There are some major decisions the Bucs will need to make when the 2021 free agency period begins on March 17th. One of which will have to be with the running back position.
There are definitely a plethora of options for the Bucs. They could be looking to the draft, they could keep what they have, or they could look across the league and fish from a sea of backs that would love nothing more than the chance to come play with Tom Brady for a chance to win another championship.
Let’s take a quick look at the 2021 NFL Draft rookie class as ranked by CBS Sports. They have the first running back off the board as Travis Etienne from Clemson. Then it gets interesting as the more appealing back out of Alabama, Najee Harris, comes in ranked at 41 with the Bucs having the 32nd draft pick. But, do the Bucs really need to take another running back early in the draft though? They can likely use that pick on a much bigger need.
However, it seems the Patriots are leaning much more heavily on the draft for their leading rusher. According to musketfire.com, the Pats may already be courting their next running back. Apparently, Jermar Jefferson from Oregan State met with the front office virtually recently. Which then naturally leaves everyone wondering what will become of James White?
The free agent pool for a premier running back is much deeper than it’s been in recent years. Kenyan Drake, Todd Gurley, Mark Ingram, Tevin Coleman, and James White all find themselves heading out on the free market.
We all witnessed Ingram and Gurley’s value plummet in dramatic fashion in 2020. Drake put up nearly identical stats to what RoJo put up, and Coleman was out with a significant knee injury most of the season.
The Bucs utilized four running backs throughout their championship season. They intermittently alternated actives as the game plan deemed necessary. Even with Ronald Jones II labelled as the bell cow for Arians and Leftwich’s offense, they still drafted a running back in the third round, brought in an aged pass-catching veteran in LeSean McCoy to round out the running back stable, and Leonard Fournette took all season long to understand his role in Tampa.
Quarterback Tom Brady almost went the entire time in New England without a premier running back. When they did, they had more success with a pass catching back rather than a bell cow toting the rock. The picture is becoming clearer and clearer though. Fournette and McCoy are not likely to make a return to this roster, and Vaughn is still another year away from taking on the starting job. If RoJo isn’t the full package, then they have to round him out somehow and that very well could be with James White.
James White’s career thus far
James White was drafted in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft (130th overall) by the New England Patriots. He went to the University of Wisconsin where he racked up over 4,000 yards with two of those being over 1,000 yards. He also reeled in 45 receptions for a total of 48 touchdowns.
White went on to play in four championships and win Super Bowls XLIX, LI, and LIII with the Patriots. He’s been a starter for the team since year two and continued on to rack up a total of 1,240 yards on the ground and 3,184 yards receiving making him one of the best pass-catching backs in the league today.
Why it works
White has stayed fairly healthy having only missed less than eight games since the Pats made him the starter in 2015. During his time in New England, him and Tom Brady had a fantastic connection, making the short pass out to the flats and screens a popular staple in Brady’s offense.
It only makes sense to consider White as a viable option. It’s a tried and true connection with Brady, he has Super Bowl experience, he has great hands, and he can be effective in goal-to-go situations.
It may just come down to what James White wants to do with his career. Is he in it for the short game, or want the long-term contract. Unfortunately, he’s heading into his final years and he knows this. He could be happy with taking a one or two year deal, win another championship and see where the wind takes him from there because I don’t think he’ll find many more chances as a starting rusher.
There are so many other options. Should the Bucs just keep Fournette since the going is good? He is however coming off one of the best post seasons of his career, but there may just not be enough in that tank and he was really inconsistent throughout the regular season. There is a high probability that McCoy will not return, which would then leave Jones, Vaughn, and Barner.
Jones is heading into a contract year. If James White comes to Tampa, the confidence is pretty low that he will get the starting job. It might just turn into another inconsistent situation like we saw last season.
Another consideration is that the Bucs don’t even need a complimentary receiving option to Jones. After all, they did manage to stock pile their receiving corps with the best receivers in the league.
You can also venture as far to think the market may be too wide open for White to be the only consideration. If the Bucs actually do require a receiving option in the backfield, there are plenty of options heading on the market like Chris Thompson, Jerick McKinnon, Adrian Peterson, Alfred Morris, Lamar Miller, Devontae Booker, Le’Veon Bell, Phillip Lindsay and more.
What’s the cost?
White is coming off of a 3-year deal worth $12,000,000, including a $4,000,000 signing bonus and $4,690,000 guaranteed. His average annual salary is $4,000,000. To put that into perspective, Ronald Jones signed a 4-year deal back in 2018 for $7,071,908, including a $3,223,206 signing bonus and $4,504,656 guaranteed.
Following their Super Bowl winning season, the Bucs will want to keep as many pieces together as possible. There are already signs that some players will have to accept a restructured contract to make that happen. Given that Jones is heading into a contract year, it’s not likely he’ll accept anything less.
Leonard Fournette was brought to Tampa on a 1-year $2,000,000 contract. Ke’Shawn Vaughn signed a 4-year $4,755,997 rookie contract with a $1,018,908 signing bonus and $1,018,908 guaranteed.
What we don’t know
I’m not entirely convinced the Bucs will put a large enough investment in at the running back position given the amount of defensive players and receivers they need to pay to keep on the roster. If they do pursue White, they’ll need to at least match his prior annual salary, and likely only placed on a one or two year deal.
We also don’t know if Fournette would be willing to take less for another season. Nor do we know if Jones is also willing to restructure his final year. I would imagine a lot hinges on what the most affordable options will be for Jason Licht and the front office based on their priorities.
We also don’t know how the draft will play out. They could, although unlikely, take Najee Harris in the first round. They could also pick up another option that’s cheaper from the free agent market.
Furthermore, we don’t know how long White will remain healthy. He’s heading into his seventh season in a position that has an average ten year lifespan. I completely understand he hasn’t been utilized as a head-down crushing runner, but realistically he could be signing his final contract so that could also influence things as well.
Make the decision
Now it’s your turn to make the decision. Place yourself in Jason Licht’s shoes. How would you handle the situation with James White?
The Bucs are beginning to run out of options at running back if they end up losing Fournette and McCoy. They may be looking for the complimentary pieces, and making moves towards the direction of familiarity for Tom Brady. There are tons of options, so think wisely. What would you do?
When it comes to James White, what would you have the Buccaneers do?
This poll is closed
Sign him no matter what
Make an offer, but keep it reasonable
Invite him for a cup of coffee and see where it goes
Call him up if they still have a need after the draft
Don’t need him