State of the Union: Part 3

Now we’re onto running backs, the strongest unit on offense. The future of the unit hinges on the Bucs’ plans for the league’s second-leading rusher.

Doug Martin

The Bucs have arguably the best running back in football. While Adrian Peterson won the rushing title, he did so with 39 more carries. Doug Martin had more 20+ yard carries (and also led the league) and more yards per carry than AP. Martin also caught more passes for more yards and fumbled less.

For all the rave reviews Jameis Winston receiving this season, it was Doug Martin driving the offense. He exhibited power and violence in his running that was missing from the year prior. If the Bucs couldn’t run the ball with Doug, the offense sputtered.

It should be a given that the Bucs would bring the Dougernaut back. It’s not that simple. Martin just turned 27, a late age for a running back to reach his second contract. Consistency is another concern. Martin was a top back in 2012 and 2015 but battled injuries and ineffectiveness in 2013 and 2014.

In Martin’s favor? Just watch him run. He almost never went down on first contact and made up for the deficiencies in the Bucs offensive line. Dirk Koetter was the man who fought for Martin to start the season, another ringing endorsement of Koetter’s coaching acumen.

Because the Bucs chose not to exercise Martin’s fifth-year option, they have three choices: offer a new contract, the franchise tag, and letting Martin walk. At this point, it’s highly unlikely the Bucs will let Martin walk. It would be easier to simply franchise him, but that’s not ideal for either party. It would only give Martin a one year deal while likely costing the Bucs more than $11 million.

A new contract is risky given Martin’s history. Based on 2015 alone, Martin should be added to the $10+ million/year club occupied by Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch. When considering the entirety of his career, he’s closer to the $8 million/year range. That may be an acceptable to deal to Martin who already expressed a desire to stay in Tampa Bay and even built a house in the area per Roy Cummings.

The Bucs are a better team with Martin. A deal needs to be done and Martin’s good work rewarded.

Charles Sims

Jason Licht’s third-round pick was a puzzle last year. Some wondered if Charles Sims was even worth a third-round pick. Those questions intensified during the season as he looked easy to tackle and slower than advertised.

My, how quickly things changed.

2015 was a very different year for Sims. He looked utterly lethal in the “speed-in-space” role original intended for him under former offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford. For the first time, well, ever, the Bucs had a screen game thanks to Sims. He also took a cue from Martin and started breaking tackles.

Martin and Sims are a potent duo and are each more effective as such. Martin is molded like a true bell-cow back, but Sims brings a rare playmaking ability and explosiveness as a change-of-pace back. Keeping Martin should help sustain Sims’ success in 2016.

Bobby Rainey

It’s the end of the line for Bobby Rainey in Tampa Bay.

After three years with the Bucs, Rainey’s value is spent. After filling in for an injured Martin in 2013 and sharing carries with him and Sims in 2014, Rainey carried the ball only five times in 2015.

Rainey’s main duties were returning punts and kicks, excelling at neither. He averaged 24.7 yards per kick return and 9.9 yards per punt return.

Where Rainey did excel was muffing punts. He led the league, by far, with seven fumbled punts. He recovered most of them, but it’s likely led the Bucs to keep eyes out for new returners.

Rainey is an unrestricted free agent. There’s no way he gets a long-term contract. He might get a tryout look, but don’t be surprised if the Bucs move on from Rainey.

Mike James

The immortal Mike James. It’s been two years since he tore through the Seattle defense for 158 yards before breaking his ankle the next week in Miami. Hopes he would return to the field and light up defenses every week fades each passing year.

The Bucs actually cut James this year and placed him on the practice squad. His value to the Bucs is minimal, but there is still value if they’re keeping him in the building.

Losing Bobby Rainey might be James’ best opportunity to get playing time, at least in training camp. He is still unlikely to be in a Bucs uniform next season.

Jorvorskie Lane

The Bucs are one of the few teams left in the NFL that still use a lead blocker. Jorvorskie Lane continued to clear lanes for Bucs runners and showed no signs of slowing down. That is, until Week 17.

If you watched the Bucs final game in Carolina, I hope you didn’t see Lane’s ankle break under Joe Hawley’s weight. Holy frijoles, it was ghastly.

Lane’s no wimp, that’s for sure. He just posted a video of his rehab on Twitter. Less than a month after the injury, he’s already on his feet and grinding his way back.

One can only hope he makes it back to playing form. The Bucs should want a guy this tough blowing through defenses next year.

The only player guaranteed to be a Buccaneer in 2016 is Charles Sims, but it’s a near-certainty Doug Martin will be back in a Tampa uniform. If Jorvorskie Lane returns at 100 percent he should be back as well.

Like with the wide receivers, the Bucs are unlikely to select a running back in the first two days of the draft. They may take one late or as a undrafted free agent. It’s too early to know whether the Bucs will sign a veteran to reinforce the depth chart.

The Too-Early Depth Chart Predictions:

Doug Martin

Charles Smith

Jorvorskie Lane

Next time we’ll cover the tight end position. Stay tuned!

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