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Why the Bucs should pass on free-agent running backs

Rick Stroud | Improving the position through the NFL draft is less costly, but Ronald Jones needs some help.

TAMPA — If Super Bowl 54 showed us anything, it’s that you can find a good running back in a lot of places.

The 49ers’ Raheem Mostert, cut by six teams, was the leading rusher in the postseason with 336 yards and five touchdowns from scrimmage. For the season, he finished just ahead of the Bucs’ Ronald Jones for 26th in the league with 737 yards and three touchdowns while owning a 5.7-yard average. Mostert earned $2.6-million.

The Chiefs’ Damien Williams, undrafted out of Oklahoma in 2014, had 196 yards from scrimmage in the playoffs and six TDs from scrummage in the post-season. He earned $2.9 million.

Related: How Derrick Brooks and his Tampa Bay team are preparing for Super Bowl 55

A lack of a productive running game has been used as an excuse for Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston not performing better.

And it’s true the Bucs do a lousy job of running the football. They finished 24th in the league in rushing offense with a 3.7-yard average.

Jones made strides in his second season, but he’s not a natural pass catcher and hasn’t produced the explosive plays the Bucs expected when they took him in the second round.

Peyton Barber is an unrestricted free agent. It seems unlikely the Bucs would want him back for more than a minimum salary. Dare Ogunbowale, who is under contract, isn’t exactly dynamic.

So how do the Bucs address the running back position for 2020?

There could be some interesting free agents.

The Cardinals’ David Johnson, who is owed $10.2 million if he returns to Arizona, is expected to become a free agent. Bucs coach Bruce Arians drafted him in the third round in 2015. At 28, Johnson is a do-it-all back who would add some explosive play-making ability.

The same is true of the Chargers’ Melvin Gordon, who is an unrestricted free agent as is Johnson’s teammate Kenyan Drake.

So what do the Bucs do?

It’s important to note that while the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott earned $15 million last season and finished fourth in the NFL in rushing, the other highest-paid running backs didn’t earn their money.

The Rams’ Todd Gurley, who earned $14.4 million in 2019, finished 20th in rushing yards.

The Jets Le’Veon Bell earned $13.1 million and was 24th. Johnson, who earned $13 million, was 54th overall.

Some of Jones’ problems in Tampa Bay relates to a lack of maturity when he arrived at age 21. A good portion of it was a lack of confidence. He rushed for 724 yards and six scores while finishing with a 4.2-yard average last year. Good but not great.

Only one running back —– Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor – would figure to go in the first round of the NFL draft this year. But there is good depth on the second and third day of the draft.

The Bucs have bigger needs, so free agency may seem like the way to go. But it just doesn’t pay to spend big money at the position. And as Mostert and Williams proved, you don’t have to spend a lot to get production in the running game.

Is John Lynch’s Hall of Fame call coming?

John Lynch and the Hall of Fame

San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch's team lost 31-20 to Kansas City in Super Bowl 54 on Feb. 2. [DAVID J. PHILLIP | AP]

49ers general manager John Lynch looked crestfallen when his team failed to hold onto a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead in Super Bowl 54. That will bother him more than failing to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame after his seventh try as a finalist.

I’m not sure if the 49ers will be back at Super Bowl 55 in Tampa, but that’s where Lynch should become part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2021.

Lynch was squeezed out this year by Broncos safety Steve Atwater. It was a lock that Steelers safety Troy Polamalu would be a first-ballot selection. There were never going to be three safeties elected in one class.

The argument went that Atwater, who retired after the 1999 season, was approaching 25 seasons out of football, which would have thrown him into the seniors category. Voters wanted to avoid that.

Some say he had been waiting longer than Lynch, who retired in 2008 after a training camp with the Patriots. But Atwater had been a finalist only about half as many times as Lynch. Voters had many more opportunities to enshrine Atwater.

When the list was whittled from 15 finalists to 10, Lynch was still alive. Although the final results of the voting are never disclosed, there’s a sense it was close between Atwater and Lynch. But that doesn’t mean anything.

Next year, Peyton Manning and Charles Woodson are eligible and first-ballot Hall of Famers. Lions receiver Calvin Johnson could earn that status as well, although it’s not a slam dunk. That leaves two or three spots.

Related: A Super Bowl is in Tampa Bay’s future, but is it also in the Bucs’ future?

Lynch’s numbers are nearly identical to Atwater’s, The Bucs and Broncos safety played longer and is in the ring of honor for both teams. What people miss is the leadership he brought to an iconic defense that currently has only two Hall of Famers — Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks.

Quarterbacks of that era understand Lynch’s value as a playmaker and an intimidating hitter.

Lynch is approaching one of the longer waits as a finalist. It’s ridiculous for voters to make some kind of example out of him. If he is a finalist for an eighth straight year, what better place to have him honored as a Hall of Famer than a Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium?

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampbay.com. Follow @NFLStroud

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