Monday, December 11, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs have tough call on impending free agent Doug Martin

TAMPA

Oh, how the Bucs love the way Doug Martin runs. But will they let him walk? • Martin rushed for 235 yards in Sunday's 45-17 win over the Eagles. He is second only to the Vikings' Adrian Peterson among the league's rushing leaders with 941 yards. • And after six more games with the Bucs, he can wear any uniform he wants. • That's because general manager Jason Licht and coach Lovie Smith decided not to pick up Martin's fifth-year option of $5.6 million for 2016, making him a free agent at the end of the season. • The next time Gene Deckerhoff says "Martin is gone!', it might be true. • The funny thing is that Licht and Lovie aren't eating their fists or screaming into pillows. • In fact, it made perfect sense when they decided that locking up Martin for another year wasn't a good idea. • For starters, the contract would've been guaranteed in case of an injury. And remember, despite a dazzling rookie season in 2012 when he rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns and made the Pro Bowl, Martin missed a total of 15 games in 2013-14 with shoulder, knee and hamstring injuries. The "Muscle Hamster" spent too much time on the treadwheel.

In fact, you could argue the Bucs are reaping the benefits of their decision. Martin reported to training camp in the best shape of his life, motivated because, as offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter so eloquently stated, "It's a contract year!"

You could notice the difference in offseason workouts and training camp, when Martin was finishing every run like it was the final stretch of the Kentucky Derby. Now the Bucs' entire team is sort of riding on his back.

"Is Doug Martin a priority? I can say that yes, he definitely is," Smith said Monday. "And I don't think that's a bad thing at all to go into the fifth year.

"I think it's benefited Doug as much as anything. He's in a great position now. I don't think Doug came into the season thinking, hey, he wasn't wanted around here. I think it was the complete opposite of that. And we have acknowledged everything he's done along the way, and we've put him in a position to have the type of year he's having right now. I think it's all good. And if I'm Doug Martin, I'm pretty happy I didn't sign the contract I had before, and I like the position I'm in now."

Let's agree that running backs have been devalued in the NFL. It had been two years since one was drafted in the first round until last May, when Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon were the No. 1 picks of the Rams and Chargers, respectively.

And signing a running back to a second big-money contract is tricky. Martin is 26, so if he does get a four-year deal, by the time he's making his biggest salary, he'll be 30, generally the expiration age for most running backs.

Remember, too, it's an allocation business with a salary cap. Before long, the Bucs will want to reach extensions with receiver Mike Evans, linebacker Kwon Alexander or their two rookie offensive linemen. Fortunately, the Bucs are the only team that can negotiate with him until March.

That said, Martin is having a monstrous season. Against the Eagles, he had runs of 58, 84 and 27 yards. He ran through tackles. He hopped around like a drop of water on a hot frying pan.

"I think he's a complete running back. I think you start with that," Smith said. "Yeah, his rushing yards say that. But you just look at how he's gotten them, yes, he can get the third and short. He has enough power to be able to get that. What I've been impressed with as much as anything which maybe he didn't show as much last year is making guys miss in the open field, and not just necessarily in the open field — sometimes there's those small holes, he knows how to get himself small to get through it."

If you're Martin, there is a lot to like about staying with the Bucs. They have a young franchise quarterback with a big arm, which will keep safeties from stacking the line of scrimmage. They have some beefy young offensive linemen who have grated some roads for you.

"I think as an offensive line, when you have a running back having the type of year as Doug, you like blocking for him. You definitely feel like you're a part of what he's doing," Smith said. "We've seen him catch the ball, run over guys, make people miss. I think he's kind of showed us everything a great running back should show people on a weekly basis.

"You talk about great running backs, what do they have? Vision. Instincts to know when to make a move."

That's the scary part. Because if Martin decides to break free of the Bucs' grasp, he's not looking back.

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