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Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden said two years ago that he didn’t want to be in Tampa Bay if his team couldn’t find a way to run the football.
If the Bucs struggle to run the ball again in 2007, Gruden, whose teams have produced three losing seasons in over the past four years, might get his wish in the form of a pink slip.
Since Gruden’s arrival in Tampa Bay in 2002, the Bucs have finished the past five seasons ranked 27th, 24th, 29th, 14th and 28th, respectively in the ground game.
Now, Gruden didn’t drive Tampa Bay’s running game into the ground, evidenced by the fact that it ranked 30th in 2001, which was Tony Dungy’s final season with the Bucs. However, with the exception of the 2005 season, Gruden and Bucs offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Bill Muir haven’t exactly remedied this problem, either.
In 2005, the difference in the Bucs’ running game was Carnell “Cadillac” Williams. The fifth overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft exploded onto the scene and into NFL record books as a rookie by rushing for 1,178 yards (4.1 avg.) and six touchdowns in 14 games.
With the help of Tampa Bay’s No. 1-ranked defense, Williams literally carried the Bucs offense to the NFC South division championship and playoffs.
But Williams and the Bucs struggled to build on that performance in 2006. Williams suffered from back spasms in training camp and preseason and never got on track. Neither did Tampa Bay’s offense, which finished the season ranked 29th overall. Williams rushed for just 798 yards (3.5 avg.) and one touchdown. He missed the final two games of the season due to a foot injury.
Williams, 25, battled injuries at Auburn, and he’s missed four games in two seasons due to a variety of ailments in Tampa Bay.
Still, Williams has rushed for 1,976 yards (3.8 avg.) and seven touchdowns in two seasons with the Bucs. Those are decent numbers, but in order for him to become an elite NFL running back, Williams must work on other parts of his game, particularly pass catching and blocking, both of which were problems for him last season.
If Williams can prove to be a more complete back in 2007, Bucs backup halfback Michael Pittman likely will see less playing time on Sundays.
Pittman has proven to be an effective change-of-pace back. He’s averaged 4.2, 6.2 and 4.9 yards per carry over the past three seasons, respectively.
His biggest contributions likely will still come in the passing game, where Pittman has excelled. He has caught 398 career passes for 3,209 yards and eight touchdowns. Forty-seven of those grabs came in 2006.
If Williams struggles again in 2007, Tampa Bay could find itself in the market for a veteran running back when free agency rolls around in March of 2008.
Not only will Pittman turn 32 in August, he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2007 season.
The Bucs will have Earnest Graham and Kenneth Darby under contract in 2008, but Graham, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent, might not amount to much more than a standout special teams player, and Darby is a seventh-round pick who still has to prove he's worthy of a 53-man roster spot before he's given serious consideration as Pittman's possible replacement.
That said, here are arguably the top 10 free agents-to-be at running backs/fullbacks in 2008:
RB Jamal Lewis (Cleveland) – UFA
RB Larry Johnson (Kansas City) – UFA
RB Michael Turner (San Diego) – UFA
RB Julius Jones (Dallas) – UFA
RB Michael Pittman (Tampa Bay) – UFA
RB Mewelde Moore (Minnesota) – UFA
FB Mike Alstott (Tampa Bay) – UFA
FB Brad Hoover (Carolina) – UFA
FB Cecil Sapp (Denver) – UFA
FB Greg Jones (Jacksonville) – UFA
The list of free agent fullbacks in 2008 isn’t too appealing. Alstott will be 34 in December. Hoover, 31, is also a little long in the tooth. Sapp is a backup in Denver, which could leave Jones as the most intriguing player on this list as far as the fullbacks go.
However, that’s not saying much for the 6-foot-1, 255-pound Jones, who has played in just 30 games in three seasons due to injury. This weak class of fullbacks likely is one of the main reasons why the Bucs signed free agent B.J. Askew to a multi-year contract in March.
The list of free agent running backs in 2008, however, looks quite interesting.
The biggest name on this list might be Johnson. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Johnson has replaced Priest Holmes as the primary back in Kansas City. He’s rushed for 4,205 yards (4.7 avg.) and 47 touchdowns while catching 97 career passes for 1,033 yards and five touchdowns during his career with the Chiefs. Kansas City is attempting to sign Johnson to a long-term deal before he becomes a free agent. Even if he hits the market, some teams, including the Bucs, could resist handing Johnson a blockbuster deal since he’ll be 28 by the time the 2007 season comes to an end.
Lewis (5-11, 245) is another big name, but he’s struggled with injuries over the past several seasons. He’s rushed for 7,801 yards (4.3 avg.) and nine touchdowns and caught 160 passes for 1,365 yards and two scores during his pro career. Like Johnson, Lewis will be 28 this fall, which can be considered a little long in the tooth, especially for a back that has as much wear and tear as he has had. Some teams might be willing to overlook it though if Lewis has an impressive debut with the Cleveland Browns.
Jones (5-10, 211) has had a decent career in Dallas, where he’s rushed for 2,896 yards (4.0 avg.) and 16 touchdowns while catching 61 passes for 469 yards. But with Williams likely remaining a Buc in 2008, Jones might not be too eager to join another two-back attack in Tampa Bay since he’s had to split playing time with Marion Barber.
Gruden went on record in January as saying he wanted to get faster at the running back position when Williams went out of the game for a breather. Pittman has been a productive backup, but he’s not faster than Williams.
While the Bucs are scheduled to be approximately $30 million under the salary cap in 2008 and could enter the bidding war for any of the players listed above, two running backs – Moore and Turner – could be the biggest blips on the radar for the Bucs.
Turner (5-10, 237), whose nickname is “The Burner,” would certainly give Gruden the speed he’s looking for at the running back position. With LaDainian Tomlinson established in San Diego, Turner, who has rushed for 941 yards (6.0 avg.) and five touchdowns, likely will leave the Chargers in 2008. But there’s no guarantee Tampa Bay will be willing to hand him a long-term, lucrative deal. Turner has caught just seven career passes for 55 yards during his three-year career.
The Buccaneers had the opportunity to bring in Turner, who was a restricted free agent this offseason, for a visit, just as they did with Saints defensive end Charles Grant, but they opted not to. It is believed that Turner might be the most sought after running back on the free agent market in 2008.
Moore (5-11, 209) has started just 11 games since 2004, but he’s rushed for 1,172 yards (4.8 avg.) and one touchdown. If the Bucs are looking for Pittman’s successor, which is likely, Moore, 24, would certainly be a candidate, especially in the passing game, where he has caught 110 passes for 1,045 yards (9.5 avg.) and three touchdowns during his three-year career. In addition to his ability to run and catch the football, Moore has some punt and kickoff return experience as well. The Bucs loved Moore when he played at Tulane, and don’t be surprised if they fall in love with him again in free agency next year. He might be the perfect replacement for Pittman if he isn't re-signed by the Buccaneers.
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