Bucs release Doug Martin and Chris Baker, two of their most disappointing players in 2017

MONICA HERNDON   |   TimesTampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin (22) on a run called back on a holding penalty in the second quarter of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game against the New England Patriots on October 5, 2017 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
MONICA HERNDON | TimesTampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin (22) on a run called back on a holding penalty in the second quarter of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game against the New England Patriots on October 5, 2017 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
Published February 21 2018

TAMPA – Early in his rookie year, Doug Martin was told he was losing his balance because he was dropping his head as he hit the hole in a game at Oakland.

He quickly corrected that mistake and wound up rushing for a career-high 251 yards against the Raiders.

Martin, 29, refused to hang his head when he was released by the Bucs Tuesday. The two-time Pro Bowl running back was a fan and fantasy football favorite during his six seasons in Tampa Bay. That's why general manager Jason Licht made it a point to break the bad news to Martin in person.

"I had many peaks and valleys over the last six years as I matured as a person and a player,'' Martin said in a statement to the fans. "You cheered when I scored touchdowns and supported me when I stumbled. You embraced me not only as a player, but also as a person. That is special. Thank you.''

Even so, Martin let the Bucs down. He was suspended four games for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing drugs. He went to rehab. He got his body in shape, but the burst never returned. He violated a team rule and was inactive for a game last season. He lost his starting job to Peyton Barber. Four times in the past five years he failed to even gain at least 500 yards.

"I am in the best shape of my life physically and mentally and by best football is ahead of me,'' Martin said.

The Bucs don't think so.

Meanwhile, a player who was never in shape, defensive tackle Chris Baker, also was released by the Bucs Tuesday.

About 11 months ago, Baker signed a three-year, $15.75-million contract as a Redskins free agent. But he never fit in. His work habits were awful. On Christmas Eve, players finally confronted Baker after an encroachment penalty on fourth down in the final seconds help cost them a win at Carolina on Christmas Eve.

Martin and Baker. Were there any bigger disappointments for the Bucs in 2017?

By cutting Martin and Baker, it freed up about $10-million in salary cap room for the Bucs, who have about $74-million available, the fifth-most in the league.

It also began the process of Licht and coach Dirk Koetter washing away the stench of last season.

There will be many more roster moves in the next few weeks. Some will be minor, like picking up the one-year option for 2018 on players such as tackle Demar Dotson, safety Chris Conte, defensive back Josh Robinson and center Joe Hawley.

Some the Bucs still are undecided on, such as whether to keep defensive end Robert Ayers and/or William Gholston.

But make no mistake, the reshaping of the Bucs has begun.

The Bucs have identified two of their biggest areas of need. They were 27th in the league rushing the football last season, averaging 90.6 yards per game. You can blame plenty of that on the offensive line, but even after missing three starters, the Bucs ran the football better with Barber than with Martin.

They also need help on the defensive line. The Bucs couldn't rush the passer, finishing last in the NFL with 22 sacks. Baker registered only 33 tackles and a half sack last season.

So where do they go from here?

Barber is an efficient downhill ball carrier, but his career average is 4.0 yards per attempt. Jacquizz Rodgers still is on the roster, but he primarily has been a third down back. They could add another running back in free agency, a player like Vikings free agent Jerrick McKinnon, who had 991 total yards from scrimmage last season and caught a career-high 51 passes.

Regardless, they likely will try to find a running back in the draft. If they're lucky, maybe they can be as fortunate as the Chiefs, who plucked Kareem Hunt in the third round and watched him win the rushing title with 1,327 yards and be named Rookie of the Year. Or maybe they can stumble into a player the way the Saints did when they took Alvin Kamara in the third round and saw him make the Pro Bowl with 728 yards rushing and 826 yards receiving.

That's what it may take to turn 5-11 into 11-5.

Certainly, both Martin and Baker are cautionary tales for the Bucs. The average age for running backs in the NFL last season was 25.8. Martin's off-field issues aside, it's probably not to wise to keep a running back beyond his rookie contract.

As for Baker, well, there's a reason a player like that is available in the first place. A little more digging may have revealed that once he got paid, the only hunger that wouldn't go away inside him had nothing to do with playing football.

None that matters now. The Bucs are looking to the future. All we know is Martin and Baker won't be part of it.

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