There's no position on the Bucs roster that's created more debate in this draft season than running back. There is, of course, the endless debate of Morris Claiborne vs. Trent Richardson: a long saga where we've all sung a verse. But regardless of where we fall in that particular discussion, there's some real questions about the Bucs running game as we approach the 2012 season. LeGarrette Blount, love him or hate him, has caused this debate. When he's good, he's amazing. But when he's off...he remains raw and inconsistent, a liability in pass protection and prone to fumbling in the 2011 season.
As we approach the draft, everyone seems to be in agreement that we need to draft a running back: the debate about Blount's longevity as our feature back aside, the loss of Earnest Graham and (ugh) Kregg Lumpkin necessitates that we add to the backfield. The question is simply who, in what round of the draft, and to fulfill what role?
There's an occasional misconception in the Richardson vs. Claiborne debate towards the pro-Claiborne camp that I, as an admitted member of the pro-Claiborne camp, wish to debunk. Let me put it this way: Trent Richardson is an incredibly talented running back, as close to a perfect franchise back as you could hope for in a draft class. He runs with superb speed and exceptional power, and possesses both excellent ball carrying skills and clear vision. He's the total package: a three down back with little injury history, little to no off-the-field baggage, and a flawless record of working as a team player. I would be extraordinarily happy if Richardson was to suit up as a Buc this year, and I think he would immediately improve our offense. Hell, I think he'd have a legitimate shot to be the OROY (and I think that'll be true no matter where he lands).
But I still don't think he's the best choice for the Bucs in this draft if Morris Claiborne is on the board. Why?
Defense, defense, DEFENSE. Folks, we had literally the worst defense in the NFL this past season. Think about what that means to us in particular. We're the Bucs: we built this franchise on defense and our glory years were predicated by the best defense in the league. Hell, one of the major defensive schemes of the past twenty years was named after our franchise. I feel humiliated by our 2011 record; but I feel even more humiliated because it was lousy defense, more than anything else, that led us to that ignominious end. Yes, Olson sucks and we're glad to be rid of him. Yes, Morris lost control of the team and we didn't reach our full potential. But the fact of the matter is that we gave up an embarrassing amount of points last season. And if we don't make defense our overarching priority this offseason, we're bound to repeat history.
So after this long rant, let me return to the subject at hand: running back. Yes, we need depth in the backfield. Yes, Blount may not be the long term answer as the feature back and has a lot to prove this year if he wants to keep his job. Yes, we do need to address the position at some point in the draft. But is an improvement at this position the #1 priority for the Bucs, or even the #2 or the #3? At this juncture, I say no.
I've been a long term advocate of drafting a 3rd down/situational scat back, a complement for Blount that can help cover his deficiencies and provide a change-up on offense. My thinking on this has been shaped by the success of multi-back offenses such as (god help me) the Saints. I've used the example of Foster and Tate in Houston in the past to explain why I thought running back was worth using a second or third round pick. I still do think that this would be a wise strategy for the Bucs to pursue. If a value pick drops into our laps in the second or third round, I still wouldn't be averse to use picking up, say, Doug Martin in the second round or LaMichael James in the third round. But I find that lately I've lost faith in the idea of drafting a running back in the top three rounds of this draft unless an incredible value drops into our laps. Defense needs to come first. We have many more significant holes on defense (#1 cornerback, linebacker, safety) that have to take priority if we want to build for the future.
What caused this shift? First, Schiano's talk about wanting a "bell cow" back. It's clear from these comments that he's less interested in using a multiple back offense than he is in utilizing a classic ground and pound approach with one feature back. Second, Schiano's comments on how he believes Blount has the potential to be a "great" back in this league made me believe that he wanted to put Blount on notice that 1) his past shortcomings would no longer be tolerated but 2) he'd have his chance to prove himself. Third, our failure to acquire either a quality safety or linebacker in free agency. Fourth, the departure of Tanard Jackson: yes, he'd accomplished little last season and his cut allowed Schiano to make a statement, but it still left us with a gaping hole.
I think that we will address running back in this draft, but that we'll wait for the right back to drop to us: and I no longer think that choice will come in the first three rounds, unless an incredible value falls into our laps.
With all this in mind, let's have a look at the options that are out there:
1st round picks
Trent Richardson: Extraordinarily tempting if he's still on the board (yes, I still think Cleveland will decide this for us). But if Claiborne's available, I still think this is no real choice. And, naturally, I may be very wrong.
Doug Martin: Very worth our consideration if he falls to us at #36- but if given a choice between Martin, Harrison Smith, and Lavonte David, it's hard to argue he fits our needs better.
2nd round picks
Lamar Miller or David Wilson: See Martin above- either is worth considering with the third round pick, but remember that we can only address two need positions with the first two picks- and neither is likely to still be on the board at #68. Do we really want one of these guys to take priority over a quality linebacker or safety, especially considering how shallow this draft class is at both positions?
LaMichael James: Again, with a third it would be very tempting. But LMJ is usually envisioned as a complementary role player. Should that take priority over a potential starter at linebacker/safety, if one's available?
3rd round picks (i.e., definitely available in the 3rd, only available in the 5th if they drop)
Bernard Pierce: Remember Allen Bradford? Pierce is a poorer man's Blount- not to say he can't develop, but he's not an immediate starter and would basically bring the same basic skills to the table.
Chris Polk: I like Polk a lot and would jump if he's available in the 5th- but I doubt it happens. Still, he didn't have a great combine so there's a shot he drops and the Bucs benefit.
Robert Turbin: Turbin's a "sleeper" in the loosest sense- he's not going to drop too far.
5th round and later picks
Cyrus Gray: Gray could very well go earlier than the 5th, but if he's still on the board when Tampa emerges from our long slumber I hope we pounce. He's got great speed and pass protection skills. His one knock (size and durability), shouldn't be a concern if he's use as a situational back.
Chris Rainey: If we're looking for the prototypical scat back, this is our man. 4.37 40, great receiving skill, and a quality punt blocker. Some durability and minor character concerns, but nothing lethal.
Bobby Rainey: A small school gem who wasn't invited to the combine, Rainey could be mistaken for LMJ's younger brother: a surprisingly powerful small back with great speed.
What are your thoughts on the best approach to the running back position in the draft?