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SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.

FAB 1. Bucs Should Target 2 Free Agent RBs, Draft 1

It’s only a matter of time before the Buccaneers part ways with running back Doug Martin. At age 29 with less than 500 yards rushing in four of the last five seasons, Martin’s days in Tampa Bay are numbered, especially since he’s scheduled to make $6.75 million in base salary.

The team is unsure if it wants to re-sign third down back Charles Sims, who will be 28 in September. I can help the Bucs out with this one – they shouldn’t re-sign Sims.

Like Martin, Sims has had one good year in the last four, which coincided with Martin’s last big year in 2015. Sims rushed for 95 yards on 21 carries (4.5 avg.) and caught 35 passes for 249 yards (7.1 avg.) and one touchdown. Despite the solid rushing average, Sims only averages 3.9 yards per carry over his career, and had two years (2014 and ’16) in which he rushed for less than three yards per carry.

Jacquizz Rodgers is still under contract for one more year, but his production dropped last year as he rushed for 244 yards and one touchdown on 64 carries (3.8 avg.) and the Bucs could use an upgrade.

The only running back in Tampa Bay worth keeping is Peyton Barber, who started the year as the team’s third-string running back but wound up leading the Bucs in rushing with a career-high 423 yards and three touchdowns on 108 carries (3.9 avg.), in addition to catching 16 passes for 114 yards. Barber deserves a chance to compete for more carries in training camp, but ideally, he’s a third-string running back.

A better running game would provide needed balance and help head coach Dirk Koetter’s play-calling, especially in the red zone, and create more play-action opportunities for Jameis Winston, which is an area where he excels as a passer. Having a backfield of Crowell, a rookie, McKinnon and Barber means the Bucs don’t have to rely so much on Winston’s arm to make plays and move the chains. Less passing opportunities for Winston would mean the chance for fewer interceptions, and fumbles while dropping back to pass.

A more effective running game would also benefit Tampa Bay’s defense by increasing the team’s time of possession with more ball-control offense, which would allow the defense to rest for longer stretches of time during games.

The Bucs need to bolster their backfield this year as injuries and a suspension by Martin has really stymied the production from Tampa Bay’s ground game over the last two years. Signing a free agent and drafting a running back should not be enough for general manager Jason Licht.

The Bucs should upgrade, upgrade and upgrade this offseason. That means acquiring three new running backs – not just two.

The reason? The Bucs have been down to their third-string running back in each of the last two years. In a season where he can’t afford to leave anything to chance, Licht shouldn’t hold back. Sign two free agent backs and use a premium pick on another running back.

Browns RB Isaiah Crowell - Photo by: Getty Images

Browns RB Isaiah Crowell – Photo by: Getty Images

Give Barber three legitimate running backs to compete with. Then it’s up to Koetter to play the best two runners and not worry about giving carries to the other two – they’ll be the backups and injury replacements.

So who should Licht pursue in free agency? There are only four premier running backs in this year’s free agent class and Cleveland’s Isaiah Crowell is the headliner in a group that also consists of San Francisco’s Carlos Hyde, New England’s Dion Lewis and Minnesota’s Jerick McKinnon. The noteworthy thing is that none of those running backs have even posted a 1,000-yard season, yet they will be paid in excess of $4 million per season in March.

Picking the right back to spearhead Tampa Bay’s revamped running game is important. The one that shows the most promise is Crowell, who has been in the league for four years and just turned 25 on January 8. The Alabama State product began his college career at Georgia, and he’s ready to return to the South after four very trying seasons in Cleveland.

Crowell Career Rushing Stats
2017: 206 carries for 853 yards (4.1 avg.), 2 TDs, long of 59
2016: 198 carries for 952 yards (4.8 avg.), 7 TDs, long of 85
2015: 706 carries for 706 yards (3.8 avg.), 4 TDs, long of 54
2014: 148 carries for 607 yards (4.1 avg.), 8 TDs, long of 35

Crowell Career Receiving Stats
2017: 28 catches for 182 yards (6.5 avg.), 0 TDs, long of 38
2016: 40 catches for 319 yards (8.0 avg.), 0 TDs, long of 44
2015: 19 catches for 182 yards (9.2 avg.), 1 TD, long of 53
2014: 9 catches for 87 yards (9.7 avg.), 0 TDs, long of 19

Crowell has rushed for 3,118 yards and 21 touchdowns on 737 carries (4.2 avg.), and it’s important to note that he didn’t benefit from a lot of carries in the fourth quarter that some of the top producing runners get because the Browns, who went 1-31 over the past two seasons, typically trailed their opponents by halftime and needed to pass the ball to try to catch up.

The 5-foot-11, 225-pounder has a physical running style, some wiggle to his game and instant acceleration when he hits the hole, but he’s ready to get out of Cleveland after having some spats with head coach Hue Jackson over abandoning the run too early in games and for Jackson’s disparaging comment after a 27-10 loss to the New York Jets in which he was talking about Crowell’s 59-yard run in that game.

“Me and you, all five of us, could have run through that hole [on the 59-yard rush]. Go back and look at the play,” Jackson told the Akron Beacon. “Inspiring runs, just so we are all on the same page, are when you break tackles. It’s the tough runs. It’s when everybody is knocking the crap out of you and you find a way to still make four or five yards.

“When everything is blocked pretty and you can just run down up through there, that doesn’t happen but once or twice in a game. Not saying that Crow doesn’t do that. He does it well for us, but I’m just saying you guys are talking about a run that – I’m being very honest – we all could have run through [the hole]. What I’m looking for is more of the grunt, tough-type of runs that I know that you have to have.”

Crowell finished the Jets game with 72 yards rushing on five attempts (14.4 avg.) and had just one more carry following his 59-yard run in the second half, which prompted the question.

Browns RB Isaiah Crowell - Photo by: Getty Images

Browns RB Isaiah Crowell – Photo by: Getty Images

Crowell hasn’t missed a game during his four-year NFL career, and that’s important to a team like Tampa Bay, which has seen Martin and Sims in and out of the lineup due to injuries over the last two seasons. Koetter is always preaching about how the greatest ability is availability, and that’s what Crowell has over Hyde, who is the other workhorse back in free agency.

Hyde, who turns 28 in September, has rushed for 2,731 yards and 21 touchdowns on 655 carries (4.2 avg.), but has missed 12 games in his first four NFL seasons, although he did manage to play in all 16 games for the first time in his career last year. With 109 catches for 634 yards and three touchdowns, Hyde has proven to be a reliable receiver out of the backfield, which is an important trait in Koetter’s offense.

However, despite having 13 fewer receptions (96) and two fewer touchdowns (one) in the receiving game, Crowell has 136 more receiving yards (770) than Hyde does, and a better average – 8.0 yards per catch compared to Hyde’s 5.8 average. Hyde has had three 100-yard games for the 49ers, while Crowell has five on his resumé.

Because he is younger, has been healthier and been more productive than Hyde, Crowell is the running back that the Bucs need to target in free agency. He’ll cost a little bit more, as OverTheCap.com’s calculated market value for Crowell is $6.2 million per year compared to Hyde’s calculated market value, which is $5.5 million per year, but he’s worth it.

If the Bucs can land Crowell in free agency they need to spend a premium pick in the first three rounds on another starting-caliber running back that can run and catch the ball. Georgia’s Sony Michel, San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, USC’s Ronald Jones and Notre Dame’s Josh Adams would all be intriguing complementary backs that have the ability to develop into full-time starters in Tampa Bay. Licht cannot assume the Bucs have a starting caliber running back in Crowell – even if he signs a four-year deal worth around $25 million. He needs to assume the worst, and draft another running back capable of becoming a Pro Bowl rusher.

But Licht can’t stop there. He has to plan for the worst and envision Crowell and the rookie back suffering injuries. The Bucs can’t have Barber and Rodgers as Plans C and D. We saw that movie last year and it wasn’t that good.

Patriots RB Dion Lewis - Photo by: Getty Images

Patriots RB Dion Lewis – Photo by: Getty Images

That’s why Licht should also sign a pass-catching running back like Lewis or McKinnon to truly bolster the backfield. Lewis, who will play in his third Super Bowl on Sunday, would bring championship-caliber experience to Tampa Bay, which could be vital from a leadership standpoint.

Lewis has rushed for 1,584 yards and 10 touchdowns in 329 career carries (4.8 avg.) over his five-year NFL career, which began in Philadelphia in 2011. Lewis has 88 catches for 717 yards (8.1 avg.) and five touchdowns in the passing game. He’s had his most productive season this year in New England where he rushed for 896 yards and six touchdowns on 180 carries (5.0 avg.) and caught 32 passes for 214 yards (6.7 avg.) and three more scores. Lewis also added a special teams touchdown on a 103-yard kick return score.

Lewis has also lost just one fumble in over 400 touches on offense, which is a big plus to a team like Tampa Bay, which struggled with turnovers last year. If there are negatives to Lewis it’s the fact that he’ll turn 28 in September and he’s a small back at 5-foot-8, 195 pounds. Licht, who prefers running backs to be at least 205 pounds, got an up-close look at Lewis in a 19-14 loss to New England in Tampa Bay earlier this season where he had 53 yards rushing on seven carries (7.6 avg.) along with two catches for 10 yards).

McKinnon is another situational back with proven production. He’s rushed for 1,918 yards and seven touchdowns on 474 carries (4.0 avg.), in addition to catching 142 passes for 984 yards (6.9 avg.) and five TDs. McKinnon has posted three seasons with at least 500 yards rushing in his four year Vikings career, and ran for a career-high 570 yards and three scores on 150 carries (3.8 avg.) in 2017, along with catching 51 passes for 421 yards (8.3 avg.) and two TDs.

McKinnon is also sure-handed as he has just two fumbles in nearly 600 touches on offense, but is much younger. He’ll turn 26 on May 3.

Jerick McKinnon - Photo by: Getty Images

Jerick McKinnon – Photo by: Getty Images

I don’t have a preference on which situational back Licht were to sign. McKinnon is younger and perhaps a bit more electric and explosive with the ball in his hands, while Lewis has plenty of big-game experience playing with the Patriots. Lewis’ calculated market value is $4.8 million per year according to OverTheCap.com, while McKinnon’s expected value is $4 million per year.

The question Licht and Koetter need to answer is, which back would the Bucs prefer to pair with Barber if Crowell and the rookie rusher go down with injuries? With currently over $61 million in available salary cap room – and another $17.625 million coming with the expected release of Martin, defensive tackle Chris Baker and defensive end Robert Ayers) – Licht has plenty of money to spend on two quality free agent running backs.

The advantage of signing two backs and drafting another is to insure the team against injury or if one of those newly acquired runners turns out to be a bust.

After all, that’s already happened to Licht before in free agency with Martin turning out to be a bust after signing his mega-rich contract extension, and with Sims, a former third-round draft pick, who has failed to live up to his draft billing.

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: sr@pewterreport.com
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