TAMPA — Now that the Bucs have retained their entire starting defensive front seven and signed Tom Brady to be their new quarterback, coach Bruce Arians was asked what was next on their offseason wish list.
The first thing Arians mentioned during a media conference call Wednesday was acquiring a pass-catching running back, either in free agency or in next month’s draft. It’s interesting that’s where he went instead of, say, shoring up the right side of the offensive line to protect his new 42-year-old quarterback.
Getting Brady a trusted receiver out of the backfield, however, will also protect him. He has relied on his running backs as receivers. James White, Kevin Faulk, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead and Dion Lewis recorded seasons of at least 35 receptions playing with Brady in New England. And Brady has leaned more on running backs as receivers in recent years. White recorded 159 catches over the past two seasons and averaged 69 receptions over the past four.
Arians would like to upgrade at running back. In his second NFL season last year, Ronald Jones made tremendous strides, but his receiving ability needs to be refined, and his pass blocking has also kept him from being an every-down back. Dare Ogunbowale caught 35 passes out of the backfield last season and averaged 8.2 yards per reception.
Arians likes the contributions of Jones and Ogunbowale but said the Bucs could use a player who could be more of a receiving weapon.
“Our backs did a very good job in the screen game last year, especially (Jones),” Arians said. “I thought he really excelled for the first time in the screen game. And Dare was pretty solid. But just using backs out of the backfield as wide receivers, as primary receivers, that’s not (Jones’) deal. Hopefully we can find somebody like that who can compete with Dare on third downs and become more of a wide receiver threat.”
Where will that upgrade come from? Here are possibilities.
The Falcons released Devonta Freeman this month, and he could fit the Bucs well. Take away an injury-riddled 2018 and Freeman has averaged 50 receptions a season over the course of his six-year career, including a 59-catch season in 2019. He’s no longer the all-around back he once was, but as far as pass-catching running backs, he’s the best available.
The big question mark about Freeman, who turned 28 last week, is whether he can remain healthy. He has missed 16 games over the past two seasons and has played a full 16-game season just once in his career, one reason Atlanta cut bait on his five-year, $41.25 million deal after three years.
Other possibilities include Carlos Hyde, who is three years removed from a 69-catch season in San Francisco, and former Washington running back Chris Thompson, who averaged 41 receptions over his past four seasons.
Lamar Miller, who averaged nearly 34 receptions annually over a six-year stretch as an every-down back with the Texans before missing last year with an ACL injury, could be an intriguing bounce-back candidate.
But with not a lot of salary cap space left, the Bucs might be better off turning their attention to …
LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire headlines an impressive group of prospective pass-catching running backs, all of whom could be taken in the top three rounds. Edwards-Helaire recorded an eye-opening 55 catches with an 8.2-yards-per-reception average for the national champion Tigers last year. The numbers could be slightly inflated because of the offense he was in.
But Edwards-Helaire is special, and there’s no question he has every-down capability. He’s likely to go in the second round but could slip to the third.
Georgia’s D’Andre Swift might be the draft’s best all-around back. He and Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins averaged 24 catches a season with a 9.1-yards-per-catch average over their three-year college careers.
Florida State’s Cam Akers averaged 23 catches a season at 7.1 yards per catch. Utah’s Zack Moss averaged 13.9 yards per reception in his senior year.
And Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor had 26 catches (9.7 yards per reception) and five receiving touchdowns last year, though if you’re drafting Taylor — possibly in the first round — it’s for his skill set as an all-around back.