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Michael Smith is winning the backup running back job

Special teams value may well determine the outcome of this position battle.


Doug Martin is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting running back, and he will receive the vast, vast majority of touches this season. But the big question is who will be his main backup. D.J. Ware fulfilled that role last season, but he was released earlier this offseason. Instead they have a competition with four players this offseason: Michael Smith, Brian Leonard, Mike James and Matt Brown. Jeff Demps is on the roster as well, but unlikely to play a role as he won't join the team until his track and field competitions end in the middle of August -- if he even decides to join the Bucs then.

When the Buccaneers drafted Mike James in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL Draft, they talked about him as someone similar to Earnest Graham. But so far, we have heard nothing of James in minicamp practices. Pewter Report noted this week that Michael Smith, last year's seventh-round pick, appeared to have grasped the backup job:

Sixth-round draft pick Mike James has yet to see significant reps on offense throughout the offseason, and it appears heading into training camp that Smith has a grip on the backup running back job for the time being.

Smith's speed is certainly intriguing, but his size may pose a problem on passing downs as he is likely to struggle to block bigger linebackers and even defensive backs. On the other hand, his speed will make him an intriguing option as a receiving back, not dissimilar to the Falcons' Jacquizz Rodgers or the Saints' Darren Sproles -- although obviously, Smith has a lot more to prove than those two.

But Smith managed just three touches last season, all of them on kick returns in one game with less than spectacular results. He's far from a safe choice as the main backup. Brian Leonard represents exactly that, as he is both versatile and has been productive as a third-down back. He is familiar with Greg Schiano from his college days, but he doesn't possess Smith's explosive athleticism -- and he has the wear and tear of six NFL seasons on his body.

Mike James has so far apparently not impressed. We'll see if that changes in training camp, when the pads finally come on -- and perhaps it's just a case of adjusting to a playbook. He didn't show any special traits in college, but he was a reliable and versatile player who was also an excellent special teams player. That could help him be active on game day over someone like Michael Smith, whose only realistic function on special teams is as a kick returner.

And then there are Matt Brown and Jeff Demps, two diminutive speedsters who may bring something special to the table. Brown is interesting, if only for his size: at 5'5", 170 lbs he's the smallest Buccaneer on the roster. Demps isn't a part of this conversation until he shows up for workouts, however.

Last season, the Bucs kept three running backs active on game day: Doug Martin, Legarrette Blount and D.J. Ware. Blount and Martin played no role on special teams, while Ware was the third-down back and a significant factor on special teams. The Bucs had room on their game day active for one running back who played no role on special teams and a small role on offense in Legarrette Blount. But will they continue to do that, or would they prefer to roll with two backup running backs who can play bigger roles on special teams?

So far, though, Smith appears to hold the upper hand. If he can grab the kick returner job as well, perhaps Smith can come out on top of this four-way position battle. But if he can't, he'll be hard-pressed to fight off players who can play a big role on coverage teams. At the bottom of the roster, special teams ability can make all the difference.

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