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There’s still eight games remaining in Tampa Bay’s 2004 regular season, but inquiring minds want to know what the future holds for the Buccaneers’ offensive backfield, particularly running backs Michael Pittman, Charlie Garner and Jamel White, and fullback Mike Alstott.

That said, Pewter Report has taken a closer look at the situation and uses this installment of Flynn’s Focus to shed some light on the subject.

When Garner was lost for the season after tearing a knee tendon in Week 3, some automatically assumed that the Bucs would be in the market for a running back when free agency rolled around in 2005.

Garner was, after all, signed to upgrade Tampa Bay’s tailback position and give the Bucs an experienced ball carrier to carry the torch while Pittman served a three-game suspension to start the season.

But to the surprise of many, Pittman has hit the ground running since his suspension ended and is playing well enough to give the Bucs a legitimate ground game, which currently ranks 28th. Pittman has rushed 81 times for 397 yards (4.9 avg.) and four touchdowns in four games. He’s also added 13 receptions for 130 yards and one score.

Let’s put those impressive numbers in perspective. In two seasons with the Bucs, the most yardage Pittman produced on the ground in a single season was 758 yards. His best average per carry (4.0 avg.) came in 2002, and he rushed for just one touchdown in his first two seasons as a Pewter Pirate.

To eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the first time in his seven-year career, Pittman needs to produce just 75 yards rushing over Tampa Bay’s final eight games of the season. To surpass his career-best rushing total of 846 yards (2001 with Arizona), Pittman needs to rush for just 53 yards per game.

For whatever reason(s), Pittman, who restructured his contract during training camp, is seeing the field, showing patience and following his blocks better now than ever before. The one thing he does an exceptional job of is picking up the blitz, and while that’s not something that will ever show up in a stat column, the Bucs value that skill tremendously.

While Pittman, 29, is signed through the 2006 season, Tampa Bay could have a totally different looking backfield in 2005.

Garner, who will turn 33 in February, is coming off a serious knee injury and the Bucs have said that it will take approximately 6-8 months of rehab for him to make a full recovery. That means Garner might be rendered unavailable as late as May of ’05, and the fact that he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry through two and a half games of action with the Bucs has some thinking Tampa Bay could release Garner during the offseason.

However, it’s highly unlikely that the Bucs will decide to part ways with Garner during the offseason since he’s signed through the 2009 season and received a $4 million signing bonus. His release would call for the team to take a $3 million salary cap hit, which means it would be cheaper to keep Garner since his ’05 cap value is $2.016 million.

White is under contract for this season only and he’ll be lucky to see the end of it. The team has been disappointed in White’s contributions, or lack thereof, on offense and special teams thus far, evidenced by RB Earnest Graham’s recent promotion and White’s status (deactivated) for the game against Kansas City.

Although Alstott is signed through the 2005 season, No. 40 may not see the end of his deal with the Bucs. Why? Because his $2.725 million cap value (base salary of $2 million) is an awful lot to pay a player who was averaging eight touches per game before spraining his MCL. Alstott is an average lead blocker and may be viewed as a liability in the backfield on blitz pickup.

By releasing Alstott, Tampa Bay would take a cap hit of $725,000, but the Bucs would create $2 million in cap room, which is money they’ll need to upgrade the offensive side of the ball next season. The only way I see the “A-Train” finishing his career in Tampa Bay is if he agrees to reduce his salary to somewhere around the league minimum. One of the problems with releasing Alstott is the fact that FBs Greg Comella and Jameel Cook are both scheduled to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, so Tampa Bay may be completely void at the position next year.

The Bucs are waiting to see what Graham does during the second half of the season, but no matter how the former Florida Gator fares, Tampa Bay will likely be looking for a running back in free agency and/or the NFL Draft next year.

The good news is there will be some big-name running backs to choose from, but if Pittman continues to run the way he has over the past two games (two straight 100-yard rushing games), the Bucs may not feel the need to throw a lot of money at one of the better players.

Listed below is a list that includes some of the running backs that are scheduled to become free agents at the end of the 2004 season:

Deuce McAllister (6-1, 232) – During his fourth season in the NFL, McAllister has rushed 98 times for 343 yards (3.5 avg.) and five touchdowns. Those numbers are down from his career totals, which include 3,643 yards rushing (4.4 avg.) and 27 touchdowns. McAllister has also hauled in 143 career receptions for 1,104 yards and four touchdowns. His size, blocking skills, playmaking ability, size and speed would make McAllister a perfect fit for Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden’s offense, but odds are the Bucs won’t be able to afford McAllister, who could be franchised by the Saints.

Shaun Alexander (5-11, 225) – Like McAllister, Alexander could have the franchise tag slapped on him by his team – the Seattle Seahawks – but quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and left tackle Walter Jones are also scheduled to become free agents. He’s rushed for 5,120 yards (4.4 avg.) and 55 touchdowns. Alexander also has great hands, evidenced by his 162 catches for 1,239 yards and nine touchdowns. This season, which is Alexander’s fifth in the NFL, he has rushed 173 times for 879 yards (5.1 avg.) and nine touchdowns. Alexander’s attributes and production along with his playing experience in the West Coast offense would make him an attractive free agent, but after holding him to just 45 yards on 17 carries in Week 2, some Bucs defenders questioned his toughness. Others around the NFL have thought the same thing.

Edgerrin James (6-0, 214) – James and wide receiver Marvin Harris are both scheduled to become free agents, but the Indianapolis Colts will likely only be able to re-sign one of them. Pundits seem to think James, who has rushed 177 times for 791 yards (4.5 avg.) and five touchdowns and has hauled in 28 passes for 293 yards, will be the odd man out. During his six-year career, James has rushed for 6,963 yards (4.2 avg.) and 47 touchdowns while catching 289 passes for 2,312 yards and 10 touchdowns. Although he is one of the league’s best backs, James’ injuries in recent years may drive down his asking price. He has great hands, is a solid runner and is capable of blocking, which would make him attractive to the Bucs. Plus, he’s a native of Florida, and played collegiately at Miami.

Rudi Johnson (5-10, 220) – Johnson has rushed for 1,707 yards (4.2 avg.) and 13 touchdowns in four seasons, two of which have been as the Bengals’ starting tailback. But Johnson hasn’t been as impressive as he was last year, evidenced by his 683 rushing yards (3.9 avg.) and four touchdowns. Plus, Johnson hasn’t displayed the type of soft hands that Gruden wants in a back. He has just 35 career receptions for 207 yards (5.9 avg.).

Anthony Thomas (6-2, 225) – Thomas, who has rushed for 3,184 yards (4.0 avg.) and 21 touchdowns and caught 62 passes for 432 yards, was on the trading block this season, but he ended up staying in Chicago. While Thomas Jones is Chicago’s feature back, Thomas has still gotten touches. He has 69 carries for 256 yards (3.7 avg.) and two touchdowns. Thomas will be looking for the chance to start somewhere, but he may wind up settling for a chance to compete while serving as a backup.

In addition to those backs, keep an eye on Buffalo’s Travis Henry, Minnesota’s Michael Bennett and Onterrio Smith, and St. Louis’ Marshall Faulk. These players are under contract with their respective teams through the 2005 season, but they could be traded or released during the offseason.

Another player that could be on the trading block is retired running back Ricky Williams, but don’t look for the Bucs to have much interest in him. Gruden wants players who love football, and Williams left the Dolphins because he fell out of love with Miami and football.

With Pittman playing well and the strong likelihood of Garner, who received a $4 million signing bonus, returning next season, look for the Bucs to draft a running back next April. They probably won’t take one with their first-round pick, but possible first-day backs that the Bucs will take a hard look at are listed below.

Walter Reyes (5-10, 213) – Reyes, a senior at Syracuse, has outstanding burst and soft hands out of the backfield. He needs some work in terms of blocking, but he’s rushed for 800 yards (5.6 avg.) and seven touchdowns and has hauled in 13 receptions for 95 yards this season.

Darren Sproles (5-7, 180) – Sproles has been Kansas State’s most dangerous weapon and biggest playmaker over the past four seasons. He has great burst and speed, and possesses great hands. He can also return kicks and punts. Sproles has rushed for 1,096 yards (5.3 avg.) and nine touchdowns and has 26 receptions for 193 yards this season. Sproles’ size will be his biggest obstacle in the NFL, but he’s a good character guy and could be a steal in the third round.

DeAngelo Williams (5-10, 217) – Williams is a possible junior entry, and if he does decide to enter the NFL early, he’s a player the Bucs will look at. Williams has rushed for 1,141 yards (5.5 avg.) and 13 touchdowns while hauling in 12 passes for 183 yards and one score as a Memphis Tiger.

This story is intended to be read by PewterInsider 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. Be sure to read the latest issue of Pewter Report on-line in PDF format on Buccaneers merchandise in the world.

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