INDIANAPOLIS — The Bucs have made re-signing RB Doug Martin a priority, and that process took another step late Wednesday.
General manager Jason Licht met with Martin's agent, Brian Murphy, in Indianapolis. No deal will be struck during the NFL scouting combine, which ends Monday. But none had been expected much before the March 7-8 period when teams can negotiate but not announce deals with free agents. The signing period begins at 4 p.m. March 9.
Licht said during his news conference Wednesday that he was "optimistic'' that the Bucs could re-sign Martin, the NFL's second-leading rusher with 1,402 yards and six touchdowns. But a few weeks ago, the team believed Martin might make it to free agency, which remains a real possibility.
"I'm sure there will be some obstacles — there always are in negotiations — but we'll prepare for either way," Licht said Wednesday.
Agreeing on the value for Martin hasn't been easy. He turned 27 last month and had two outstanding seasons sandwiched around injury-filled ones. The Bucs invited this negotiation by deciding not to pick up his fifth-year, $5.6 million option.
A franchise tag, which would cost the team about $11.5 million, apparently is not an option.
NOT KICKED TO THE CURB: Bucs P Jacob Schum had the league's worst gross punting average at 41.9 yards. But don't be fooled, coach Dirk Koetter said. Even though his net of 39.4 yards ranked 28th in the 32-team league, with 15 punts inside the 20-yard line, the Bucs believe he did a good job.
"The one thing you've got to remember when you're talking about punters, you can't just look at what a guy's net or gross average is and say that defines a punter because sometimes you're asking him to kick it to a certain spot and how many times was he trying to kick it down inside the 20," Koetter said.
"We actually are high on Jacob Schum and think he maybe had a better year than just the raw numbers would point out, and he's a good holder."
The Bucs did excel in one area. Opponents only averaged 5.2 yards per return, which tied for fourth in the NFL.
SOMETHING TO IMPROVE ON: QB Jameis Winston did a lot of great things to win rookie of the year in fan voting, but throwing the ball downfield to WR Mike Evans was not one of them.
In passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, Winston went 14-of-53 for 454 yards and only one touchdown. Evans saw his average fall from 16.3 to 15.5 yards per catch and his touchdowns decline from 12 to three.
"We need to do better with the deep balls," coach Dirk Koetter said. "That's one thing that will be a big push for us in the offseason will be to get Jameis and Mike Evans on the same page on deep balls because Mike Evans is such a huge down-the-field threat, and we need to do a better job in that area.
"Mike had a better year in that respect his rookie year than he did in Year 2, and part of that is Jameis has to learn where to put the ball and to give Mike a chance to use his size down the field.
"That is one area Jameis not only can do it but I'm pretty sure he will.''