The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a new coach, a new GM, and have spread a new sense of optimism with a lot of fans, who believe the team is better now than it was under Greg Schiano. And while a change in coaching will certainly help the Bucs take a step forward in the upcoming season, is the roster in better shape than it was under Schiano, Mark Dominik and company?
This series will take a position-by-position look at the roster in Tampa Bay, and consider if the Bucs are better off now than they were just under a year ago at this time. (For consistency purposes, I have used the OurLads 2013 depth chart from June 1st, 2013 as a basis for last year's roster.)
Let's move to the running back position.
Then Versus Now
Just under a year ago, the running back depth chart in Tampa looked a bit like this:
Doug Martin was seen as the team's superstar on offense heading into 2013, but there were definite concerns about the lack of depth behind him. Brian Leonard was a third down back and veteran with ties to Greg Schiano, while Michael Smith, Matt Brown and Jeff Demps all seemed to be return men posing as running backs.
Mike James was a rookie that no one knew much about, but we know how he panned out in a limited sample size.
Here's the depth chart now, with only a trio of familiar names.
Martin returns from an injury to reclaim his place at the top of the depth chart, with James and Sims battling to back him up in 2014. Rainey will battle for a spot on the roster, and his presence may depend upon the team's preference to keep a fullback.
Demps is a complete question mark who may be phased out by Robert Herron and Charles Sims, while Bigelow appears to be a camp body with ties to Jeff Tedford.
The Bucs have two fullbacks, but neither seem to be locks to make the roster. The lack of a veteran, proven fullback at this time of year may signal the Bucs' decision to move on from the position altogether under Tedford. Choosing to keep an extra tight end or tailback instead of a fullback may suit the new regime better.
Overall, the depth chart looks much stronger at running back, assuming there's no desire to keep a true fullback on the team heading into 2014. Lorig may not be great, but he's miles ahead of either of the options currently spending time in Tampa.
James, Sims and Rainey represent more depth than the Bucs can handle behind Martin, meaning one may not make the roster, and one or more may not see the field all that often in this upcoming season. That's not a totally bad thing, however, if the team can stash a running back for injury insurance or trade bait purposes.
The outlook on the running back position has changed in the NFL, as we've seen with the lack of premium draft choices spent on the position in the past two drafts. Backs don't have long lifespans, and they're overly reliant on the blocking in front of them and the passing game on their offense.
As such, the Buccaneers are well ahead of the game in having plenty of backs capable of splitting the load on offense, and not paying very much for any of them. Martin has just over a year under his belt, and figures to see a smaller workload than he did under "bellcow advocate" Greg Schiano.
James and Rainey are both good enough to play on a full-time basis, and Sims seems to be an elite pass-catcher to bring a new element to the Bucs' backfield. All of these players will be under team control for the foreseeable future, and there will be more assets available in the draft (assuming backs continue to fall down the board over the next few years).
However, Martin is the best player at the position in Tampa, as he possesses a combination of size, speed and balance that none of the other backs can match. Keeping him happy and healthy as he approaches his second contract will be key, and having a stable of complimentary but not competitive players will do just that.
Charles Sims replaces Brian Leonard as the pass catcher out of the backfield, and brings a boatload of athleticism that Leonard didn't have, while the idea of Jeff Demps as an offensive weapon lingers as one of Jeff Tedford's pawns in his "speed in space" game.
So while the running back position isn't as important as it once was in the NFL, the Buccaneers are more than set and have players with a variety of talents on the depth chart.
The Buccaneers are much better off at running back as compared to this time last year, even if they plan on keeping one of the less-than-great fullbacks currently in camp. There are talent upgrades across the board behind Martin, and a good variety of skills for a new offensive coordinator to use.