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Although Earnest Graham is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in February, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have several running backs, including Michael Bennett, Warrick Dunn and Cadillac Williams, under contract for the 2009 season.
The Bucs are interested in extending Graham's contract after watching him rush for 898 yards (4.0 avg.) and 10 touchdowns in place of injured players Williams and Michael Pittman last year. Tampa Bay's ground attack ranked 11th overall in the NFL last year due to the emergence of Graham and Tampa Bay's young offensive line, and early indications suggest the Bucs will be running the football even more over the next few years.
Tampa Bay has offered Graham, who is represented by agent Drew Rosenhaus, a new contract, but the former undrafted free agent is looking for more money than the Bucs are currently willing to pay him.
Graham skipped all of Tampa Bay's voluntary workouts, which he was known to do in previous years, but participated in the mandatory mini-camp.
The Bucs want to take care of Graham and keep him around, but with Bennett, Dunn and Williams, all former first round-picks, under contract the team doesn't feel it has to overpay him, especially with Williams being ahead of schedule in terms of his knee rehab.
However, there's no guarantee Williams will return to his rookie form after suffering the torn patellar tendon in Week 4 of last season, and Bennett and Dunn will turn 31 and 34, respectively, in 2009.
That said, the Bucs may look at the money they're offering Graham, who turns 29 in January, and decide it might be better to invest it in a younger running back that is scheduled to become a free agent in 2009.
Here is a list of the running backs that are scheduled to become free agents in 2009.
J.J. Arrington (5-9, 212) Arizona
Tatum Bell (5-11, 213) Detroit
Correll Buckhalter (6-0, 217) Philadelphia
Aveion Cason (5-10, 204) Detroit
Jesse Chatman (5-8, 245) New York Jets
Najeh Davenport (6-1, 247) Pittsburgh
Adimchinobi Echemandu (5-10, 226) Oakland
DeShaun Foster (6-0, 222) San Francisco
Earnest Graham (5-9, 225) Tampa Bay
Noah Herron (5-11, 218) Green Bay
Steven Jackson (6-2, 231) St. Louis
Brandon Jacobs (6-4, 264) New York Giants
Travis Minor (5-10, 203) St. Louis
Ryan Moats (5-8, 210) Philadelphia
Vernard Morency (5-10, 212) Green Bay
Maurice Morris (5-11, 216) Seattle
Artose Pinner (5-10, 235) Detroit
Michael Pittman (6-0, 228) Denver
Darren Sproles (5-8, 181) San Diego
Aaron Stecker (5-10, 213) New Orleans
LaBrandon Toefield (5-11, 232) Carolina
Derrick Ward (5-11, 228) New York Giants
Ricky Williams (5-10, 228) Miami
Jason Wright (5-10, 214) Cleveland
There are several big-name running backs that are on the free agent market right now, including Kevin Jones, Cedric Benson and Shaun Alexander, but they each have baggage in the form of injuries or off-the-field issues. Oakland could release RB LaMont Jordan before training camp, but it is unclear whether Tampa Bay would be interested in him.
The Bucs are approximately $29 million under the salary cap, which means they'd have the cap room to seriously consider signing arguably the biggest free-agent-to-be in 2009 — St. Louis RB Steven Jackson.
Tampa Bay had the opportunity to draft Jackson in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft, but passed on him in favor of wide receiver Michael Clayton.
Jackson, 24, has since rushed for 4,249 yards (4.4 avg.) and 30 touchdowns and caught 190 passes for 1,586 yards (8.3 avg.) and six touchdowns for the Rams.
Even if the Rams don't slap the franchise tag on Jackson, several other teams would be bidding for his services in free agency, which could drive his asking price past what the Bucs would be willing to pay for him. Still, if Jackson were to hit the open market consider the Bucs interested in signing him.
The rest of the 2009 free agent class behind Jackson is sub-par.
The 6-foot-4, 264-pound Jacobs, 25, has rushed for 1,531 yards (4.6 avg.) and 20 touchdowns and caught 34 passes for 323 yards and two scores, but he's considered a powerback, which might not be the type of player Bucs head coach Jon Gruden is looking to use in his version of the West Coast offense.
Darren Sproles, 25, was a superstar at Kansas State, and he's averaged 4.8 yards per carry behind LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner, and 25.3 yards per kickoff return in San Diego. However, Gruden had serious reservations about drafting the 5-foot-6, 181-pound Sproles due to his small frame and questions regarding his ability to block effectively on passing downs.
The running back the Bucs could express the most interest in when 2009 rolls around is Philadelphia's Ryan Moats. The Bucs liked Moats when he entered the NFL out of Louisiana Tech. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound Moats has only carried the ball 77 times for 347 yards (4.5 avg.) and caught four passes for just 7 yards in his NFL career. However, Moats, 25, still has upside, especially since he has played in a West Coast offense that is similar to Gruden's system. Moats would also be considered a low-risk, high-reward signing since he'd likely come cheap.
In addition to those players, a few veteran running backs could become cap casualties in ‘09.
Washington RB Clinton Portis is scheduled to have a base salary of $7.450 million, which could be too pricey for the cap-strapped Redskins. Portis, 26, has a lot of miles on his legs, but he is an explosive ball carrier and pass catcher. The fact that Portis played at Miami could help the Bucs lure him to Tampa Bay if Washington had to release him in a cap maneuver.
New Orleans flirted with the idea of parting ways with RB Deuce McAllister, 29, this year. Although that didn't happen, it doesn't mean McAllister is automatically safe in 2009. If McAllister has something left in the tank the Bucs would like the idea of bringing aboard, especially when it means taking him from a division rival.
Arizona RB Edgerrin James, who turns 30 in August, is scheduled to enter the final year of his contract with the Cardinals in 2009 and has a base salary of $5 million, which could be deemed too expensive for a player that has averaged just 3.8 and 3.4 yards per carry in his first two seasons in Arizona. Still, James has displayed the running and pass-catching ability that could pique Tampa Bay's interest if he were to become available in 2009.
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