Buccaneers offseason preview: running backs

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We go through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' roster, evaluating their needs at every position and looking back at last season. Today: running backs.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a solid group of running backs, but failed to get quality production out of them last year. Doug Martin is returning from a shoulder injury, but should be ready for offseason

Currently on the roster: Doug Martin, Mike James, Jeff Demps, Michael Smith, Lonnie Pryor

Free agents: Brian Leonard, Bobby Rainey (Exclusive Rights), Erik Lorig, Spencer Larsen

What happened last year

The Buccaneers entered the season being very optimistic at running back. Having traded Legarrette Blount for peanuts, Doug Martin was expected to carry the load while sixth-round pick Mike James and Brian Leonard were supposed to act as change-of-pace and third-down backs respectively.

Things didn't work out that way. Nothing really worked out the way we thought before the season, really. Doug Martin managed six largely unproductive games, bothered by an under-performing, injury-racked offensive line and what appeared to be some sophomore struggles of his own. He dropped far too many passes on easy catches, and missed a few too many open running lanes.

And then he tore up his shoulder, which kept him out for the rest of the season.

That was not as disastrous as it first seemed. Martin managed just 3.6 yards per carry, but replacement Mike James came in and produced nearly 300 yards in just three games and 60 carries. He didn't look like he was better than Doug Martin, really, but he looked like a very solid all-around running back who had more abilities than expected.

And then he broke his ankle.

Next up: Bobby Rainey off the waiver wire. One great game against the Atlanta Falcons was followed by mostly mediocrity the rest of the way. Meanwhile, Brian Leonard got to play blocker and catch-checkdown-get-hit-hard machine on third downs. It was not really a pretty sight. Oh, and Jeff Demps came in for a couple of plays before ending up on injured reserve, too.

Finally, there were the fullbacks. Erik Lorig was the starter, but missed nearly half the season in snaps to injuries. And then the Bucs somehow brought in another fullback in Spencer Larsen, using him as an in-line tight end while trying Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree as fullbacks on a few snaps. It was ugly. It did not work. No one was surprised it did not work. Oh, and to finish things off, Erik Lorig continued to look like the same guy: physically a quality blocker, but struggling to adjust to the defense on the move, leading to too many whiffs or poor choices in blocking.

Overall, it was a struggle. The Bucs had the 25th-worst yards per carry average in the NFL last year. And they really couldn't punch it into the endzone: only one team managed fewer rushing touchdowns. The Bucs are going to have to fix this next season.

2014 Outlook

Doug Martin should be healthy, which is very important. The Buccaneers have indicated that he will still be the team's main running back, but you won't see the suicidal workload Greg Schiano gave him. Lovie Smith's a big believer in a need for a squad of running backs, as is Jeff Tedford. Doug Martin may still be the foundation of the running game, but everyone else will get to contribute, too.

Everyone else, in this case, will be a pretty talented group of runners. Mike James' ankle injury means we don't know whether he'll be ready to play this year, but he looked like a quality starter in limited time last season. Bobby Rainey struggled more, but he looked competent -- which is really all you can ask for. The team may look for some competition in camp here, but I wouldn't expect a free agent signing or draft pick at the position.

Martin and company will be used in a variety of ways. Jeff Tedford does a lot of different things with his running backs, with his blocking schemes and with his formations. They'll get opportunities to get down the field as receivers, and the Bucs will try to get them outside, to the edge on running plays. You'll see more variety than the up-the-gut mentality Greg Schiano approached the running game with.

The Bucs also have two interesting speedsters in Michael Hill Smith and Jeff Demps. I wouldn't expect both to make the roster, but one of them will probably turn into Tedford's "speed in space" weapons.

The team's biggest question mark will be at fullback, oddly enough. Second-year player Lonnie Pryor got no playing time last year, but he's a versatile fullback who can run the ball and act as a receiver as well. Tedford's offense isn't heavy on fullback use, but Pryor might be a useful weapon. The question is whether they also want a more traditional blocking fullback.

Likely depth chart: Doug Martin, Mike James, Bobby Rainey, Jeff Demps.

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