WHAT THE BUCS HAVE AT RUNNING BACK
When Tampa Bay and Doug Martin came to terms on a new five-year, $35.7 million contract last month, the team’s potential need at the running back position reduced dramatically. The Bucs will enter 2016 with Martin as their feature back for the fifth straight season and the Boise State product is coming off the second 1,400-plus yard season of his career. Backing up Martin is Charles Sims, a player the organization has been high on since selecting him out of West Virginia in the third round in 2014. After battling through rookie-year injuries, Sims showed his dual-threat potential in 2015 by rushing for 529 yards (4.9 yards per carry) and catching 51 passes for 561 yards. Tampa Bay still has 2013 sixth-round pick Mike James on the roster after waiving him last September and bringing him back the next month. After getting rid of Jorvorskie Lane, the Bucs do not have a fullback on the roster.
WHAT THE BUCS NEED AT RUNNING BACK
Fullback and touchdowns. Despite finishing 83 yards behind NFL rushing leader Adrian Peterson, Martin was only able to find the end zone six times. That tied him for the team lead in rushing scores with quarterback Jameis Winston and the pair’s 12 scores represented all of Tampa Bay’s rushing touchdowns. Martin mentioned his desire to improve near the goal line during a media session this week – whether it’s short-yardage situations or getting taken down a few yards shy on longer runs. Tampa Bay finished 22nd in the league in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns 52.9 percent of the time they crossed an opponent’s 20. As mentioned, the Bucs lack a fullback or similarly sized bruiser. The traditional position has been getting phased out of league offenses for years, but a situational power back option is something Tampa Bay lacks.
BUCS’ BEST BET AT RB (EARLY 1-4) FB Dan Vitale – Northwestern – Senior – 6-2, 235 – 4.60
On the off chance Tampa Bay selects an offensive backfield player in the opening rounds, fullback Dan Vitale is the type of guy that fits a need. Considering last year’s unfruitful selection of Joey Iosefa in the seventh round, the team could very well address the position at some point next week. Vitale is best known for his athleticism and playing the “superback” position at Northwestern, where he was used to open holes, take short-yardage carries and catch passes. His 33 receptions led all Wildcats pass catchers in 2015. NFL combine performances don’t automatically translate to NFL success, but it’s a never a bad start. Vitale ranked No. 1 among all listed fullbacks in the 40-yard dash (4.60 seconds), bench press (30 reps), vertical jump (38.5 inches), broad jump (10-feet, 3-inches), 20-yard shuttle (4.12 seconds) and 60-yard shuttle (11.36 seconds). The 20-yard shuttle time actually topped all running backs and tight ends and his 30 225-pound bench press reps were second to only Nebraska’s Andy Janovich among all RBs and TEs.
BUCS’ BEST BET AT RB (LATE 5-7) FB Will Ratelle – North Dakota – Senior – 5-10, 251 – 4.57
Considering Bucs personnel traveled to North Dakota to have a private workout with Ratelle is a sign they may try to find another able body at the position this draft. Like Vitale, Ratelle is incredibly athletic. Unlike Vitale, he played at North Dakota as a linebacker. Ratelle is listed anywhere from 5-foot-9 to 5-foot-11 and will need to keep impressing with his high motor and intensity.
TOP 10 RUNNING BACKS 1. RB Ezekiel Elliott – Ohio State – Junior – 6-0, 225 – 4.47
Elliott is projected by many to be the first running back off the board next week, potentially cracking the top 5. After bursting onto the scene as a sophomore and helping lead the Buckeyes to the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship, Elliott followed it up with a second straight 1,800-yard campaign in 2015. His size (6-foot, 225-pounds) combined with exceptional agility and quick acceleration gives him the look of somebody’s future feature back.
2. RB Derrick Henry – Alabama – Junior – 6-3, 247 – 4.54
Another big back out of Alabama, last season’s Heisman Trophy winner could be gone late in the first round. Henry was a downhill-running beast with the Crimson Tide and last year’s SEC-record 2,219 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns made declaring early an easier decision. While he may not possess top-end breakaway speed, Henry’s light enough on his feet to change direction before barreling forward.
3. RB C.J. Prosise – Notre Dame – RS Junior – 6-0, 220 – 4.48
Prosise is a little raw at the position considering he originally came to South Bend as a safety and wide receiver. At 6-feet tall, Prosise still needs to improve upright his running style and indecisiveness when hitting holes. But his upside and big-play potential has him near the top of draft boards.
4. RB Devontae Booker – Utah – RS Senior – 5-11, 219 – 4.52
Although he’s coming off November knee surgery for a torn meniscus, Booker remains a top-five running back for his brief body of work at Utah. He came to the Utes in 2013 as a junior-college transfer, sat out a season to improve his academics, then earned the starting role in 2014 and went for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns.
5. RB Kenneth Dixon – Louisiana Tech – Senior – 5-10, 215 – 4.58
Dixon was a touchdown machine at Louisiana Tech, finishing with 87 total (72 rushing and 15 receiving). He’s known for being a hard-nosed runner who can absorb hits and work his way through traffic to pick up positive yardage. Explosiveness and his overall speed are considered to be average at best.
6. RB Paul Perkins – UCLA – RS Junior – 5-10, 208 – 4.54
Perkins rushed for 2,918 combined yards the past two seasons at UCLA and is the Bruins’ third-leading all-time rusher. He’s a shifty, slashing back that relies on his ability to make defenders miss.
7. RB Kenyan Drake – Alabama – Senior – 6-1, 210 – 4.45
Over-shadowed in Alabama by Heisman winner Derrick Henry, Drake was the lightning to his thunder. Drake is one of the fastest backs in this year’s draft class, clocking a 4.45-second 40-yard dash time. He also possesses good hands, grabbing 24 passes for 250 yards.
8. RB Jordan Howard – Indiana – Junior – 6-0, 230 – 4.59
Howard follows Tevin Coleman as another well-regarded Hoosier running back entering the draft. Reports are out that Howard didn’t interview well at the combine, but he averaged 6.2 yards per carry last season at Indiana and was second the Big Ten with 134.8 rushing yards per game. He runs powerfully but struggled with staying on the field throughout the season.
9. RB Alex Collins – Arkansas – Junior – 5-10, 217 – 4.59
Collins and teammate Jonathan Williams could both be selected in the first four rounds this year. Collins stepped in after Williams injured his foot and missed the 2015 season. Even as a non-starter his first two seasons, Collins rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his three years at Arkansas and scored 20 touchdowns in 2015. He’s a tough runner that doesn’t shy away from contact, but Collins must learn the importance of ball security (16 career fumbles).
10. RB Tyler Ervin – San Jose State – RS Senior – 5-10, 192 – 4.41
Ervin’s ability accelerate and his top speed may be unmatched in this year’s draft class. He’s not a between-the-tackles guy but can be electric on the outside. An added benefit is his hands. Ervin finished second on the team with 45 receptions and swinging him out into open space creates dangers for opposing defenses.
BEST OF THE REST 11. RB Jonathan Williams – Arkansas – Senior – 5-11, 220 – 4.58
Williams was projected to be Arkansas’ lead back but missed last season because of a foot injury. He runs well for his size while also being able to break free from would-be tacklers. If teams are confident in his health, he should be one of the top running backs selected.
12. RB Daniel Lasco – California – Senior – 6-0, 209 – 4.46
Postseason showcase games and positive workouts helped Lasco get back into the conversation. His senior-year numbers dropped dramatically as Cal leaned heavily on the arm of quarterback Jared Goff.
13. RB Kelvin Taylor – Florida – Junior – 5-10, 207 – 4.60
The son of former NFL star Fred Taylor, Kelvin surpassed 1,000 yards last year and is a capable receiver out of the backfield. He has a compact build and can find and hit holes quickly, but he didn’t enjoy great success in Gainesville.
14. RB Wendell Smallwood – West Virginia – Junior – 5-10, 208 – 4.47
Smallwood led the Big 12 with 1,519 rushing yards last season and provided West Virginia with a quick, shifty running option to complement its passing attack. Doesn’t project as an every-down back in the NFL but could show his added value on passing downs as a receiver.
15. RB Josh Ferguson – Illinois – RS Senior – 5-9, 198 – 4.48
Ferguson didn’t produce attention-grabbing numbers at Illinois but runs harder than his 5-foot-9, 198-pound frame suggests. Injuries slowed him last season but he’s praised for his vision and ability to find and hit holes.