7. It’s a little early in the game for speculations related to FA and the Draft, however if I were to have a choice I would be closer to B. We have to think pass rush this season and while Bradley Chubb is no Joey Boza or Clowney, I think he is the best out there. I also think we have a fair shot at competing for him because the Colts are looking at Saquon Barkley or OL help. The others picking above us will take QB’s. As far as Michel goes he is impressive in RD2. While Billy Price is versatile, Frank Ragnow  is a beast and should be available at 69. Finally if Ansah or Lewis or both became available I would be a player.

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    • Good call on Ragnow. There is a big chance of a slide from him as he won’t be at the Senior Bowl, missed his last 5 games due to a high ankle sprain and Arkansas was so bad this season. There is a real chance he will make it all the way to the 4th round. I would love for Licht to do a Kendall Beckwith type trade to jump back into the end of the third if he’s hanging around. I like the CB’s that should be available with the 69 pick.

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  8. Off topic, but funny what a difference a year makes. Most of us last year were genuinely worried Mike Smith would be one and done as DC with the Bucs if he took a HC job elsewhere. This year most are praying he gets other offers and takes one.

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  9. I would take option A. People looking for an immediate impact from a DE should look no further than Clowney and Garrett. I’d rather have the experienced DE over the De who more than likely take a few years to develop

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  10. Option A no doubt. Right now. Skip the combine wave the magic wand and make it happen. Michel looks like a slightly bigger (will have to see measurables at combine) version of Kamara (who ran a 4.56 at the combine). Michel running anything in the 4.55 region and it will most likely require jumping back into the first round for him. May have to give up the 2nd and 4th round pick to jump back in a get him.

    3rd round I would choose between the best player of the CB/DE/Safety position. I like a lot of the CB’s that will be available at the top of the third. The problem here is what kind do we need? A press man or off man coverage corner. I would love to find a bigger press man cover corner with good speed to compliment what Grimes (need to resign) can do, but I’m not sure Mike Smith even wants that guy on the team. He seems to like his corners to play off man.

    Ziggy Ansah is the top of my wish list this offseason, if we stay in a 4-3 front. He’s still getting better having played only 9 games in college. He will require a MAJOR contract, but with the state of the Bucs d-line, do it. Releasing Baker and Ayers, and replacing Doug Martin’s contract with a rookie will help. Front load this contract.

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  11. I’ve heard the comment that people don’t think Ansah will come available. I don’t understand this line of thinking. Coming off of a great season, this is he lottery moment. At 28 this is the contract that will set him up for the rest of his life. I don’t see him giving a hometown discount to Detroit. I can’t imagine any agent not advising to test free agency. This will only drive his value up. Will Detroit want him? Absolutely, but so would every base 4-3 team in the league which is still around half of the NFL.

    My thing is can and will Tampa allocate the money required to bring him in? He would become our top paid player and he would mean salary cap issues going forward. This would require extremely creative contract crafting. GMC is in line for a rework which will help too.

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  12. Last comment on Ziggy. The biggest question. What is the price that he would want to come to Tampa? If Calais Cambell was too much last season, Ansah is definitely going to be more than that. His contract will push to be the highest paid DE. Last season he was already #3. He’s not going to take less from any team.

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  13. I would take A because I would prefer a proven NFL pass rusher over a rookie. I would prefer a young RB with very fresh legs (he wasn’t over used in college just like Kamara) and more of an upside . As much as I think we need more first round talent on Defense I would not be against adding a mammoth of a guard next to Smith who is a mammoth himself. I also wouldn’t mind seeing us bring in Ansah, draft DT Da’ron Payne first, RB Michel second, DE Lorenzo Carter in the third. This would shore up the D line and add depth with real pass rushing abilities. Sorry but they have not done well with the DLine and I think you really need to bring in as much pass rushing talent as possible.

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    • Just picture that D line. Ansah, GMC, Payne, Noah Spence/Lorenzo Carter

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      • Take a good look at Veta Vea as our #7 pick.

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  14. Option A… We get everything we need… The Pass rusher, the monster in the middle of the OL and one of the best running backs in the draft.

    Sony Michel is better to have short term and long term in regards to Lewis. He is a better back, and he will have fresher legs, and a lower salary.

    The OL option is better in option A as well taking the #1 OG in the draft as opposed to the #3-5OL in the draft.

    We can shore up DE in FA instead of “hoping” Chubb drops to us instead of going #3 to Indy. If we try for Option B, don’t get a DE in FA and miss on Chubb.. now we are “settling” for a lesser DE in a later round and or not going to be able to get our OL and RB in rounds 1 and 2.

    Option A for the win Alex

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  15. Please Lord, Jesus! Let us somehow draft Sony Michel…I don’t know exactly how the draft has to play out for us to secure him, but he is the next big thing…he won’t have to come of the field and has everything…GA lost that game Monday when they didn’t run Michel in the 2nd half but decided to continue to run Chubb…if we are able to grab Ansah in FA (he’ll prob be tagged) and then draft Fitzpatrick or Derwin in rd 1 (bradley chubb will prob be gone) and then grab Michel with our 2nd pick and i don’t care if that has to happen via trading up…those 3 additions would help out this team tremendously…the rest of FA and draft would be a bonus…IMO

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  16. Ill take option A for 500 Alex

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  17. Option C
    ● sign free agent OG Andrew Norwell from Carolina
    ● Draft Bradley Chubb, DE, N.C. State
    ● Draft Sony Michel, RB, Georgia

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  18. Trevor has astutely portrayed our pathetic running back situation. This assembly, and not so much the offensive line, is the reason the running game was so ineffective. Plus, as Trevor and every Defensive Coordinator so easily noticed, the running back lined up for a particular play often tipped off the defense. If I’m in the stands guessing, so are they.

    I can just hear Luke Kuechly. Here comes #32. Oh, that’s going to be a shovel pass to the RB. There’s #34. Get ready, it’s likely a pass play. Goodie, there’s # 22. It’s OK to relax boys, he’s only going to get 2.9 yards anyway. Who’s that #25? Oh, we might need to tighten up and put another defender in the box so we can keep him under 4 yards. Don’t worry, we won’t see him much. Hey Jameis, we know you have to pass. Here we come!

    In this Draft we must acquire a RB who is a legitimate threat to the defense on all three downs.

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  19. This is all fine and dandy but when it comes draft time and free agency will we really do any of the things we’re talking about right now will we?

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  20. Option C

    1. Norwood
    2. Ziggy

    1. B Chubb
    2. Michel

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