TAMPA — Of all the questions to be answered in next week's NFL draft, the largest for Bucs fans is likely this: Will Tampa Bay draft a running back early and move on from Doug Martin?
Much of that centers around the Bucs' first-round pick, No. 19 overall, and which of the draft's consensus top three backs — LSU's Leonard Fournette, Florida State's Dalvin Cook and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey — will be available when the Bucs are on the clock.
Most speculation has Fournette gone in the top 10, perhaps to division rival Carolina at No. 8, but the other two, both prolific runners for successful programs in college, could easily still be around at 19.
If the Bucs' allocation of resources leading up to the draft is any indication, there's no position they've evaluated more extensively than running back. In addition to combine interviews, the Bucs have met extensively with Cook — an FSU teammate of Jameis Winston in 2014 — sending personnel to his pro day and bringing him for a visit to One Buc Place.
Winston doesn't believe Cook will still be around at 19, and the Bucs have brought in several backs more likely to be second- or third-round options, including Texas' D'Onta Foreman, USF's Marlon Mack, Oklahoma's Joe Mixon and Toledo's Kareem Hunt.
To consider the hard odds of taking a running back in the first round, consider the last time three went in the first round — 2012, when the Bucs had the best of the three in Martin, selected 31st. Going third overall that year was Trent Richardson, a huge bust for Cleveland, and 32nd was David Wilson, who lasted only 21 games due to a neck injury.
Last year saw Ezekiel Elliott go No. 4 to Dallas and he led the NFL in rushing with 1,631 yards. What kind of backs will this first round yield? And will the Bucs be a part of that on April 27?
"I think you hear a lot that you don't draft a running back in the first round," Bucs general manager Jason Licht said. "Well, that's the case in a lot of drafts where most of the running backs aren't considered first-round guys, every-down backs or dominant on first and second down. … I think that's on an individual basis."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.