CINCINNATI — When it comes to the running back position in the preseason, the Bucs have two opposing goals. They want to be productive and protective, starting tonight against the Bengals.
Doug Martin still is the best ball carrier on the roster, but after the preseason, he has to leave One Buc Place to serve a three-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
That makes Jacquizz Rodgers, in some ways, the running back the Bucs may not want to expose to injury because he will be asked to carry most of the mail for the first month of the regular season.
But how much do they play Martin, knowing he's going to build up rust anyway? He needs enough carries to prepare for the regular season, but the risk of injury might be reason to tread lightly. His $5.7 million salary is no longer guaranteed — except against injury.
"It's a little bit challenging because we haven't had this situation before," coach Dirk Koetter said. "But we're not performing brain surgery. We're just rotating running backs. We'll figure it out."
A year ago, the Bucs had seven running backs carry the ball during the season, including four in the first three weeks.
Depth has been developed over the past two years. Rodgers, picked up after the Bears released him in the final roster cut last year, produced the 2016 Bucs' only 100-yard rushing performances, at Carolina and at San Francisco.
Charles Sims, who combined for 1,090 yards rushing and receiving in 2015, was plagued by knee injuries and finished 2016 on injured reserve. He figures to return to the third-down-back role.
The wild card is Peyton Barber, a second-year pro from Auburn. At 5 feet 11 and 225 pounds, he is a bigger back with good speed, as evidenced by his 44-yard touchdown run at San Francisco last year.
Rookie Jeremy McNichols, a fifth-round draft pick from Boise State, excels in pass protection and as a receiver. But he missed the offseason workouts recovering from a torn labrum and has struggled learning the playbook.
"I think Tim (Spencer, running backs coach) said in the (Hard Knocks premiere that McNichols) needs to get in his playbook, and I would agree with Tim," Koetter said.
Blake Sims, a converted quarterback from Alabama who wasn't drafted and has played for teams from Canada to Australia, is a long shot to make the team.
Martin still is the undisputed leader of the running back room.
"We've got a tight-knit group, man," Rodgers said. "Doug is a guy who is high-spirited all the time. … He works hard out here every day. It's easy to follow a guy like him."
After announcing his suspension before the final week of last season, Martin spent an undisclosed amount of time in a rehabilitation center for drug addiction. He reported to training camp in tremendous shape, and his performance in practice resembles that of his 2015 rookie season, when he rushed for more than 1,400 yards.
"Everything is the same," Martin said. "I'm just coming out here, playing my butt off, showing everybody that I'm back and healthy mentally, physically and ready for preseason games.
"I will be out three weeks (of the regular season). That's the reality of the situation. And during those three weeks, I'm going to prepare myself to get my legs back under me and be ready to play."
The question is how much do you play Martin in the preseason? Or Rodgers, for that matter?
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud.