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Bucs keep free agent Doug Martin with $35.75 million deal

Opponents tried everything to bring down Doug Martin last season, including this face mask grab by the Falcons’ Philip Wheeler that draws a penalty.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Opponents tried everything to bring down Doug Martin last season, including this face mask grab by the Falcons’ Philip Wheeler that draws a penalty.

TAMPA — Doug Martin led the NFL with 906 yards after contact last season, a testament to his strength and effort. It's something coach Dirk Koetter, then the Bucs' offensive coordinator, noticed early on last offseason.

"From the very first day of (offseason workouts) to the very last day of the season, every time Doug touched the ball on the practice field, he hit the hole hard, he hit it full speed and he made it like it was a real play," Koetter said. "So when he had success even in preseason games last year, it wasn't a surprise because that's how he was looking in practice every day. When he came back last offseason and was working in the offseason program, he definitely had something to prove but he had that mind-set and was able to carry it all the way through."

Because of that, the Bucs wouldn't let Martin break away from them as a free agent, wrapping him up just more than 90 minutes before Wednesday's 4 p.m. start of the signing period when he agreed to a five-year, $35.75 million deal with $15 million guaranteed.

For Martin, 27, who finished second in the NFL in rushing to the Vikings' Adrian Peterson with 1,402 yards and six touchdowns, it was proof he could bounce back from two straight injury-plagued seasons and return to the All-Pro form he showed in 2012 as a rookie first-round pick.

"It's definitely been a journey, having a great season in 2012 and getting injured and being out for the season and having an injuries here and there in the third season," Martin said Wednesday. "But to come back from that adversity and come back last year as strong as I did it definitely makes me proud and I'm glad that it happened that way."

With Martin locked up, the Bucs quickly found another offensive lineman for him to run behind. Tampa Bay signed Seattle guard J.R. Sweezy to a five-year, $32.5 million deal, with $14.5 million fully guaranteed. The 6-4, 300-pound Sweezy, who turns 27 next month, started at least 15 games in each off the last three seasons for the Seahawks and could be a replacement for Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, who retired Monday after 11 seasons.

The Bucs also received a visit Wednesday night from Giants free agent defensive end Robert Ayers, who had a career-high 9½ sacks last season.

Including Koetter, many believed Martin's rebound was the result of the Bucs' decision not to pick up his fifth-year option of $5.9 million for 2016. The contract would have been guaranteed against injury.

Whatever the reason, Martin was rejuvenated and reported to offseason workouts nearly 10 pounds lighter and determined to have a great season. In addition to his ability to break tackles, he led the NFL with 14 runs of 20 yards or more. He provides stability for an offense and quarterback Jameis Winston, who is coming off a 4,000-yard passing performance as a rookie.

Will Martin be better in 2016 now that he has a big contact?

"I think it's going to be better than last year," he said. "Everybody says the reason why I did well this past season was because I was out playing for my contract. But if you look to the previous season when I was hurt, we didn't really have an offensive coordinator. We weren't really as potent on offense. So this upcoming year, we have something to build on and not much is going to change. If anything, it's going to get better."

The agreement with Martin came after several weeks of sometimes contentious negotiations. General manager Jason Licht met with agent Brian Murphy two weeks ago at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Licht had said there were some "obstacles'' to overcome but both sides were eager to strike a deal for Martin to remain in Tampa Bay.

On Tuesday night, the leverage shifted to Martin among reports that Dolphins free agent running back Lamar Miller was close to agreeing to a $6.5 million contract with the Texans. Then the Jets' Chris Ivory struck an accord with the Jaguars for just more than $6 million per year.

"The one thing that helped was his desire to be here and our desire to want him," Licht said. "And there's always some bickering back and forth with any negotiation. But at the end of the day, 99.9 percent of this was easy."

Of course, not many running backs make it to a second contract in the NFL and Martin will be 31 if he fulfills his new deal, well past when backs are productive.

However, Licht said he is confident Martin will continue to stay motivated.

"We wanted to reward him," Licht said. "He's earned every penny."

Bucs keep free agent Doug Martin with $35.75 million deal 03/09/16 [Last modified: Thursday, March 10, 2016 12:17am]
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