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Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Memphis v Penn State Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Buccaneers NFL Draft Target: Running Back, Kenneth Gainwell (Memphis)

One of the most electric playmakers in college football during the 2019 season could be an interesting long-term option for the Bucs’ backfield...

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As we continue to look ahead to next month’s NFL Draft and evaluate potential targets for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, we’re looking at an intriguing day two running back who would add even more playmaking ability to an offense already full of it.

Today, we put the spotlight on Kenneth Gainwell, one of the most electric players in college football during the 2019 season. After opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, the former Memphis Tiger looks to be a potential steal for whichever team selects him in April. Could that team be the Bucs?

KENNETH GAINWELL’S COLLEGIATE CAREER

After being a three-year starter at quarterback for Yazoo County High School in Mississippi, Gainwell had offers from Memphis, Arkansas State, Idaho, Louisiana-Lafayette, Ole Miss and Tulane. He ultimately chose Memphis and had a short, yet memorable career with the Tigers. In 2018, he ran four times for 91 yards and a touchdown while catching six passes for 52 yards in the team’s first four games. With Darrell Henderson (currently with the Rams), Patrick Taylor Jr. (Packers), Antonio Gibson (Washington Football Team) and Tony Pollard (Cowboys) all on the roster at the time, Gainwell took a redshirt year.

In 2019, with Henderson and Pollard gone to the NFL, Gainwell burst onto the scene in a big way. He played in all 14 of the Tigers’ games in a season that saw them go 12-2 and win the American Athletic Conference. In those 14 games, he ran for 1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns on 231 carries (6.3 yards per carry) in addition to catching 51 passes for 610 yards and three more scores. The country’s all-purpose yards among freshmen, he was the conference’s rookie of the year and a unanimous first-team all-conference selection. Not to mention, he was also a Doak Walker Award semifinalist and a member of the AAC’s All-Academic Team.

A lot of eyes were set to be on Gainwell in 2020, as he was named to the watch lists for both the Doak Walker Award and the Maxwell Award while also earning a preseason All-American nod from Athlon Sports. But after tragically losing multiple family members to COVID-19, Gainwell understandably made the decision to opt out of the 2020 college football season. Now, he is set to take the next step in his football journey.

PRO DAY DATA AND ANALYSIS

Memphis held its Pro Day on March 19 and Gainwell came out of it looking pretty impressive. In college, he was 5-foot-11 and weighed in at around 190 pounds. While with the Tigers, his size very clearly didn’t hold him back. However, it was something that had some analysts and evaluators a little iffy on his pro prospects. Well, based on his weigh-in—and simply the way he looked—at Memphis’ Pro Day, it was clear that he spent 2020 adding some healthy weight to his frame. He reportedly weighed in at 201 pounds, which is an around 7-10 pounds more than what he played at in 2019.

The added weight may quell any lingering worries that folks may have had about Gainwell. Plus, if a team has a problem with him playing at 201 pounds, he could presumably put on a little more weight with an NFL offseason program as well. It’s not as if playing around 190 pounds has held him back before, though. His speed and shiftiness—as well as his pass-catching ability—all made him a force to be reckoned with at Memphis. And he never played small and was shy about contact, even in pass protection. Just look at this rep from the 2019 Cotton Bowl against Penn State (in the second tweet):

The extra poundage didn’t seem to affect Gainwell’s speed during his Pro Day, either. His unofficial 40-yard dash time was reportedly 4.42 seconds, which puts him in the 86th percentile among running backs historically, according to Pro Football Focus. Detractors were quick to point out that his time would’ve been a little slower if recorded at the NFL Scouting Combine, but even his adjusted time would’ve been about the same as that of Christian McCaffrey, a player who Gainwell has been compared to.

WHAT HE BRINGS IN 2021

Given the extreme lack of turnover from the Bucs’ 2020 roster to what the 2021 roster is going to look like, April’s draft is likely to be all about depth for Tampa Bay. That’s what Gainwell would bring in 2021, though his receiving ability would give him a chance to earn meaningful snaps from day one. Both Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette have been capable enough pass-catchers from time to time, but there hasn’t really been the needed consistency from either guy. Neither guy is really a plus-receiver, and drops have been an issue. That’s why the Bucs are surely looking to add a strong receiving back in 2021, especially considering how much Tom Brady likes his receiving running backs.

In 2019, Gainwell caught 51 of his 59 targets for 610 yards and three touchdowns. According to Pro Football Focus, he had just three drops on those 59 targets and broke 20 tackles. At Memphis, he was equal parts impressive as a receiver out of the backfield and out wide, which would give Byron Leftwich some flexibility to work with as well.

And before we get too far, it’s important to remember that Gainwell is an explosive runner, too. He wouldn’t be the Charles Sims type that would only hit the field for third-down passing situations. Rather, Gainwell would be a weapon. He has speed, agility and pure playmaking ability. Using him in a trio with Jones and Fournette would cause some problems for defenses—and it would keep fresh legs in the backfield at all times.

THREE-YEAR OUTLOOK

This is where things get interesting for the Bucs. When it comes to running backs on the roster right now, the team has Jones, Fournette, Ke’Shawn Vaughn and C.J. Prosise. Jones and Fournette are obviously the leading backs in 2021, but the other two are a little less solidified. Vaughn, the team’s 2020 third-round pick, didn’t see the field all too often as a rookie, and to try to project his future from his limited NFL snaps would be nothing more than grasping at straws. As for Prosise, he came on as a practice squad guy late last season and may very well be out the door sooner rather than later.

So, who is the future of Tampa Bay’s backfield? Well, Jones is in a contract year and Fournette only signed a one-year deal with the team. That means, beyond 2021, there’s no telling what the Bucs will do with their running back situation. Is Vaughn their future go-to guy? Will he come on stronger in years two and three like Jones did before him? Or will the Bucs find a guy in this year’s draft who can get the inside track to being a feature in the offense two or three years down the road?

If the Bucs were to draft Gainwell, they could use him primarily for his receiving ability—and as fresh legs—this year before potentially giving him the keys in 2022. If the team wants to re-sign Jones, it’s not hard to see a duo of Jones and Gainwell performing well for years to come. And if the former Memphis standout reaches his ceiling and truly becomes a McCaffrey type of player, he very well could be a three-down guy for Tampa Bay in a year or two. There are a lot of “ifs” involved in this outlook, of course. There’s a chance that Gainwell is more James White than McCaffrey. But at the very least, he could be a standout receiving back with high upside as a runner. That’s the kind of player that works exceptionally well in today’s NFL, as two- and three-back systems are a norm these days.

STOCK REPORT

Gainwell is a day two prospect, but where he falls on day two is probably going to be a hot topic once the draft rolls around. Many have him as RB5 or RB6 in the class, but there’s variation on both sides. Some think he has a high enough ceiling to be a second-round option, while plenty of others feel like he is a third-rounder. Mel Kiper even thinks he could be available in the fourth, though that doesn’t feel as likely. Because of how valuable strong receiving backs are in the league, he may not be on the board all that long. Then again, we have seen running backs come off the board somewhat slowly in some recent drafts. There is going to be a lot of fluidity with the draft in 2021, too. So, only time will tell whether or not Gainwell remains a sleeper who can be had in the third round or if he’ll be a riser that gets selected early on day two.

ON THE CLOCK...

Now, it’s time for your thoughts, Bucs Nation. You’re on the clock. Given the luxury that Tampa Bay has to simply add depth in this year’s NFL Draft and considering how Gainwell’s skillset aligns with what the team needs in a running back, how do you view this potential target? Be sure to vote in our poll and discuss your opinions in the comments down below.

Poll

For Kenneth Gainwell, the Buccaneers should...

This poll is closed

  • 52%
    ...draft him at current projection (day two if available at team’s slot)
    (112 votes)
  • 14%
    ...draft him early (trade up on day two)
    (31 votes)
  • 14%
    ...take a better player earlier in the draft
    (31 votes)
  • 15%
    ...draft this position, but later than he is projected
    (34 votes)
  • 3%
    ...not draft this position group at all
    (7 votes)
215 votes total Vote Now

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