Bucs believe in their running backs
The development of quarterback Josh Freeman will help the Bucs running game next season. But so might a fresh pair of legs.
Even so, general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris decided not to address the position in the draft or free agency.
Cadillac Williams, who was coming off two devastating knee injuries, surprised everyone by becoming the Bucs’ leading rusher again with 823 yards and four touchdowns in 2009. But he only averaged 3.9 yards per carry and his longest run was 22 yards.
The Bucs weren’t sure how Williams would rebound, so they signed Giants free agent Derrick Ward to a four-year, $17-million contract.
But Ward was neither Earth, Wind nor Fire for the Bucs. He amounted to little more than a change-of-pace back and finished with 409 yards on 114 carries and one touchdown for a 3.6 average.
In fact, Ward’s 38-yard run was the longest of the season for Tampa Bay from scrimmage.
Ward is 29. Williams recently turned 28 and obviously doesn’t have as much tread left on his wheels. By NFL standards, most backs are in decline by age 30.
For whatever reason, the Bucs have decided Earnest Graham is a fullback or the team's third tailback. The team's leading rusher in 2007 had only 14 carries for 66 yards last season and missed three games due to injury. Graham, albeit well rested, is 30.
The Bucs believe kick returner Clifton Smith can evolve as a third-down back. But he is fumble-prone and suffered two concussions last season. The team also has Kareem Huggins, an undrafted free agent from Hofstra who played sparingly at the end of 2009.
“There’s always an opportunity at running back because you get the ball so much and you get to show so many things,’’ Morris said. “You get to show your ability to catch the ball a little bit during seven-on-seven. This time of year, you don’t get to see them in pads, which is always kind of a downfall. It’s always kind of a guess.
“Last year, we addressed it with Kareem Huggins. We got him in here and he was in the hopper all year for us and really played well.’’
But the Bucs did not really address the position after the draft, either. They signed Clemson fullback Redrick Taylor after a tryout in rookie minicamp.
Do the Bucs have the makings of an explosive backfield? They believe they do.