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Running back needs to be addressed early for the Bucs

Some names to keep an eye on for their second-round pick

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2018 NFL Draft just a few short weeks away, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have three positions that they need to focus on. The defensive positions that need to be addressed are Safety and Cornerback, and I suspect one of those positions to be selected with the team’s first pick. Whether it’s Derwin James, Denzel Ward or Jaire Alexander, it’s hard not to picture one of them in a Buccaneers uniform on April 26th.

On the offensive side of the ball, the only real position of need is running back, and without a third round pick it’s hard to imagine them not picking one with their first 2 selections. They waited last year and we all know how Jeremy McNichols worked out, which is why I don’t expect them to wait this year. It is certainly possible that the Buccaneers can trade back into the third round, but as of right now the team only has two picks in the top 100.

The depth chart for the running back position is pretty slim. The Buccaneers have Peyton Barber, Jacquizz Rodgers and Dalton Crossan on the roster. With all due respect to those three, if running back isn’t addressed early, Tampa Bay would be going into the 2018 season with one of the worst running back groups across the NFL. I believe that even if Saquon Barkley is on the board at 7, which many people don’t expect him to be, the Buccaneers would still pass. I know I just said that the team needs a running back in the first two rounds, but there are plenty of options outside of Barkley in this very deep running back class.

Three names come to mind when looking at guys who would be a perfect compliment to Peyton Barber that can be selected in the second round. The first is Sony Michel out of the University of Georgia. The Bulldog rushed for 3,638 yards on 591 carries and 33 touchdowns in his four years, and caught 64 passes for 621 yards and 5 touchdowns. He put up those numbers while splitting the backfield with Nick Chubb who is the Bulldogs’ starting running back. Michel ran a 4.54 40-yard dash at the NFL combine and also put up an impressive 22 reps on the bench press.

According to the PFF NFL Draft Guide, Michel is the 5th ranked running back in this year’s draft class, with his teammate Nick Chubb ranked one spot ahead of him. The thing that draws me the most to Sony Michel is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. At the NFL combine, teams wanted Michel to work out with the wide receiver group just to test his ability as a pass catching back, which is exactly what the Buccaneers need. Michel is very quick on his feet and is very elusive in terms of making people miss. PFF gave him an elusive rating of 90.5, which ranks fifth in this year’s running back class.

Michel is a three down back who would help the Buccaneers in not only the run game, but the pass game as well. We know that Dirk Koetter likes to run screen passes, but the Buccaneers didn’t have “that guy” last year to consistently run them and run them effectively. The bottom line is that Michel is an all around player who has excellent footwork, has the ability to make people miss in space, and can accelerate through holes. The former Bulldog would be a perfect compliment to Peyton Barber and would help take the pressure off of Jameis Winston.

Another running back who I believe should be on the Buccaneers radar with their second round pick is Ronald Jones of out USC. In three years at USC, Jones rushed for 3,619 yards on 591 carries and scored 39 touchdowns. Folks, that’s an average of 6.1 yards per carry. That is production in the running game and that is what Tampa Bay’s offense needs to reach the next level. He also added 32 catches for 302 yards. Jones, who ran a disappointing 4.65 40-yard dash at the combine, improved his time and ran a 4.48 at the USC pro day in early April. Jones has been dealing with a hamstring injury which is why his 40-yard dash numbers are a little down. Maybe it’s just me, but a 4.48 with your hamstring not at 100% is pretty impressive. His goal was to run a sub 4.4, but he was pleased with a 4.48 while still rehabbing his hamstring.

Ronald Jones is not as good in the passing game as Michel is and isn’t all that great in pass blocking, but he still caught 32 passes in a college system that doesn’t have many plays designed for running backs to be pass catchers. If the Buccaneers are looking for a traditional running back, Jones could be their guy. The USC star is more of an in between the tackles runner who loves contact and loves to push the pile forward, and with the Buccaneers having a nasty hard-nosed interior offensive line, he could fit the mold in terms of what they are looking for. The one area I love about Jones is the 39 touchdowns in three years at USC. The Buccaneers lacked the threat of a red-zone running game, which is why they were so easy to defend in tight spaces. Jones would help fix that.

The PFF NFL Draft Guide has Jones ranked as the second best running back prospect in this year’s class. There is no guarantee that Jones will be available when Ronde Barber announces the team’s second round pick, but if he is, the team has to take a long hard look at him. If it comes down to him or Sony Michel, I believe the team leans towards Michel because of his pass catching ability.

The third and final target for the Buccaneers should be Rashaad Penny out of San Diego State. I wouldn’t necessarily take him at #38, but if I was Jason Licht I would explore trade up possibilities at the end of the second, or early in the third round. Keep in mind, the Buccaneers don’t have their third round pick after giving it up in order to acquire Jason Pierre-Paul.

Rashaad Penny is another one of these “do it all backs” who will instantly upgrade any team that drafts him. Penny was extremely productive in his three years of game action at San Diego State. Penny rushed for 3,643 yards on 487 carries, which is an average of 7.1 yards per carry. He also had 38 rushing touchdowns, including 23 in 2017. Again, that’s production, and something the Buccaneers seriously lacked last season. In contrast to Penny averaging 7.1 yards per carry, the Buccaneers averaged 3.7 yards per carry which was good for 5th worst in the NFL. In the passing game, Penny added 42 catches for 479 yards with an average of 11.2 yards along with another six touchdowns in his collegiate career.

The PFF NFL Draft Guide has him as the third ranked back in this draft class ahead of some popular names such as Derrius Guice, Royce Freeman and Kerryon Johnson. Perhaps the most intriguing statistic when looking at Rashaad Penny is his ability to make people miss. This past season at San Diego State, Penny forced 80 missed tackles which is good for 1st in his running back class. Penny hasn’t gotten as much recognition as he deserves throughout this year’s draft process. He is never mentioned among the top five running backs and he needs to be. Every time he steps on the field he produces, and he strikes fear into a defense.

Penny also put up an impressive 40 yard dash time at the combine and posted a 4.46 which was good for third behind Nyheim Hines and Saquon Barkley. Some other categories in which Penny led the FBS in were kickoff returns with 7 and 35 rushes of 15+ yards. A knock against Penny has been that he is below average in pass protection because of poor hand usage and lacking awareness. To me, that is not that big of a concern as it can be developed. Not many athletes have natural play making ability and to lead the FBS in as many categories and Penny did, he should be in the round two conversation.

There are of course other running backs the Buccaneers could target such as Royce Freeman, Derrius Guice, John Kelly and Mark Walton. Either way, by the time the end of the second round is over, the Buccaneers must add one of the guys mentioned above to this roster. My order would go Michel, Penny, Jones.