Bucs' quest to replace Doug Martin best served in draft with deep RB class

With free agency approaching (March 14) and with the departure of running back Doug Martin, here's a look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' running back roster and possible upgrades:

Position: Running back

2018 cap hits of top returnees:

  • Jacquizz Rodgers -- $1.6 million

Pending free agents:

  • Charles Sims

  • Peyton Barber (exclusive rights)

Key stats: The Bucs averaged 90.6 rushing yards per game in 2017, 27th in the league. They also generated just 19 explosive plays (rushing plays of 12 or more yards), tied for second to last in the league.

Free-agent market watch:

Le'Veon Bell, Dion Lewis, Carlos Hyde, Frank Gore, Isaiah Crowell, LeGarrette Blount, Jerick McKinnon, Jeremy Hill and Rex Burkhead.

Also could become available: Chris Ivory, Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson, DeMarco Murray and Latavius Murray.

The game plan: Exclusive-rights free agents are players whose contracts are expiring but have less than three accrued seasons in the league. Unlike restricted and unrestricted free agents, they can't negotiate with other teams. So Barber, who unseated Martin to start four games last year, can be brought back on a one-year deal at league minimum while still leaving the door open for a new face.

Sims could also be re-signed at the right price as a change-of-pace back. He averaged 4.52 yards per carry last season, more than any other Bucs running back. He's also got the best hands of the group, while Rodgers can morph into a jack-of-all-trades. Rodgers can be a feature back and third-down back as well as play special teams -- although he didn't have quite as good of a year in 2017 as he did in 2016.

The Bucs need a true game-wrecker at the position, though. Considering that Bell isn't going to hit the market and they haven't had a whole lot of success with outside free agents, they're best served looking toward the draft in what's shaping up to be another deep class. There's Penn State's Saquon Barkley, who likely won't be around at No. 7 when the Bucs select, and LSU's Derrius Guice, Leonard Fournette's replacement, who doesn't have the breakaway speed of Barkley and has dealt with some injuries but is still a very powerful runner. There's also USC's Ronald Jones II, who is shifty, has great burst and plays well in space. Georgia's Sony Michel and Nick Chubb are two other options, along with San Diego State's Rashaad Penny, Auburn's Kerryon Johnson, Notre Dame’s Josh Adams and Oregon’s Royce Freeman.

Even after taking a long look at running back last year, the Bucs waited until the fifth round in the draft to address the position, selecting Jeremy McNichols out of Boise State. It was a disaster -- McNichols struggled to learn the playbook, didn't even make the 53-man roster at the end of camp and wound up signing to the San Francisco 49ers' practice squad. Even with glaring needs with their pass rush and the need to upgrade their run blocking along the offensive line, the Bucs can't afford to be wrong again, especially when it comes to a feature back.