TAMPA — There is no longer a flat earth view of running backs in the NFL.
The Bucs have only two on their roster, LeGarrette Blount and Mossis Madu, perhaps hinting they will address the position in the draft. But in a passing league, the position continues to be devalued.
Michael Bush, formerly of the Raiders, entered free agency as the top running back available. But he received only a four-year, $14 million contract to back up or share duties with Matt Forte in Chicago. Mike Tolbert, formerly of the Chargers, signed a four-year deal worth only about $2.1 million per season with Carolina and could play fullback.
Bucs coach Greg Schiano says he wants his offense to be physical, run the ball and use play-action to take shots downfield. But the most celebrated free agent the Bucs have signed is WR Vincent Jackson. He will help the running game by stretching the field, and ex-Saints G Carl Nicks also will help.
At some point, the Bucs have to add a running back. Alabama's Trent Richardson is possible with the No. 5 overall pick. But if the Bucs go the free agent route, they won't break the bank.
SWEET 16: It would have been more shocking if CB Ronde Barber decided not to return for a 16th season.
Not only was Barber the most consistent player on defense last season, the Bucs don't have an abundance of quality defensive backs even with the signing of CB Eric Wright.
With his felony assault trial set to begin April 16, the status of CB Aqib Talib remains unknown. The team is committed to drafting a cornerback. But who knows in what round that will happen?
Barber will have great opportunities whenever he decides to retire. But he always has said he never had a Plan B. And if it comes down to it, Wright is versatile.
"In my history, I have played left corner, right corner. I have played the nickel back," Wright said. "I've played all three positions in one game before. I think in watching film, (the Bucs) saw that and knew that I have the ability to play any spot that they need me to."
HOMECOMING: Nothing is finer than to be a 49er for QB Josh Johnson.
The former Bucs backup grew up in Oakland, Calif., but he was a 49ers fan even though he was only 8 when they won their last Super Bowl behind QB Steve Young.
So given the opportunity to play for his adopted team and reunite with coach Jim Harbaugh, for whom he played at the University of San Diego, Johnson didn't hesitate to sign a two-year contract.
"It's home," Johnson said Friday. "That's the obvious thing. That's one of the things I know for sure; my development will continue out here under Coach Harbaugh.
"I know how he's going to push me and know the hard work and what's expected."
Another possibility for Johnson was the Redskins, where he would have been reunited with former Bucs coach Raheem Morris and GM Bruce Allen.
"When you look at it from top to bottom with the 49ers, there's so many people on the offensive staff that I've already played under, it was a natural fit," Johnson said.
Johnson, 25, likely will have to compete with second-year pro Colin Kaepernick for the No. 2 spot behind Alex Smith, who re-signed for three years after a brief flirtation with the Dolphins.
San Francisco traded up nine spots in the second round to select Kaepernick last year. But as a team with high expectations, it might not believe he's ready for the No. 2 spot.
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected]