TAMPA — It might seem like ages ago, but as recently as 2010, the Bucs backfield was among the team's deepest units. LeGarrette Blount had stormed onto the scene, plowing over opponents with his bruising running style. Cadillac Williams thrived after defaulting into a more appropriate third-down role. Earnest Graham, the ever-reliable veteran, was available to play fullback and, if necessary, tailback. They were so deep that Kregg Lumpkin, an early season acquisition, was only called on for one carry all year. The Bucs ranked eighth in the NFL in rushing then. Which makes it all the harder to digest what became of their running game in 2011.
Blount was less effective and proved unable to handle third-down duties. Williams wasn't re-signed and left for the Rams. Graham, now 32, suffered a devastating Achilles injury during the season and has quite a way to go in his rehab. And Lumpkin, thrust into a bigger role, was unimpressive.
So, with the free agent signing period beginning Tuesday, the Bucs will be forced to consider moves at running back. It's not a banner year for free agent backs, not after Marshawn Lynch re-signed with the Seahawks and Ray Rice (Ravens) and Matt Forte (Bears) were designated as franchise players. Which means it's possible the Bucs could solve their running back needs with the No. 5 pick in the draft.
In the first of our five-part look at the Bucs and free agency, here's a look at the best of what the unrestricted free agent market has to offer at a position of great need for Tampa Bay:
The Raiders' severe salary cap predicament makes it a virtual certainty Bush will walk, making him arguably the top free agent running back. He will be 28 on opening day, but he has proved to be fairly durable during his four-year career. He is coming off a season in which he posted a career-high 1,395 yards from scrimmage, much of it coming in the passing game. He caught 37 passes for 418 yards, an ability that would make him appealing to the Bucs given Blount's shortcomings in passing situations. Bucs GM Mark Dominik and coach Greg Schiano have emphasized their intention to play power football, and Bush, at 245 pounds, fits the bill.
2011: 256 carries, 977 yards, 3.8 yards per carry, seven touchdowns
Price tag: $$$
Tolbert's numbers aren't staggering — he has never rushed for more than 735 yards — but that's because he also has never been a No. 1 back. He has played secondary roles behind LaDainian Tomlinson and, the past two years, Ryan Mathews. That makes him an intriguing prospect for the Bucs, who want someone to team with Blount. Tolbert, 26, could also be ideal for Tampa Bay because his strengths are Blount's weaknesses — short-yardage runs and pass protection. He also caught 54 passes last season. A bonus: Tolbert was MVP of San Diego's special teams, if his new team is inclined to use him in the kicking game.
2011: 121 carries, 490 yards, 4.0 yards per carry, eight TDs
Price tag: $$$
Another big back, the 250-pound Hillis enjoyed a breakout season with 1,177 rushing yards in 2010, while also catching 61 passes. But he drew attention for the wrong reasons in 2011, when he missed five games with a hamstring injury and another because of, um, strep throat. Some eyebrows were raised and there have been whispers that his reluctance to play was linked to his wishes for a contract extension that never came. Things got more bizarre recently when he was reported to have told team officials he was considering retirement. He vehemently denies it. In the end, the 26-year-old is a handful when healthy, and that makes him a coveted free agent.
2011: 161 carries, 587 yards, 3.6 yards per carry, three TDs
Price tag: $$$
First off, buyer beware. Smith has played in just 13 games the past two seasons, a result of various injuries that have consistently kept him off the field. When healthy, the former 2,600-yard rusher at UCF, is a speedy, shifty option that could change the complexion of a team's running game. Acquiring a back such as him would give the Bucs a different dimension than Blount's power running. The Lions, who have a number of free agents to contend with, won't overpay to keep the 25-year-old Smith.
2011: 72 carries, 356 yards, 4.9 yards per carry, four TDs
Price tag: $$
Every indication out of Cincinnati says Benson will be allowed to walk. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has suggested running back ranks high on the offseason wish list, while Benson has bemoaned Gruden's move away from the team's power-running approach. The question for suitors isn't whether he has talent, but how much he has left? He's 29, but he has been mostly durable and is coming off three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
2011: 273 carries, 1,067 yards, 3.9 yards per carry, six TDs
Price tag: $$