PewterReport.com continues its daily feature previewing the upcoming NFL Draft with position-by-position analysis. PewterReport.com’s Mark Cook analyzes what the Bucs have currently on their roster at each position and Trevor Sikkema provides a comprehensive overall ranking of the top players at that position going into the draft. Scott Reynolds makes his projections for Tampa Bay with PewterReport.com’s Bucs’ Best Bets – one early round pick, and one from the later rounds.
The series began with quarterbacks, and today brings the running back preview and Bucs’ Best Bets at that position.
WHAT THE BUCS HAVE AT RUNNING BACK
The Bucs return the top two running backs that began the 2016 season. But boy have things changed in 12 months. A year ago, the last thing Tampa Bay was concerned about was their running game, something most felt was the strongest unit on the roster. With the NFL’s top running back duo in 2015, Doug Martin, who was coming off a Pro Bowl season and received a five-year contract extension worth $35.75 million, and Charles Sims back, there was good reason to believe the two would just continue where they left off the season before.
But a simple running play in Week 2 at Arizona changed things, as Martin went down with a hamstring injury that cost him a good part of the season. Insert Sims, who was given the opportunity to be a feature back but the experiment failed miserably. And then Sims was hurt against the Broncos, costing him a chunk of the 2016 season as well. The two injuries were a big reason the Bucs missed the playoffs, as most feel if they production of the 2015 season was the same in 2016, it certainly would have helped Tampa Bay’s offense and in turn caused the team to win a few more games. One more win would have gotten Tampa Bay into the postseason.
Bucs RB Doug Martin – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
To make matters worse, when Martin did return late in the season he was largely ineffective, then was suspended by the NFL for four games, missing the last two games of the year – one due to Dirk Koetter making him inactive in Week 16 at New Orleans and the other due to violation of the NFL’s ban of performance enhancing drugs, which cost him the season finale against Carolina in Week 17. He finished the season with just 421 yards and three touchdowns.
It is hard to believe, but there is a small possibility that both Martin and Sims may not even be Buccaneers when the season begins, depending of course what happens in the upcoming NFL Draft and the months that follow. Depending on how much progress he shows in the offseason workouts, the Bucs may keep Martin all the way through his suspension, which ends after Week 3 of the 2017 campaign, or they may part ways him before or during training camp.
Tampa Bay re-signed Jacquizz Rodgers, who was on the street when the regular season began. Fortunately for the Bucs, the former Falcon was able to help somewhat salvage the season, leading the team in rushing with 560 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Tampa Bay also returns former Auburn rusher Peyton Barber, and on-and-off practice squad running back Russell Hansbrough. Tampa Bay also has former Alabama scrambling quarterback Blake Sims on the roster as a running back to start the 2017 offseason program, in addition to fullbacks Quayvon Hicks and Austin Johnson.
WHAT THE BUCS NEED AT RUNNING BACK
Where is Martin at physically and mentally? That will go a long way in determining the future of the position. If the team is convinced Martin is ready to rebound – and if they feel they can trust his personal demons are behind him after his stint in rehab – then having the former Pro Bowler on the roster is a luxury. But it most likely doesn’t prevent the Bucs from adding at least one running back in the draft, potentially in the first round. If Tampa Bay does in fact draft a running back early, then Martin’s days in Tampa Bay could be numbered. The Bucs obviously like what Rodgers brings to the table, evidenced by the team bringing him back on the first day of free agency even after he missed time last season with a foot injury.
More than anything, the Bucs need to have running backs they can trust, and are more durable than than they had last season. Injuries are part of football, and it is hard to blame the players, but for whatever reason the Bucs were hit as hard with injuries at that position as they have in the 41-year history of the franchise.