Buccaneers: Full Position Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis at Running Back
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were forced to test their depth at running back in 2013 thanks to multiple injuries.
All three backs return in 2014, along with a couple of new faces and Olympic speedster Jeff Demps. Tampa Bay's backs give it one of the deepest units on the team, with multiple runners who have proven they can be counted on in a starting role.
With the entire group expected back healthy in 2014, here's a look at the depth chart at running back for the Pewter Pirates.
6. Brendan Bigelow
Despite already having an extremely deep group of backs, the Bucs signed Cal's Brendan Bigelow as an undrafted free agent nearly a week after the 2014 draft.
Bigelow didn't carry a full-time load for the Golden Bears, but he demonstrated an ability to be a home run threat throughout his career. As a sophomore, Bigelow averaged nearly 10 yards per carry for the season, and he flashed his athleticism, balance and explosion against Ohio State last season, carrying the ball just four times for 160 yards and a pair of long touchdown runs.
Bigelow's signing was intriguing considering that the Bucs were one of only three teams not in attendance for Cal's pro day, during which Bigelow ran 4.48 40-yard dash despite dealing with a hamstring injury, per the San Jose Mercury News' Steve Corkran. However, the connection between the Cal program and new Bucs offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford might indicate that he already knew enough about Bigelow to bring him in and take a look.
He clearly has a solid skill set as well as experience as a return specialist, but thanks to the depth that the Bucs already have at the position, it's quite a long shot that Bigelow will make the final roster.
5. Jeff Demps
Jeff Demps is best known for his world-class speed, but he's made it clear that it's all about football in 2014 for the Olympic sprinter.
The former Florida Gator came to the Bucs from New England, along with a seventh-round draft pick in return for running back LeGarrette Blount. But after getting just four touches on offense in 2013, Demps suffered a groin injury that required season-ending surgery.
During the team's first minicamp this offseason, Demps looked impressive when lined up in the slot in Jeff Tedford's new scheme, according to the Tampa Bay Times' Rick Stroud (h/t NFL.com's Marc Sessler). If the Bucs can find ways to get him the ball in space, where he can use his elite speed, he might be able to win a roster spot despite the team's depth in the backfield.
4. Bobby Rainey
With both Doug Martin and Mike James gone with season-ending injuries, the Western Kentucky product made six starts for Tampa Bay in the second half of the 2013 season, rushing for 566 yards and five touchdowns. The third-year pro flashed big-play ability last season, including an 80-yard touchdown run on the second play of the game in a 27-6 win over the Buffalo Bills.
Rainey has definitely shown that he can be counted on, but though the Bucs plan to use multiple backs often, Rainey might still have a tough time getting a quality number of touches. He'll make the team, but he might be a prime candidate for a trade if another team is looking for an injury replacement in training camp.
3. Mike James
A sixth-round pick in 2013, Mike James showed plenty of promise in his rookie season, especially after the Bucs lost starter Doug Martin for the season with a shoulder injury.
Two weeks after Martin went down, the former Miami Hurricane carried the ball 28 times for 158 yards in an overtime loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, averaging 5.6 yards per carry against the NFL's top defense.
But James' star fell just as quickly as it had risen, as a broken ankle suffered the following week in a win over the Miami Dolphins sidelined him for the rest of the season. James was averaging over eight yards per carry against Miami at the time of the injury.
James enters his second NFL season still recovering from the injury, but his rehab is going well so far. As long as he returns to full strength, he should stay in the mix for significant touches in 2014.
2. Charles Sims
How could a third-round pick come in and instantly jump two players who played impressively the previous season? A new regime is all it takes.
Despite having great depth at the running back position, the Bucs spent the 69th overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft on West Virginia's Charles Sims. Many fans were left scratching their heads with this pick, but head coach Lovie Smith has made it clear that the Bucs value Sims very highly despite what others may think, per the Tampa Bay Times' Gary Shelton:
Who are the people you're talking about? We love him. We have an excellent running back coach who liked Matt Forte when no one else did. Tim Spencer came up to me after the Senior Bowl talking about Charles Sims. Whether someone else liked him, he's a very good football player. In time, everyone else will like him.
The comparisons to Matt Forte make plenty of sense, especially considering Sims' skills as a receiver. A transfer from Houston, the Big 12's 2013 Newcomer of the Year racked up over 200 receptions over his four-year college career, leading NFL Network's Mike Mayock to name Sims the best pass-catching back in this year's draft.
Though Mike James and Bobby Rainey proved last year that they can both perform at a high level, fans should expect Sims to get first crack as the change-of-pace and third-down back behind Doug Martin. Don't be shocked to see the Bucs get both Martin and Sims on the field at the same time, with Sims possibly working out of the slot.
1. Doug Martin
After a stellar rookie campaign in 2012 that saw him rack up nearly 2,000 total yards and end up in the Pro Bowl, Doug Martin struggled to find much running room last season before ending up on injured reserve with a torn labrum.
But despite the Bucs' intentions to share the load among multiple backs this season, Coach Smith says that the fully healthy Martin will indeed be the team's featured back, per Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com:
Doug's our starting tailback. He's on most of the billboards around here. He's an All-Pro running back. There's nothing to dislike about Doug Martin. At the same time, we want Doug around for many years. By that, you need to have some other guys. He can't carry it every second of the way. He's done everything we've asked him to do. We couldn't be more pleased with him.
Though Martin will be the first one in the huddle at running back, his struggles as a receiver last season and the addition of Charles Sims will likely keep him off the field for plenty of third downs. However, having plenty of options behind him should be better for Martin in the long run, allowing him to stay more fresh over the duration of the season.