WHAT THE BUCS HAVE AT RUNNING BACK Tampa Bay returns 2014 leading rusher Doug Martin, backup Bobby Rainey, 2014 third-round draft pick Charles Sims and the seldom-used Mike James. Martin finished the season with 494 yards on 134 carries (3.7 avg.) and just two touchdowns while adding 13 catches out of the backfield for just 60 yards, a far cry from his rookie season where the former Boise star ran for 1,494 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. Martin, like all of the running backs on the Bucs’ roster, suffered from a lack of direction offensively with the sudden absence of offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, numerous injuries and also a porous offensive line. Regardless, Martin is thought to be potential trade bait for a team that believes he can return to his rookie form. Rainey was actually the most dynamic of the Bucs’ running backs last season, but early-season fumbling woes hurt his chances to get on the field as much as he should have. He was re-signed this offseason to a one-year contract worth $1.54 million. Sims was injured in the preseason and wasn’t available until the final eight games. While showing some flashes, it was a disappointing rookie campaign for the former West Virginia star who rushed for just 185 yards on 66 carries (2.8 avg.) and one touchdown. Sims did manage to add 19 receptions for 190 yards last year for Tampa Bay and will see a larger role on offense in 2015. James, who looked solid in 2013 before getting injured, was the forgotten back for the Bucs and when given a handful of chances, the jack-of-all-trades only had 19 carries for 37 yards and his roster spot is not assured in 2015.
WHAT THE BUCS NEED AT RUNNING BACK When taking a look at the names on the roster most would assume the Bucs are set at the position, but no one stood out in 2014, prompting the team to consider bringing in another back that is a potential game-changer. Tampa Bay didn’t have a 500-yard runner for the first time since 1987, so an upgrade in talent is needed. The Bucs could surprise many by taking a running back in the early rounds, especially if one of the top names begins to slip. Having a productive running game will be crucial if the Bucs select a quarterback in the first round as most expect them to do. If the Bucs don’t grab one early, they may bring in a late-round big back that can at the least help covert some short yardage situations, something Tampa Bay wasn’t very good at last season.
BUCS’ BEST BET AT RB (EARLY 1-3)
Mike Davis – South Carolina – Junior – 5-9, 217 – 4.38 Davis, while not the biggest running back in the draft, runs much larger than his 5-foot-9 frame suggests. The former Gamecocks star was banged up with nagging injuries last season, but yet still managed to notch 982 yards and nine touchdowns in Columbia. Davis had some ball security issues, but impresses scouts with his ability to accelerate through holes while reading defenses well. Equipped with excellent field vision, and not afraid of contact, Davis is projected to go in the third round of the draft. The Bucs attended his pro day and privately worked him out.
BUCS’ BEST BET AT RB (LATE 4-7)
Matt Jones – Florida – Junior –6-2, 231 – 4.61 Jones was an inconsistent product in Gainesville somewhat but is as tough an inside runner as you will find. Described as a down-hill runner, Jones has some excellent games for the University of Florida against Georgia and Kentucky after playing locally for Armwood High School. Jones averaged nearly 5.0 per carry, rushing for for 817 yards with six touchdowns last season for the Gators, behind a sub-par offensive line and a poor offensive scheme. Tampa Bay would like a bigger bruiser type running back to complement their current roster, and the local product could fit that bill.
TOP 10 RUNNING BACKS 1. RB Todd Gurley – Georgia – Junior – 6-1, 222 – 4.45 Had Gurley not suffered a knee injury late last season he almost certainly would be viewed as a top 5 selection. Even after tearing an ACL against the Auburn Tigers, Gurley is expected to still be a first-round pick this year and could even go in the top 15 with reports surfacing that he may be ready to go by the start of training camp – a remarkable feat considering the normal rehab time for that type of injury can be up to a year. The former Bulldog ran for 911 yards in his final season in Athens, averaging 7.4 yards per carry on his way to nine touchdowns and he also added a kick return touchdown against Auburn before tearing his ACL. The explosive and powerful Gurley finished his Bulldogs career with 3,285 rushing yards yards and 36 touchdowns on the ground while adding 615 receiving yards, six receiving touchdowns and even two kickoff return touchdowns.
2. RB Melvin Gordon – Wisconsin – Junior – 6-1, 221 – 4.52
Gordon burst onto the scene in 2013 rushing for 1,609 yards and 11 touchdowns while splitting time with James White. The elusive back then followed 2013 up with a monster season last year, rushing for 2,587 yards on on 343 carries (7.5 avg.), including setting an FBS record with 406 yards in one game. Gordon accounted for a whopping 32 touchdowns in 2014. The former Badgers star could be the first running back drafted in the first round since 2012 and should be an instant impact player for his new team. While he doesn’t have world-class sprinter speed, Gordon has a second, and at times, a third gear. His quick acceleration allows him to hit holes wide open and also has exceptional vision.
3. Jay Ajayi – Boise State – Junior – 6-0, 221 – 4.57 London born to Nigerian parents, Ajayi was a late bloomer to football after being a soccer player in his youth. A workhorse-type back, Ajayi totaled 397 touches in 2014, setting school records for rushing yards (1,823), carries (347), all-purpose yardage (2,358), rushing touchdowns (28) and 100-yard rushing performances (10). Ajayi is a tackle-breaker with a wicked spin move and great balance. He has a powerful stiff arm, good vision and acceleration, and runs low to the ground and below pad level. He’s tough and plays with a chip on his shoulder, leading most to feel his game will translate well at the next level. One area that Ajayi needs to improve on is ball security having committed 12 fumbles in his career at Boise State. He’s viewed as a second-round pick.
4. Ameer Abdullah – Nebraska – Senior – 5-9, 205 – 4.60
Despite being somewhat small in stature, Abdullah is one of the toughest running backs in the 2015 class and also while not the fastest running back in the draft, the former Cornhusker is elusive with great vision. Abdullah really helped himself with an excellent week at the Senior Bowl back in January where he was the game’s MVP. Abdullah notched 1,611 rushing yards last season, and finished his college career with 4,588 rushing yards, which placed him second in Nebraska history behind only Mike Rozier. Abdullah also tied the school single-season record with four 200-yard rushing games as a senior and should be drafted in the second or third round.
5. Tevin Coleman – Indiana – Junior – 5-11, 206 – 4.38 Coleman had a monster 2014 season, becoming just the 18th FBS player to reach the 2,000-yard rushing mark in a single season, while also setting a Indiana school record with 2,036 rushing yards. The former Indiana star led the country in 20- and 50-yard touchdown runs finishing his career with 15 100-yard rushing games for the Hoosiers. Coleman has an aggressive running style and has no problem breaking arms tackles and delivering punishment to defenses when needed. Despite being a marked man, Coleman shredded some good defenses in the Big 10, including Ohio State’s and Michigan State’s. Coleman is viewed as a second-round selection.
6. Duke Johnson – Miami – Junior – 5-9, 207 – 4.54
Johnson doesn’t jump out and wow as some of the other backs in the 2015 class do, but when healthy was one of the most productive backs in college football while also being one of the most rounded in this year’s class. The former No. 1 overall high school recruit Johnson – a Miami native – took his talent across town to the Hurricanes where he finished as Miami’s all-time leader in all-purpose yardage, including 3,519 yards rushing on 526 carries and 26 touchdowns. Johnson produced 14 career 100-yard rushing games playing for Al Golden while at Miami. Scouts question if his frame will allow him the durability to be a three-down back at the next level but in the right system, he should have no trouble adjusting to the NFL and having success. There’s a chance Johnson gets drafted in the second round, but he won’t make it past the third.
7. T. J. Yeldon – Alabama – Junior – 6-1, 226 – 4.61
The former star for Nick Saban at Alabama was the first back in Crimson Tide history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons and was one of the toughest runners in the SEC over the last three years. An upright runner, Yeldon will need to run with a lower pad level in the NFL to avoid taking the knockout shots from linebackers across the league, but he has excellent acceleration while also being a solid, one-cut runner. Yeldon finished his Alabama career with 3,332 yards on 576 carries and 39 total touchdowns. Yeldon will need to improve his pass blocking and hit holes a little faster than he did in Tuscaloosa. Yeldon is likely a third-round pick.
8. David Johnson – Northern Iowa – Senior – 6-1, 221 – 4.50
Johnson has prototypical size for an NFL back and has a thick lower body that can move piles and drive defenders back and was rarely not falling forward after first contact. Johnson doesn’t have the ability to turn on the jets like some in this year’s draft class do, but runs hard through the second level. The former Northern Iowa standout became the first player in school history to have three 1,000 yard rushing seasons (4,682 career rushing total) in their first three years. Johnson is also one of the best pass receiving backs in this years class, evidenced by his 142 career receptions for 1,734 yards and 14 touchdowns as a pass catcher. Some teams are high on Johnson, who could be drafted between the second and fourth rounds.
9. Jeremy Langford – Michigan State – Senior – 6-0, 208 – 4.42
Langford is a throwback type of runner – tough, hard nosed and one who gets stronger as the game goes on. The Michigan native had 12 straight 100-yard games against Big 10 competition during his career in East Lansing and will wear defenses down with his inside running power and attitude. There isn’t lot of shiftiness in Langford’s running style and what you see is what you get. During his Spartans’ career Langford ran for 2,967 yards on 577 carries (5.1 avg.) with 40 touchdowns. Langford is a solid second- or third-round selection.
10. Mike Davis – South Carolina – Junior – 5-9, 217 – 4.38 The former South Carolina star was banged up with nagging injuries last season but yet still managed to notch 982 yards and nine touchdowns for Steve Spurrier in 2014. Davis had some ball security issues but impresses scouts with his ability to accelerate through holes while reading defense well. Equipped with excellent field vision and not afraid of contact, Davis produced 2,240 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns as a Gamecock. Davis will likely come off the board in the third round.
BEST OF THE REST
11. Javorius “Buck” Allen – Southern Cal – Junior – 6-0, 221 – 4.53
Allen earned All-Pac-12 first-team honors on 1,489 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, while also adding 41 receptions for 458 yards and another score as a receiver out of the backfield. With excellent size, especially below the waist, the thick-legged Allen isn’t easy to tackle one-on-one, and is very good after first contact. Allen is projected to be drafted in the fourth round.
12. David Cobb – Minnesota – Senior – 5-11, 229 – 4.58
Cobb didn’t run behind an elite offensive line at Minnesota but still put up great numbers, rushing for 2,893 yards in his Golden Gophers career, including 1,626 and 13 touchdowns in 2014. The Texas native doesn’t do anything outstanding, he just produces, something that NFL scouts have taken notice of. Cobb is slated to be a fourth- or fifth-round draft choice.
13. Cameron Artis-Payne – Auburn – Senior – 5-10, 212 – 4.53
Artis-Payne has taken the long road to the NFL, including spending two years out of football before enrolling at a junior college then at Auburn where he had very good success. Scouts say he lacks a second gear, but also give him credit for his initial quick burst and ability to find daylight. Despite not getting the attention of some of the other backs nationally, Artis-Payne had an SEC-best 1,608 rushing yards last season for the Tigers and is likely a fifth-rounder.
14. Karlos Williams – Florida State – Senior – 6-1, 230 – 4.48
A converted safety, Williams is still learning the awareness it takes to play running back. A north-south runner, it takes the former Nole a while to get going but his top end speed is one of the best in the country. Williams, a special teams standout in Tallahassee will most likely have to be the same in the NFL while he continues to grow into a natural runner. Splitting time with freshmen Dalvin Cook, Williams ran for 689 yards and 11 touchdowns for the Seminoles in 2014. The speedy big back could be drafted in the fifth round.
15. Dominique Brown – Louisville – Senior – 6-2, 234 – 4.63 Brown proved in St. Petersburg at the East-West Shrine Game that he is a physical runner with patience and vision but scouts question where he fits in at the next level. Some see him potentially converting to an H-back. Brown, who fell out of favor with new Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino last year, also excelled in pass protection, something scouts were impressed with. Brown could be drafted in the fifth or sixth rounds.
16. Matt Jones – Florida – Junior –6-2, 231 – 4.61 Jones Gators’ career was an up and down affair but was more of a product of the constant offensive coaching staff changes under former coach Will Muschamp. For teams looking for a big, physical back that doesn’t shy away from contact, Jones is that guy. The big, bruising Gators back is likely a sixth-rounder.
17. Malcolm Brown – Texas – Senior – 5-11, 224 – 4.62 Brown had a somewhat disappointing final season under Charlie Strong at Texas, notching just one 100-yard game in 2014. Brown can be a workhorse back, but lacks ideal speed and quickness according to most scouts. Brown, who was once the top running back coming out of high school, is tough runner who doesn’t waste time getting north and south. He’s likely a sixth-round selection.
18. Josh Robinson – Mississippi State – Junior – 5-8, 217 – 4.70 Robinson is a tough runner, not afraid of contact and rarely goes down on first contact, but doesn’t possess breakaway speed and often gets caught from behind. Robinson finished his career with 1,997 yards on 323 carries with 15 touchdowns and added 493 yards as a pass catcher out of the backfield. Scouts see him as a sixth-round pick due to his productive senior season and his tackle-breaking ability.
19. Zach Zenner – South Dakota State – Senior – 6-0, 221 – 4.60 Nicknamed the “Taz,” Zenner put together three straight 2,000-yard seasons for South Dakota but also took a lot of punishment and wear and tear with 795 career touches. Scouts say he needs to run with lower pad level to avoid the big hits, but you can’t argue his production during his college career. Zenner is likely a sixth-round pick and his blue-collar attitude will serve him well on special teams as a rookie.
20. John Crockett – North Dakota State – Senior – 6-0, 213 – 4.64 Crockett nearly had 2,000 yards rushing as a senior while winning his fourth national championship at the FCS level with the Bison. A loud, gregarious player, the upbeat Crockett has great leadership skills and will excel as a third-down back and special teams contributor at the next level. Crockett, who also has kick return ability, is likely a seventh-rounder.
Mark Cook currently is the director of editorial content and Bucs beat writer and has written for PewterReport.com since 2011. Cook has followed the Buccaneers since 1977 when he first began watching football with his Dad and is fond of the 1979 Bucs team that came within 10 points of going to a Super Bowl. His favorite Bucs game is still the 1979 divisional playoff win 24-17 over the Eagles. In his spare time Cook enjoys playing guitar, fishing, the beach and family time.Cook is a native of Pinecrest in Eastern Hillsborough County and has written for numerous publications including the Tampa Tribune, In the Field and Ya'll Magazine. Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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