TAMPA, Fla. -- With so much attention on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quarterback battle between Baker Mayfield and Kyle Trask and some of the early highlights from the wide receivers, the running backs have slid under the radar. But running the ball will play a much bigger role in coordinator Dave Canales’ offense in 2023. There has been a renewed commitment to a more balanced run-pass offense, which should help this group rise from the league’s worst rushing attack.
As far as how many of these players will stick around when it’s time to make final cuts -- they’ve kept four running backs on their initial 53-man roster the last two years and in 2020 and 2019, they went with three. In terms of divvying up carries -- last year Leonard Fournette and Rachaad White had a 55.1% to 37.8% split on total number of rushes and a 56.6% and 36.2% split on receptions, but that was because White overtook Fournette, who is now gone, for the starting role. This year, White should get roughly 66-70% of the touches as he is currently RB1.
White enjoyed a breakout game in Week 10 last season, became a starter, and hasn’t looked back. While he can play in a number of offensive schemes, the move to a wide zone scheme closely mimics what he played in at Arizona State -- a scheme that requires cutback ability, patience and vision to identify and explode through the hole.
White rushed for 481 yards on 129 carries, averaging 3.7 yards per rush with a struggling offensive line last year. He can take a step forward there, as well as ball security, as White had two fumbles during the regular season. Skip Peete, the Bucs running backs coach, can help in that department as his Dallas Cowboys running backs had zero fumbles last season.
“He is just so natural,” Canales said of White. “Everything he does, the run game, the pass game, pass protection and routes. He is really a natural with both hands catching the ball. I think he is going to be fantastic. My part, and our part as a staff, is just making sure that we are able to take advantage of all that skill set that he brings.”
The Bucs’ current No. 2 back is more steady than flashy, having run a 4.51 at the NFL combine, and hasn’t gotten a whole lot of opportunities in his first three years playing behind Fournette, White and Ronald Jones. He's had 79 total rushes in 19 games, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. Whoever gets this backup role could get roughly 23-25% of the touches, which is how Canales’ old team, the Seattle Seahawks split things up between Rashaad Penny and Kenneth Walker III when they were both healthy.
While Vaughn is a one-cut runner that may benefit from the move to the zone scheme, could there be a scenario where a guy like Sean Tucker overtakes him as RB2 with a strong preseason because of his track speed? Chase Edmonds’ receiving ability could also play a factor, although they're giving Vaughn more opportunities as a receiver than before.
“The cool part about [Vaughn] is that he has enough experience right now where any run type you give him, he really knows what it is designed to do,” Canales said. “He has patience on the ones where he needs to be patient. He hits it fast on the ones where he needs to. He is exciting.”
Edmonds is their third-down running back. Coach Todd Bowles called him a “jack of all trades” in that he can he can run, catch, pass block and play special teams and he said Edmonds “understands the game completely.” He’s got a 78.9% pass block win rate since 2018 and has given up 5.0 total sacks according to ESPN Statistics and Information.
“I coached against him and really just watched him play for a bunch of years while he was there,” Canales said. “He is lightning in a bottle. He is shot out of a cannon. He can do as much as a lot of our slot receivers can too, so he is a really dangerous asset for us.”
Edmonds has bounced around the league since his days at Fordham -- including stints with the Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos last year -- and his production has been modest. He admitted that the two-year, $12 million deal he signed in Miami took some of the edge off of him, but in Tampa, he signed a one-year, veteran minimum deal worth $1.08 million.
In three seasons at Syracuse, Tucker rushed for 3,182 yards on 589 carries, averaging 5.4 yards per carry with 27 rushing touchdowns. He also had 622 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns, leading ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper to declare him his “favorite running back” in the 2023 draft class.
Tucker missed rookie camp and mandatory minicamp due to a heart condition that was detected at the NFL combine which caused him to go undrafted. Prior to that, he said he was running the 40-yard dash in the 4.3-4.4 range.
“He has another gear,” Canales said. “He is probably the fastest guy we have in the room. He really has some suddenness to him.”
His college tape shows he has really good vision and a keen understanding of what’s happening at the second level, on top of his ability to make one cut and explode, which makes Canales’ scheme a place he can thrive.
“It gives us options, having more field -- especially for me -- having more field to run and having space," Tucker said on the scheme. "That creates opportunities, and for a running back that's definitely something that you want."
A former walk-on at Cal, Laird went on to rush for 1,127 yards on 961 carries in two seasons as a starter. He signed with the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent and played in 37 games there from 2019-21 before spending the 2022 season on the Bucs’ practice squad.
Peete was particularly complimentary of Laird's run skills, balance, pass protection and special teams ability.
“Patrick Laird does everything right,” Canales said. “He is the guy who is tapping me on the shoulder like, ‘Hey, in the spring we had this route on this concept, is that what you want? The drawing was this.’ Like, ‘Yes, that is right.’ So, he is on top of all that.”
Ronnie Brown Jr.
The 6-foot, 190-pound rookie is currently the sixth running back in line, signing with the Bucs as an undrafted free agent out of Shepard. In four seasons with the Division II school, he had 3,041 rushing yards, 1,158 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns in four seasons, leading the Rams to back-to-back division titles.
He has more of an upright running style, but also a nice vision and is very elusive. Of course, the jump in competition will be the big question he’ll have to answer at the next level. It’s unlikely he’ll be making as many defenders miss as he did in his college highlight reel, which caught Canales’ eye. Expect to see a lot of him in the preseason.
“He had a lot of carries at Shepard. ... He has personality too. He brings a lot of good juice to the room," Canales said.