State of the Union 2017 – Running Back

Where oh where to start? How about with Doug Martin’s drug suspension? It’s speculative to assume the degree his drug use had on his performance, but needless to say his production in 2016 wasn’t up to snuff.

Martin’s 2.9 yards per carry was the worst of his career. Was it laziness after securing a big contract? Was it injuries like the lingering effect of his Week 2 hamstring? Was it the drugs? Was it the offensive line?

By indications from people in the know, the first is unlikely. The second and third are certainly possible but unlikely to be proven. The fourth helped to hinder not just Martin, but the other running backs and the offense in general.

The Bucs got most of their ground production from free agent pickup Jacquizz Rodgers, but even then, it wasn’t much. Rodgers averaged a respectable 4.2 yards per carry, but he had to battle for every yard.

According to Sporting Charts, Rodgers was stopped at or before the line of scrimmage on 13.2 percent of his rush attempts. Martin was stuffed for a league-high 16 percent of his rushes. Running backs don’t get hit in the backfield that much if they have solid blocks in front of them.

There’s a strong possibility Doug Martin won’t be a Buccaneer next season. His PED suspension will likely void the guaranteed money in his contract so the Bucs can cut him at any time without penalty. To stay in Tampa Bay, he may have to agree to a significant pay cut, thanks not just to his suspension but his year-to-year inconsistency.

If Martin is cut, the Bucs will need to look for options beyond Rodgers and Charles Sims. Sims is dynamic in space and as a receiver, but he lacks the vision and strength to be the between-the-tackles runner Tampa’s offense needs. Rodgers is solid but not irreplaceable. Peyton Barber is unlikely to rise above the 3RB spot.

Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson floated the possibility of landing in Tampa Bay this offseason. Five years ago (or 10 if you ask Jon Gruden), this would have been a dream for the Bucs. Now, they would get a 32-year-old with nearly 2500 carries and three major knee injuries under his belt. He’s a very short-term option.

The only free agent option who would actually elevate the position would be Le’Veon Bell. Unfortunately for Tampa and the rest of the league, he’s not likely to get out of Pittsburgh. The rest of the free agent market wouldn’t be any better than what the Bucs already have.

The draft is where the Bucs will need to upgrade their tailback stock. Half the state of Florida prays the Bucs take FSU RB Dalvin Cook. Appropriately, it would take a miracle for Cook to make it to Tampa. There’s a strong chance he’s gone within the top 10 picks to teams like the Jets or the Panthers.

Even if Cook is gone, this year’s draft is brimming with quality ball carriers. LSU’s Leonard Fournette could also be gone before the Bucs pick at 19, but he’s comparable to Cook, talent-wise. Tennesse’s Alvin Kamara, Texas’ D’Onta Foreman or even Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon could give the Bucs’ run game an injection of youth and power it sorely needs on day 2 or maybe even day 3 of the draft.

The running back position is the Bucs’ least certain. There may not be any clear resolution until deep into training camp. If the past month proved anything, Tampa’s ground game is anything but predictable.

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