FAB 2. AP And Other Free Agent RBs The Bucs Should Pursue
Coaching alone isn’t going to make Tampa Bay’s ground game much better in 2019. Peyton Barber had the best year of his career with 871 yards and five touchdowns last season, but his pedestrian 3.7 yards per carry average shows why he was an undrafted free agent and more like Earnest Graham than either Warrick Dunn or Mike Alstott.
Barber has solid vision, a nice jump-cut and good tackle-breaking ability, and he may become a 1,000-yard back with better blocking upfront from Tampa Bay’s offensive line. Yet there was a reason why Bucs general manager Jason Licht spent a second-round draft pick last year on Ronald Jones. Tampa Bay’s offense needs more explosive runs and the backfield needed more speed than Barber offers.
Following a diastrous and disappointing rookie season from Jones, Licht and new head coach Bruce Arians could very well draft another running back to challenge Jones for not only carries but a roster spot in 2019, but the Bucs might be better off saving a draft pick to help other areas of need and turn to free agency for veteran help at the position instead.
The Big Takeaway
By addressing the running back position in free agency, the Bucs wouldn’t have to use a draft pick on another runner this year with the hope that Jones can develop within the next year or two. With only six picks available right now, signing a proven rusher might make more sense, and there are some good players available that make sense for the Bucs.
And no, I’m not talking about Le’Veon Bell.
He’s a fine player, but I don’t see what the appeal is for the $14 million that Bell thinks he worth, especially at age 27. Maybe for some NFL teams, but not for the salary cap-strapped Bucs right now.
Bell, who hasn’t rushed for 1,300 or more in an NFL season nor scored 10 or more rushing touchdowns, has played in all 16 games in a season just once (2014) in his six years in the league, and is coming off a year in 2017 in which he averaged a modest 4.0 yards per carry. Remember, he sat out of football all last season in a contract dispute with Pittsburgh.
Bell’s appeal is that he is a complete back, evidenced by his career-high 85 catches in 2017, but he only averaged 7.7 yards per catch while producing 655 yards and two touchdowns. Bell’s longest play from scrimmage over the last three years was a 42-yard run back in the 2015.
There are some cheaper alternatives out there that could value to the Bucs’ backfield. Let’s start with the most recognizable name first.
Redskins RB Adrian Peterson
Licht has been opposed to signing Peterson in the past, having every opportunity in the world to do so prior to the 2017 season when the future Hall of Famer stated his desire to play in Tampa Bay. Instead, Peterson signed with the Saints and was seldom used before being traded to Arizona where he helped Arians and the Cardinals defeat the Bucs, 38-33, after rushing for 134 yards on 26 carries (5.2 avg.) during the 2017 seasons. Peterson rushed for 448 yards and two touchdowns on 129 carries (3.5 avg.) in Arians’ last year in Arizona before signing with Washington last season.
At age 33, Peterson recorded his eighth 1,000-yard season, starting all 16 games for the first time since 2015 and finishing with 1,042 yards and seven touchdowns on 251 carries (4.2 avg.). Peterson also had three 100-yard games and three more with at least 95 yards. He also had a 90-yard touchdown run against Philadelphia last year, which was the longest run of his illustrious 12-year NFL career. Peterson also caught 20 passes for 208 yards (10.4 avg.) and one touchdown, and had a 52-yard reception last season, which was the third-longest of his career.
The Redskins have expressed an interest in re-signing Peterson, who made $1.015 million last year, and will likely have to pay more to keep him in 2019 after his 1,000-yard season, which was his first since his 2015 season in Minnesota. Could Arians convince Peterson, who has said he wants to return to the Redskins, to come to Tampa Bay this year? More importantly, can Arians convince Licht to sign Peterson, who turns 34 in March, for the 2019 season?
The proven veteran would do wonders for young players like Jones and Barber – not to mention quarterback Jameis Winston and some of the other young stars on Tampa Bay’s offense – by being a great lead-by-example role model in the locker room and on the practice field. If he could be had for no more than $3 million in 2019, Peterson would also add enhance the Bucs’ appeal to the national media and generate some buzz at the ticket office due to his legendary career achievements.
Atlanta RB Tevin Coleman
Coleman has been a complementary back alongside Devonta Freeman in Atlanta since being a third-round pick in 2015, rushing for 2,340 yards and 18 touchdowns on 528 carries (4.4 avg.) in his four-year Falcons career. With Freeman injured for most of the year, Coleman came through with career numbers in his contract year in 2018, which should only help his market value in free agency. Playing in all 16 games for the first time in his career, Coleman rushed for 800 yards and four touchdowns on 167 carries (4.8 avg.) last year, in addition to catching 32 passes for 276 yards (8.6) and five touchdowns.
Coleman has exceled as a third-down back in Atlanta, catching 92 passes for 1,011 yards (10.1 avg.) and 11 TDs. At 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, his speed and receiving ability are reminiscent of that of Johnson’s in Arizona, which could entice Arians and Licht to pursue the division foe. Coleman has been a bit of a Buc killer in his time with the Falcons. Last year he had eight carries for 45 yards (5.6 avg.) and a 23-yard touchdown in a 34-32 victory in Week 17. Earlier in the year, Coleman had 10 carries for 35 yards (3.5 avg.) with a 6-yard touchdown catch in a 34-29 victory at Atlanta.
In 2017, Coleman, who is only 25 years old, rushed for 97 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries (5.1 avg.) in a 34-20 win on MNF. The year prior, Coleman played the Bucs once and had eight carries for 22 yards (2.8 avg.) to go along with five catches for 95 yards (19.0 avg.) in 31-24 loss to Tampa Bay on opening day.
After fumbling three times as a rookie, Coleman has fumbled just four times over the last 531 touches with none of those resulting in a turnover. That will help increase his free agent value, which is said to be $5 million per season, according to Spotrac.com. Needing to allocate salary cap resources elsewhere, Atlanta will not pursue a contract extension with Coleman, thus making him one of the more sought-after running backs in free agency.
New Orleans RB Mark Ingram
Coleman isn’t the only NFC South running back the Bucs could target in free agency. Ingram, the Saints’ lead running back the last eight years, might be a decent pick-up for the Bucs at the right price. Ingram’s problem is that he just turned 29 years old and is on the downside of his career. He’s a good, but not great running back, who has only had two 1,000-yard seasons in his eight years in New Orleans.
After rushing for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2017, Ingram lost a lot of carries to Pro Bowler Alvin Kamara, the team’s third-round pick in ’17. Kamara will be the feature back in New Orleans as the Saints are expected to move on from Ingram, who has rushed for 6,007 yards and scored 50 rushing touchdowns in gold and black, this offseason.
Ingram is coming off a good season in which he rushed for 645 yards and six touchdowns on 138 carries (4.7 avg.), in addition to catching 21 passes for 170 yards (8.1 avg.) and one TD. Blessed with great hands, Ingram averaged 51 receptions for 380 yards (7.5 avg.) and one touchdown as a receiver out of the backfield from 2015-17.
Ingram would bring starting experience to the running back position in Tampa Bay, and at the very least, would make a great complement to Barber and Jones in the Bucs’ backfield and be a reliable target in the passing game on third downs. Spotrac.com projects Ingram’s market value at $4.4 million per year with a two-year deal given his age.
Jacksonville RB T.J. Yeldon
At 6-foot-2, 223 pounds, Yeldon is a bigger back, but is more of a slashing, finesse runner than he is powerful, tackle-breaker. He has rushed for 1,872 yards and six touchdowns on 465 carries (4.0 avg.) since entering the league as a second-round pick, with his best season coming as a rookie in 2015 with 740 yards and two TDs on 182 carries (4.1 avg.).
Where Yeldon would add value is as a pass-catching runner with 171 career catches for 1,302 yards (7.6 avg.) and six scores. Although Yeldon only rushed for 414 yards and one touchdown on 104 carries (4.0 avg.) last year in Jacksonville, he had a career-high 55 receptions for 487 yards (8.9 avg.) with four scores through the air.
The Jaguars will be moving on from Yeldon, who was publicly lambasted by team president Tom Coughlin after he and fellow running back Leonard Fournette were seen not paying attention on the sideline during a loss to Houston last December. “I am disappointed in the behavior today from T.J. Yeldon and Leonard Fournette. They were disrespectful, selfish and their behavior was unbecoming that of a professional football player,” Coughlin said after the game. Perhaps a fresh start elsewhere will allow Yeldon to mature and reach his full potential.
The 25-year old Yeldon could be a good value signing for the Bucs, and be viewed as a cheaper version of Coleman, and a bigger, better version of Tampa Bay’s former third-down back Charles Sims. Yeldon made $1,241,421 in the final year of his rookie contract in Jacksonville. Given his modest production as a runner and the fact that there is a decent crop of running backs in this year’s draft, Yeldon could likely be had for somewhere around $2 million per year.
New York Jets RB Bilal Powell
Powell has familiarity to Tampa Bay’s coaching staff through defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who was the head coach of the New York Jets from 2015-18. The 30-year old Powell, lacks speed, but he’s a crafty veteran that runs with more power than his 5-foot-10, 204-pound frame would suggest.
Powell was the Jets’ second-leading rusher behind Isaiah Crowell, a player the Bucs should have signed last year in free agency. Powell finished with 80 carries for 343 yards (4.3 avg.) and caught 11 passes for 110 yards (10 avg.) and one touchdown. Powell has rushed for 3,446 yards and 15 touchdowns in 791 carries (4.4 avg.), in addition to catching 204 passes for 1,567 yards (7.7 avg.) and five scores.
Powell had back-to-back 700-yard seasons from 2016-17, and rushed for a career-high 772 yards and five touchdowns on 178 carries (4.3 avg.) during the ’17 season. When used in the passing game, Powell can be effective, evidenced by the fact that he caught a combined 105 passes for 776 yards and four touchdowns during the 2015-16 seasons.
If the Bucs were to be interested in Powell, it would only come with a strong endorsement from Bowles, and the understanding that Powell would strictly be a role player in Tampa Bay. Yet having an eight-year veteran presence in the running backs room with like Barber, Jones and Wilson could really aid in the development of those young players. Powell made $4 million last year in New York, and he would be lucky to fetch $2.5 million per year given his age and recent production, making him an affordable bargain.
Speaking of the Jets, keep an eye on New York running back Isaiah Crowell, who is expected to be released in March as the team will pursue another running back – possibly Bell or Coleman. I advocated that the Bucs sign Crowell last year in a previous SR’s Fab 5 column, but the team didn’t listen. All he did was go on to lead the Jets in rushing with 685 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards per carry in 2018 while playing for Bowles.
If Bowles gives Tampa Bay the thumb’s up on Crowell it could change the front office’s mind about him, especially if the season-ending toe injury that cost him the final three games of the year has fully healed. Crowell isn’t a superstar, but the 5-foot-11, 225-pounder is a faster version of Barber, evidenced by touchdown runs of 62 and 77 yards last year. Barber’s longest run of the year last season was 28 yards, and he averaged 3.7 yards per carry in 2018.
The FABulous Ending
As I’ve previously stated, the biggest mistake Licht and Arians can make is to assume that Jones will suddenly blossom and become a force in his second year after an awful rookie season in which he didn’t look like he could even play in the league. I suspect Jones will get better coaching under Arians and new running backs coach Todd McNair, but coaches can only do so much.
Drafting a running back like Memphis’ Darrell Henderson would make a lot of sense if the Bucs can trade down from the No. 5 overall pick in the first round and stockpile some picks later in the draft. But after seeing Tampa Bay swing and miss on a rookie running back last year, perhaps going with a proven option like Peterson or Coleman for competition with Barber and Jones would be best for 2019.