Two-time rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott remains unsigned, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could really use him.
Bucs insider Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times sees a clear role for Elliott, whom the Dallas Cowboys released in March. An MVP candidate in 2016, Elliott fell from being an elite No. 1 running back to a serviceable role player in recent years. The Bucs, meanwhile, mustered a league-worst rushing attack in attempts, yards and touchdowns in 2022.
“What they really could use… is a short-yardage guy and a guy that has the veteran experience,” Stroud said on 92.9 The Game on Friday, May 12. “When you think about what [Elliott] is now, he can do everything. He’s a ferocious blocker, he’s good in short yardage, and his numbers are down simply because he’s not going to get the carries and the attempts, but he still had  touchdowns last year.”
Elliott’s touchdown total matched the entire 2022 Bucs scoring output on the ground. The Bucs couldn’t get the job done in short-yardage situations — primarily with Leonard Fournette, whom the Bucs released in March. Fourentte struggled with 3.5 yards per carry.
Rachaad White overtook the starting job from Fournette last season, but White only tallied 481 yards and a touchdown on 3.7 yards per carry. With Fournette gone, the Bucs will feature a new-look backfield — whether or not the Bucs find a way to sign Elliott.
“They’ve got Rachaad White, who is going to be their RB1,” Stroud said on 92.9. “After that, they’ve got a bunch of guys who are sort of third down backs, whether it’s Chase Edmonds or Ke’Shawn Vaughn.”
Despite Elliott’s decline, he did more than score 12 touchdowns in 2022. He rushed 231 times for 876 yards, 3.8 yards per carry, in 15 games.
Tampa Bay only made 386 rushing attempts as a team last season. In addition, neither White, Edmonds, nor Vaugh have eclipsed 130 carries, 600 yards or four touchdowns in a single season. Bucs running backs coach Skip Peete, who coached Elliott in Dallas, believes the former No. 4 pick still has something left.
“I think Zeke is still a good, quality running back,” Peete told reporters on May 10. “He’s playing 50% of the snaps, so your numbers are not the same, that’s natural. But he still scored 12 touchdowns. He still caught the ball well. He still had numerous third-and-1, and short and goal-line places where he helped us win games. He’s still a physical load.”
Bucs Can Afford Ezekiel Elliott on One Condition
Landing Elliott will hinge on if the Bucs can reach an agreement with him. Elliott had a six-year, $90 million contract with the team before his release. Peete said he forewarned Elliott about contract realities in the NFL.
“I told him, ‘You’re going to play for $1 million and I think he was making like $12 (million),” Peete said. “Who’s gonna tell him that? I think that’s part of the reason he’s sitting out there. But if you’re going to play and be the second, third guy that’s kind of what the price is. That’s something that person has to make a decision if that’s what he wants to do.”
The Bucs only have $1.7 million in salary cap space to work with per Spotrac.
Bucs Can’t Rely Too Heavily on Passing Game
The Bucs need to drastically improve the running game in 2023 for the offense to function overall. Tampa Bay’s offense finished 25th overall, and that happened with now-retired quarterback Tom Brady throwing the ball 733 times.
Relying that heavily on the passing game would send the Bucs into uncharted territory with current starting quarterback candidates Baker Mayfield and Kyle Trask. Mayfield’s previous single-season high came in 2019 with 534 attempts, and Trask only has 10 snaps of regular season experience.