Mike Alstott, despite the fact that his role had been reduced since 2004, was an important factor in the equation on offense. He could block, rush for key yardage, catch passes out of the backfield and generally act as a spokesman for the offense.
His departure for this season, at least, will have a ripple effect on the offense. How so?
Well, first the Bucs naturally move up B.J. Askew to first string. He is not an Alstott clone. At 6-foot-3, 233 pounds, he's a bit leaner. He's considered a less versatile fullback and is more likely to block than carry the football (he has just 27 career carries). That said, he cleared the way for Curtis Martin when the Jets back led the NFL in rushing in 2004. It's likely that Askew will be able to capably block for Bucs back Cadillac Williams. He has enough starting experience to allow the Bucs to trust him with the job. But the skill position abilities of Alstott will have to be redistributed.
I would expect Williams to gain Alstott's goal line carries and short-yardage touches, meaning that Williams' value to the offense just went up. He's now their No. 1 option in all rushing situations, meaning he'll get the 3-5 touches per game Alstott was getting. That should mean more production for Williams — and also more pounding. His continued good health is now even more important.
On the receiving end, Michael Pittman should get a larger role. Alstott was a pretty adept pass receiver out of the backfield, and Pittman is the best pass-catching back on the roster. I could see Pittman's receptions going up by about 10-15 catches this season, and this would come without taking catches away from Williams. Pittman would simply slide into Alstott's part of the playbook.
This also opens the door for Jon Gruden's ballyhooed "Rocket Backfield," with Pittman at fullback and Williams at running back. Gruden talked about it when Williams was a rookie, but never implemented it. It's likely he'll dust off that set of plays and install them during camp, because Pittman is big enough to block and the value of having both on the field at the same time just went up. You put your best running back and your best pass-catching back on the field at the same time and you open up more confusion for the defense, especially on third down.
Now, how does this affect the overall roster? The Bucs only have two fullbacks — Askew and Byron Storer. This opens the door for the Bucs to keep four running backs — Williams, Pittman, Earnest Graham and seventh-round pick Kenneth Darby. Given Pittman's versatility, the Bucs could afford to go into the regular season with just one fullback, placing Storer on the practice squad and using Darby as Pittman's understudy. It's an option the Bucs will explore, I feel certain. I'm sure they'll also explore signing or trading for a veteran fullback to either split time with Askew or push him for playing time.
As far as next season is concerned, the Buccaneers will certainly look toward the draft for Alstott's eventual successor. Askew is signed only through 2008. The Bucs could look to take a fullback on the first day, as they did with Alstott in 1996.
Finally, Tampa Bay would be smart to not only keep Alstott around, but to put him to work with running backs coach Art Valero as a pseudo assistant coach. Alstott could be a valuable mentor to the younger backs on the roster, and he wants to stay involved.
Off the field, Alstott was due $1.5 million in 2007. That was base salary, not bonus money, so it's not guaranteed. But it's likely at least part of that contract was guaranteed money, in lieu of a bonus. He'll be a free agent after this season.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors.