SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. IT’S TIME FOR BUCS TO START OVER AT RUNNING BACK
Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter is famous for saying that the best kind of ability is availability. Truer words haven’t been spoken.
Newsflash: running back Doug Martin will be unavailable for the Buccaneers the next four games, beginning on Sunday against Carolina as he serves a four-game suspension for PED (performance-enhancing drug) usage, which has reportedly been for Adderall use. It is unknown whether Martin has any other substance abuse issues.
With his absence on Sunday, Martin will have missed eight games this season, including six with a hamstring injury. He also missed Saturday’s game in New Orleans when the team learned he was going to be suspended for four games. In the eight games he’s played in, Martin has averaged a paltry 2.9 yards per carry.
Bucs RBs Charles Sims and Doug Martin – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Fellow running back Charles Sims won’t be available, either. He’s been placed on injured reserve with a pectoral injury he suffered at New Orleans on Christmas Eve. Sims has missed nine games this year and had his least productive season, rushing for only 149 yards and one touchdown on 51 carries (2.9 avg.) with 32 catches for 190 yards and one touchdown.
“Charles had two severe injuries this year, so health is a big part of this game,” Koetter said. “Charles and Doug played the whole season last year injury-free and I think they both played extremely well. This year, they didn’t have that opportunity to play the season injury-free.
“At any position, but running back especially, that’s tough. In Chuck’s case, his injuries were such that they were severe and that we had to put him on IR and then this is another one where we have to put him on IR. They’re both significant injuries. We’re not talking about just bumps and bruises.”
In three years with the Bucs, Sims has had just one healthy season, and that was last year when he rushed for 529 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry, and caught 51 passes for 561 yards and four touchdowns – all career highs.
The NFL is very much a results-oriented business. As Bucs legend Warren Sapp is famous for saying, ‘The eye in the sky don’t lie,’ which means you are only as good as your game film.
In a “what have you done for me lately?” league like the NFL, it’s time for the Bucs to blow up their backfield and start over.
It’s time to move on from Martin, and find someone this offseason to ultimately replace Sims, who enters a contract season in 2017.
That might seem harsh considering the fact that Martin is going into rehab and is seeking help for his addiction problem. But the fact is that his substance abuse problem didn’t likely start this month. The guess is he’s been battling this all season – after getting $8 million in guaranteed money this year with a five-year $35.75 million contract extension that in hindsight he didn’t deserve if he was going to turn in such a disappointing season.
I share Koetter’s sentiments in that I hope that Martin gets the help he needs this offseason.
“The only thing that I really want to say about the Doug Martin situation is that I think it’s a positive thing that he’s taking steps to put himself in position to have better health and have a better life, long-term,” Koetter said. “So that really has nothing to do with the football side of it, but I think that’s a real important step. … The important thing in my mind here is you’ve got a young man’s health and I think it’s important that he’s taking steps to fix that, long-term.”
Bucs RB Doug Martin – Photo by: Getty Images
When healthy and focused, Martin has proven to be quite the talent. He’s had two 1,400-yard Pro Bowl seasons. The problem is that he’s now had three seasons in which he’s rushed for less than 500 yards and couldn’t stay healthy.
Martin rushed for 456 yards with one touchdown in six games in 2013, and 494 yards and two touchdowns in 11 games in 2014, averaging 3.6 yards per carry and 3.7 yards per carry, respectively. Martin has never had a season in which he hasn’t had a 20-yard run until 2016. He had 144 carries this season and Martin’s longest run was a 17-yarder in Week 1 at Atlanta.
In his five years in the league, Martin has shown that he can be special just 40 percent of the time – and stay healthy over an entire year. Sixty percent of the time he’s shown he can be average at best – if not below average – and injured.
In three years in the league, Sims has shown that he can be special and stay healthy just one third of the time. Two thirds of the time he’s proven that he can’t stay healthy and be productive over the course of an entire season.
The Bucs need running backs that are reliable when it comes to productivity and durability, and the facts state that Martin and Sims aren’t either.
There’s a reason why Martin’s contract negotiations went down to the wire last spring. With two Pro Bowl seasons bookending two sub-500-yard seasons, Bucs general manager Jason Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg wondered which Martin they would be getting in 2017 after signing him to such a rich contract extension – the Pro Bowl version or the sub-500-yard version.
There was some legitimate hesitancy by the Bucs to re-sign Martin, but in the end Licht and Greenberg had no choice. How could they not sign a player that aided Jameis Winston’s development during his rookie season and helped Tampa Bay’s offense eclipse 6,000 yards for the first time in franchise history? Martin was the NFL’s second-leading rusher after all.
Yet it turns out that Martin proved to be a bad investment.
Was the hamstring injury at Arizona his fault?
Was the fact that the offensive line didn’t play up to its potential on a consistent basis this year?
But was it Martin’s fault he used whatever drug he used to get suspended?
Yes, absolutely. And that’s a problem because he willingly jeopardized his season by using a banned substance.
Hey, whatever Martin used certainly wasn’t performance-enhancing. His 2.9 yards per carry average this season was the worst of his career.
Given his history, what type of season would you bet your mortgage Martin turns in next year – a 1,400-yard season or a sub-500-yard season?
Bucs RB Doug Martin – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
I think there is some genuine concern for Martin within the walls at One Buc Place. Martin’s a nice guy, and with the team’s family atmosphere the players, coaches and management are all rooting for him to get well and are supporting his efforts to get clean.
Yet there is the cold, hard business side of the NFL that suggests that had Martin broken more tackles, read more blocks, made more defenders miss and averaged closer to the 4.3 yards per carry that Jacquizz Rodgers has averaged that the Bucs would have made the playoffs this year.
If Tampa Bay beats Carolina on Sunday, the Bucs would have likely missed the postseason by just one game. Had Martin rushed for 100 yards against Los Angeles, Oakland or Dallas and done more to turn the tide in any of those close losses he could have made the difference.
Of course the same could be said of Winston, wide receiver Mike Evans or tight end Cameron Brate, right? A more accurate pass here, or a catch instead of a drop there could have changed the outcome in any of those narrow defeats. But Winston, Evans and Brate did a far better job living up to their expectations season than Martin did.
Winston is poised to top 4,000 yards passing again and his 27 touchdown passes is a career high and has tied the team’s single season record.
Brate tied Jimmie Giles’ franchise record for most touchdowns in a season by a tight end with eight to lead the NFL, in addition to catching 57 passes for 660 yards.
And of course Evans has earned a Pro Bowl berth with a career-high 91 catches for 1,256 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Martin has fallen well short of his expectations, and the Bucs need to revamp the running back position from the top down. That means attempting to trade Martin, who turns 28, this offseason. Martin can’t be trusted to be available or produce, and Licht needs to get something for him now while there’s a chance.
Moving Martin will be difficult due to his age, this year’s poor production, the fact that this is a running back-rich draft and his looming three-game suspension to start the 2017 season.
If Licht can’t trade him, then he should force Martin to take a drastic pay cut, as his $7 million salary is no longer guaranteed due to the suspension, and let him compete for a job – if he’s clean.
Regardless, it’s time for Licht to draft a running back – or two – to compete with Rodgers, who should be re-signed to a short-term, inexpensive, prove-it contract loaded with incentives.
Florida State RB Dalvin Cook – Photo by: Getty Images
LSU’s Leonard Fournette is projected as a top-10 running back and will be out of the Bucs’ reach on draft day. But there are two other first-round running backs that are really worth taking a look at.
The first is Florida State junior Dalvin Cook. I happen to believe he’s the best and most complete running back in the draft due to his speed, durability, vision and balance. The 5-foot-11, 213-pounder reminds me of Emmitt Smith and Thurman Thomas. Cook, who has rushed for 4,319 yards and 45 touchdowns over his Seminoles career, has been a model of consistency.
After rushing for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns and catching 22 passes for 203 yards as a true freshman taking handoffs from Winston in 2014, he had a breakout season last year with 1,691 yards and 19 touchdowns, averaging 7.4 yards per carry with 24 catches for 244 yards and one touchdown. With a bowl game remaining against Michigan, Cook has rushed for 1,620 yards and 18 touchdowns with a 6.0 average and 30 catches for 426 yards and a receiving touchdown.
Winston was asked about Cook last year in a press conference during his rookie season.
“I wouldn’t trade in Doug Martin for anything in the world,” Winston said. “He’s definitely the best back that I’ve seen in a long time – other than Devonta Freeman and Dalvin Cook (laughs) – but I love Doug. I won a championship with Devonta and Dalvin, he’s a great guy – I’m Florida State-biased. If [Doug] would have gone to FSU, he would have been the best. But Doug is an amazing guy. The way that he sticks one foot in the ground and gets vertical, and the amount of tackles that he has broken this year and the amount of weight that he’s taken off of my shoulders for my rookie season, I couldn’t be more thankful for Doug than anything in the world. I love Doug and I thank him. My family thanks him for what he’s done for me this season.”
Make no mistake. Winston would love nothing more to hand the ball off to Cook if he were to replace Martin.
The Seminoles star has five games with three touchdowns or more, four games with 200 yards rushing and six runs of 70 yards or more. He’s the total package and a Day One starter as a rookie.
Florida State QB Jameis Winston and RB Dalvin Cook – Photo by: Getty Images
If Cook were to slip outside the top 10 picks – which I’ve actually seen in some mock drafts, but think is foolish because he’s so talented – Licht needs to make one of those bold draft day moves and go up and get him. He would be the perfect fit to replace Martin as Koetter’s feature back.
The other first-round runner that Tampa Bay needs to consider with its first-round pick, which will likely be around No. 20, is Stanford’s ultra-talented Christian McCaffrey. The son of former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey is listed as 6-foot, 200 pounds, but may be closer to 5-foot-10, 195 pounds, and has rushed for 3,922 yards and 21 touchdowns in his Stanford career, including 1,603 yards and 13 touchdowns on 253 carries (6.3 avg.) this season. McCaffrey added 310 yards and three more TDs on 37 catches in 2016 despite missing one regular season game due to injury and Stanford’s bowl game as he prepares for the 2017 NFL Draft.
After rushing for just 300 yards and catching 17 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman, McCaffrey exploded onto the national scene with 2,019 yards and eight touchdowns on 337 carries last year, in addition to 45 catches for 645 yards and five more scores as a sophomore. With 632 career carries and seven games with at least 30 carries in his career, McCaffrey has demonstrated the ability to carry the load as a feature back.
He’s had five runs of 50 yards or more in his career with five catches of 50 yards or more, too. McCaffrey has also had five games with 200 yards rushing or more and five more with a combined 200 yards between rushing and receiving yards. He’s had four games with at least three touchdowns, too.
At the very least, McCaffrey can be used like Sims in Koetter’s offense, a runner and receiver – only faster and much more elusive. In fact, there may not be a better all-around weapon in the draft than the quick, shifty Cardinal. McCaffrey has caught 99 passes for 1,206 yards and 10 touchdowns in his three years at Stanford. He’s also completed 2-of-3 passes for two touchdowns and has a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 98-yard kickoff return for a score.
McCaffrey could be Tampa Bay’s version of Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill – a weapon on both offense and special teams. Imagine the ways Koetter could use McCaffrey’s skill set in the backfield, in the slot, flanked out wide and in the screen game.
McCaffrey has been projected to be a late first-round pick, going between picks No. 20-32, so there’s a chance he would be available when Tampa Bay is on the clock.
Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey – Photo by: Getty Images
While you might balk at the notion of spending the Bucs’ first-round pick on a running back, understand that Cook and McCaffrey are three-down players with rare ability, and McCaffrey could provide a serious boost to Tampa Bay’s stagnant return game.
But running backs are a dime a dozen and can be found in later rounds, right?
I’ll remind you that Martin was a first-round pick and certainly looked like it in 2012 and 2015.
Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott, a rookie Pro Bowler and the league’s leading rusher, was a top-5 pick this year.
Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, the league’s best runner when healthy, was drafted No. 7 overall by the Vikings in 2007.
I’ll also point out that seven out of the top 10 running backs of all-time – Emmitt Smith (first), Barry Sanders (third), LaDainian Tomlinson (fifth), Jerome Bettis (sixth), Eric Dickerson (seventh), Tony Dorsett (ninth), Jim Brown (10th) – were first-round picks. Not only were they first-rounders, they were top 10 picks.
Still not convinced that some running backs are worth first-round picks? Consider that 19 out of the top 25 rushers in NFL history were first-round picks. Here’s the rest: Marshall Faulk (11th), Edgerrin James (12th), Marcus Allen (13th), Franco Harris (14th), Adrian Peterson (16th), Fred Taylor (17th), Steven Jackson (18th), John Riggins (19th), O.J. Simpson (21st), Warrick Dunn (22nd), Jamal Lewis (24th) and Thomas Jones (25th).
There are some talented running backs in this year’s draft outside the first-round that have the ability to possibly become starters in the NFL. Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine, who is viewed as a second-round pick, is a battering ram that reminds me of Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart when he came out of Oregon. Arm tackles rarely bring him down and when Perine, who set the NCAA record for rushing yards in a game with 427 yards against Kansas in 2015, gets to the second and third levels he has the speed to go the distance.
Perine’s Sooners teammate, Joe Mixon is equally talented and has second-round talent, but faces serious character questions over punching a female student in 2014 and may go undrafted like LaGarrette Blount did unless he returns to Oklahoma next year. Wyoming’s Brian Hill and Toledo’s Kareem Hunt are middle-round picks that also intrigue me and would look good in red and pewter.
Bucs RBs Doug Martin and Charles Sims – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The Bucs should pair Rodgers with a rookie running back – or two – to challenge Sims, Peyton Barber, Russell Hansbrough – and possibly Martin – for roster spots next year. Koetter is a run-first coach who knows that a strong running game sets up play-action, which leads to the big, explosive passes downfield that the Bucs’ head coach and play-caller craves. Have a big-time, dependable, productive running back is crucial to Tampa Bay’s offensive success.
I wouldn’t rule out the Bucs drafting Cook or McCaffrey in the first round and the team moving on from Martin next year. In fact, I would welcome it.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com
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