Although the Buccaneers produced a respectable rushing attack during the playoffs and Super Bowl last season, the team finished the regular season ranked 27th in the running game, which has prompted the Bucs to explore other ways to produce a more consistent ground attack next season.
Running backs Stephen Davis and Emmitt Smith, two of the best running backs in the National Football League, hit the free-agent market on Friday after they were both released by their respective teams in salary cap maneuvers.
As it turns out, Washington and Dallas' loss might turn into Tampa Bay's gain. The Bucs will likely pursue both Davis and Smith in free agency, and the team's chances of landing one of those players is fairly strong.
Smith, the leading rusher in NFL history, was released by Dallas after spending 13 seasons with the Cowboys.
Smith, who will turn 34 in May, was Dallas' 1990 first-round draft pick out of Florida.
The 5-foot-9, 212-pound running back wants to reach the 20,000-yard rushing mark before he retires. To date, Smith has rushed for 17,162 yards, 153 touchdowns and he has a 4.2 career rushing average.
The three-time Super Bowl champion has also hauled in 486 passes for 3,012 yards during his 13-year career.
Last year, Smith failed to rush for 1,000 yards in a single-season for the first time since his rookie campaign, but he's proven he's durable, only missing four games due to injury in 13 seasons.
After Smith broke Walter Payton's career rushing record of 16,726 yards against Seattle on October 27 last season, Dallas limited Smith's carries, which limited his production. Smith finished the season with just two 100-yard rushing games and a 3.8 rushing average.
Despite the fact that his numbers were down, Smith still believes he can contribute as a tailback in the NFL.
"In my mind, I think I'm a 1,300-yard back, and I will be out to prove that,'' Smith said at a news conference last Thursday.
Carolina and Tampa Bay are believed to be the teams most interested in signing Smith.
Money won't likely be an issue in terms of signing Smith. He's not expected to be offered much more than the league minimum out on the free agent market, and if the Bucs need cap room to sign Smith, they could create it by parting ways with RB Michael Pittman or fullback Mike Alstott.
"We won't have a lot of room early, but we have plans to create more room as time goes on," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said of Tampa Bay's salary cap situation. "So we will have no problems this year in adding some free agents. It won't be a great number. It probably won't be as many as last year, but we have a plan in place to add a player."
Smith, who holds NFL rushing records for career attempts, touchdowns in a season and in a career and for 1,000-yard seasons, is intrigued at the possibility of playing for a Super Bowl contender, especially one in his home state. Smith attended college at the University of Florida in Gainseville, which is about two hours (driving distance) north of Tampa.
The one thing Smith might not be a fan of is the fact that Bucs head coach Jon Gruden used a running back-by-committee approach last season. One of the reasons Smith decided to ask for his release from Dallas was because of the limited role the Cowboys had planned for him in new head coach Bill Parcells' offense.
Not only do the Bucs have Alstott and Pittman under contract, but second-year RB Travis Stephens and RB Aaron Stecker will likely be in the mix, too.
Some teams might be concerned with Smith's age and mileage, but it won't be one of Gruden's. Gruden is a big fan of veterans and both he and the Buccaneers are intrigued by the possibility of bringing a future Hall of Famer like Smith to Tampa.
Davis will likely receive more interest on the free-agent market since he's younger than Smith. Davis will turn 29 on March 1.
But Davis, a seven-year veteran from Auburn, will also likely demand more money than Smith.
Davis (6-0, 230) rushed for 5,970 yards and 45 touchdowns during his seven-year career with the Redskins. He also caught 146 passes for 1,168 yards. He had three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons until last season when head coach Steve Spurrier reduced his carries by 149 from the previous season. Davis rushed for just 820 yards (4.0 avg.) and scored seven touchdowns last season.
In addition to Carolina and Tampa Bay, Houston has also expressed interest in signing Davis.
While there's no guarantee the Bucs will land Smith or Davis, the team will certainly peak the interest of plenty of free agents due to the fact that the Bucs are defending Super Bowl champions and appear ready to make another run at the "Big Dance" next season.
"We are in a stronger position than we have ever been in," McKay said of signing new free agents. "And we've been in a pretty good position the last six years. Every year it's gotten a little better almost. Tony (Dungy) was a very popular coach. Tampa was a very good place to play. Jon (Gruden) is equally or more so popular. When you look at the league from a player's perspective right now, Tampa is a very appealing place.
"It never comes into play the first two or three weeks of free agency – at all. It's not even mentioned. At that point you're dealing with astronomical dollars and you're at a very high level and you're not going to get the "hey, how about one for the Gipper." That doesn't work. It works in the second phase. It is ‘We're going to pay you a million a year and they're going to pay you a million a year,' and the guy gets off the plane and says, ‘Whoa, I just got off this last plane and it's a little nicer here.' I think it does tend to be a benefit when you get to the second phase. I think it's definitely an advantage. It's unquestionably an advantage and they would tell you that. It is definitely an advantage and you should take advantage of it and we have in the past."