As we move on with the 2011 Season in Review series, we come to the running back positions - perhaps the most discussed, but also most misunderstood position on the team.
What happened in 2011?
During the 2011 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ran for fewer yards than all but two teams in the entire NFL. They had just 9 rushing touchdowns, 23rd in the NFL. No team ran the ball less than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the 2011 season, but despite that the Bucs actually averaged 4.2 yards per attempt, 16th in the NFL.
The reason the Bucs didn't run the ball more? They never committed to the running game, and they constantly got blown out forcing them (to an extent) to abandon the run. Add to that an early injury to Earnest Graham, causing him to miss half the season, and a Kregg Lumpkin who never turned into a good player and the Bucs' running game and their running backs were awfully ineffective.
Legarrette Blount didn't reach the 1,000 yards mark, but was still relatively successful as a runner. With 781 yards on 184 attempts, Blount averaged a respectable 4.2 yards per carry. He was still inconsistent, but he was much improved from the previous season. His vision was better and he ran with power and the right pad level more consistently.
Fumbles plagued him at the end of the season, however, and that's something he will have to correct. More importantly he needs to use this offseason to learn his responsibilities as a blocker. Pass-blocking isn't a physical problem for Blount, as I've seen him execute blocks consistently, but he couldn't get on the field as a pass-blocker - which means it is likely a mental thing.
Ultimately, though, Blount remains a limited running back. He can't make a man miss in the open field, and he can't run outside the tackles. That limits his effectiveness as a receiver and a runner. He can be used to pound the ball inside the tackles, but that's about it. It's something you can certainly build around, but you also need a complementary back to provide a different element - and that's what the Bucs missed in 2011.
When Earnest Graham was healthy, he showed he could still carry the ball effectively. He averaged a whopping 5.6 yards per carry on 37 attempts this season, but he was most important on third downs where he was a reliable pass-blocker and a capable receiver. Of course, he was lost for the season with a knee injury in London, and that really hurt the Bucs' offense.
After Graham's injury, the Bucs relied on Kregg Lumpkin as their third-down back. Lumpkin was not very good. While he wasn't absolutely disastrous, he missed too many blocks and failed to make defenders miss in the open field consistently. He improved a little toward the end of the year, but combined with his terrible production as an actual runner Lumpkin was a liability, not an asset.
Mossis Madu was the intriguing undrafted rookie. He didn't get much of a chance, but he showed a little potential late in the season. He's worth keeping around as a backup, at least.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could probably address their running back situation immediately in the 2012 NFL Draft by selecting Trent Richardson with the fifth overall draft pick. But the 2012 draft is filled with capable running backs, and the Bucs could probably pick up a good all-around or complementary back later in the draft. Chris Polk, Lamar Miller, David Wilson, Doug Martin and Lamichael James are just some of the players who the Bucs could select beyond the first round of the draft.
In addition, there's always free agency. Ray Rice, Matt Forte and Michael Bush are three big names the Bucs could attempt to sign - but those three are likely to be franchised or otherwise re-signed with their teams. Behind them, the pickings become slim. Marshawn Lynch could hit the market, while Peyton Hillis, Cedric Benson and Mike Tolbert are scheduled to be free agents too. Jason Snelling, Justin Forsett, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Ryan Grant and Tim Hightower are all likely to be available as well.
The Bucs also have some decisions to make on their current stable of backs. Earnest Graham is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, while Kregg Lumpkin will be a restricted free agent. Legarrette Blount is scheduled to be an exclusive-rights free agent, which basically guarantees that he'll be back.
Projected 2012 Depth Chart
Legarrette Blount, New Addition (third down), Earnest Graham, Mossis Madu.