Should the Bucs spend some cap space on a star running back this offseason?

New York Giants v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
New York Giants v Tampa Bay Buccaneers / Julio Aguilar/GettyImages

Back in April 2018, numerous general managers, team owners, head coaches, and front office personal began to make franchise-altering decisions in the NFL Draft. With five QBs selected in the first round, including four selected with top-ten picks, the draft class would play a major role in the future of the NFL for the next few seasons.

Saquon Barkley was one of the non-quarterbacks taken and is one of the last stars standing among his class.

During his first season as a Giant, Barkley was remarkable amid a historic rookie season. While starting in all 16 games, Barkley recorded 261 carries for 1,307 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, along with 91 receptions for 721 receiving yards and four touchdowns. As a result, Barkley made the Pro Bowl, won the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, and expectations were sky-high for New York in the upcoming seasons.

While Barkley did produce a quality sophomore season, running for over 1,000 yards and six touchdowns and adding 53 catches for 438 yards and two touchdowns, Barkley's extreme usage began to become an issue.

He tore his ACL in the second week of the next season would linger in the following year as Barkley had just 593 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 162 carries, all career-worsts.

Barkley bounced back stronger than ever in 2022, and turned in another record-setting campaign. Starting in 16 games, he totaled a career-best 1,312 rushing yards and ten rushing scores on 295 carries in addition to 1,650 scrimmage yards. Barkley would later finish third in the AP Comeback Player of the Year Award, and was named to his second Pro Bowl appearance.

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That brings us to this season, where Barkley has enjoyed another solid season. With starts in nine of 12 games, Barkley has recorded 165 rushing attempts for 697 rushing yards and one touchdown, and has caught 28 of 40 targets for 168 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns.

With a season-ending ACL injury to starting quarterback Daniel Jones, Barkley has been the lone bright spot on the Giants' struggling offense. This season, New York has just 13.3 PPG, 258.5 YPG, and 151.6 PYPG, all of which rank last in the NFL.

New York has been even worse offensively when Barkley has missed time this season. During Barkley's three game absence from week three to five, the Giants mustered 12.7 PPG, 233.0 YPG, 154.4 PYPG, and 75.3 RYPG, and lost all three matchups by double-digit points.

Barkley isn’t the only talented free agent who is about to hit free ageny that the Buccaneers should potentially look at. Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard are all under the franchise tag alongside Austin Ekeler, D'Andre Swift, Derrick Henry, JK Dobbins, AJ Dillion, and Antonio Gibson.

Even with such a surplus of talented and promising running backs, the sad reality is that many of them will go unsigned. This can be partly attributed to the pass-first direction of the league, but is much strongerly attributed to the average length of a player's career in the NFL, as shown below by Statista.

With an average length of 3.3 years, the lowest of any position group, RB is the most volatile position to play in the NFL. With players regularly exposed to hard hits and collisions, all players, especially running backs, face a high risk of injury. Due to this, many players are forced to retire early or miss significant time due to injuries.

Additionally, the NFL is highly competitive, with a large pool of talented players who are eager to take the place of those who are injured or no longer able to perform at a high level. Even as a sports league, the NFL is truly a business, with all 32 team's owner, GM, HC, and front office personal tasked to build the best possible roster without going over the salary cap.

Even with all of this said, there are still a number of teams league-wide that have still struggled to have an efficient ground game this season. Tampa Bay has recorded 267 attempts for 894 rushing yards (31st in NFL), four touchdowns (T30th in NFL), and just 3.3 YPC (32nd in NFL).

Stats don’t lie: teams that have run the football well this season have enjoyed evident success. Of the top team teams in terms of rushing yards, eight teams are firmly in the playoff picture, highlighted by the Ravens (1,903 YDs, 22 TDs), the Dolphins (1,597 YDs, 19 TDs), the Browns (1,534 YDs, 11 TDs), and the Falcons (1,532 YDs, 10 TDs).

While there are exceptions to this statement, such as the Bears and Cardinals, who rank second and tenth with records of 4-8 and 2-10, this isn't something the Buccaneers should glimpse over as they get closer to the 2024 offseason. With around $30 million projected in salary cap space, Tampa Bay may need to invest in the likes of Barkley, Jacobs, Pollard, or another running back to revitalize their stagnant offense.

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