Draft's RB depth might be handy

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
Published January 20, 2008

TAMPA - Where would the Bucs be without Earnest Graham?

That was the refrain in 2007 when the seldom-used running back saved the season for the Bucs by rushing for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Where would the Bucs be without Graham today? Left with Kenneth Darby as their only other healthy tailback under contract.

Cadillac Williams won't be ready for training camp and is iffy to play next season as he rehabs from a devastating torn patellar tendon in his right knee.

"It's obviously a concern," general manager Bruce Allen said. "Michael Pittman is going to be a free agent. Michael Bennett is going to be a free agent, so it's an area that needs to be addressed."

Pittman said the Bucs would like for him to return next season. But he has instructed agent Drew Rosenhaus to attempt to find him a better situation.

"I'm going to look around and see what's out there," Pittman said. "One thing about being a third-down back the last few years, I haven't taken many hits, and I feel pretty fresh."

Fortunately for the Bucs, underclassmen have made the NFL draft very rich at running back.

Arkansas has two tailbacks that will be taken in the first round - Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. Oregon's Jonathan Stewart, Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall and Rutgers' Ray Rice may be worth first-round selections.

This is not to suggest that for the second time since 2005, the Bucs will take a running back in the first round. But the influx of juniors means there will be quality tailbacks available late into the second round.

Thanks to Graham and a young offensive line, the Bucs' strength on offense was running. Tampa Bay averaged 117 yards per game, 11th in the league and the best effort on the ground for the Bucs in seven years.

Unfortunately, Williams faces a long road back, and the Bucs can't count on him for next season or beyond. But Allen remains optimistic.

"Yes, it's a serious injury," Allen said. "He has excellent medical care, and the equipment and recuperation time is completely different than it was six or seven years ago. Yes, I'm confident that if it can be done, he can do it."

JUNE SWOON: The most overlooked aspect of the playoff loss to the Giants might have been the untimely injury of linebacker Cato June, who broke his foot playing 18 snaps in the final regular-season game against Carolina.

June doesn't even remember when he was injured. But when you see all those checkdown passes completed by Giants quarterback Eli Manning in that game, you wonder how the outcome might have been different with June on the field.

"You play the entire year for this time of year," June said. "You're getting ready for the playoffs. The whole season is just a preview for the playoffs. So for me not to be able to go out there and contribute, it's frustrating."

What didn't frustrate June was having to come off the field on third down this season. June excels in pass coverage, but those duties belong to Derrick Brooks and Barrett Ruud in coordinator Monte Kiffin's defense.

"I'm taking it as a learning experience," June said. "I've been in a situation before, during my second year of starting, where I came off on third down. In my mind, I'm thinking, 'Man, why am I coming off on third down? This is kind of my thing.' But it's all about the team.

"Playing with Brooks, playing behind him in passing situations, is another experience for me. I've learned so much this year. Who better to learn it from?"