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Intriguing backup running backs available through free agency

TAMPA — Doug Martin thoroughly despises the nickname (rhymes with Hustle Mamster) that followed him to the NFL from Boise State, so he asked for potential alternatives on Facebook, and the Bucs received 3,100 submissions the first day.

If nothing else, you can call Martin simply the greatest rookie running back in team history after he set first-year records for rushing yards (1,454) and touchdowns (11).

That included two eye-opening games — at the Vikings in Week 8 when he carried 29 times for 135 yards and a touchdown and caught three passes for 79 more and a score. The next week, Martin carved up the Raiders for a franchise-best 251 yards and four touchdowns, including three of more than 40 yards.

To put in perspective what a rare two-game run Martin had, consider that only four times has anyone eclipsed his 486 total yards against the Vikings and Raiders — Walter Payton (twice), O.J. Simpson and Jim Brown.

The 5-foot-9, 215-pound Martin also was a capable receiver, with 49 catches for 472 yards and a score. There is room to grow for Martin as a route runner.

It's too early to know where Martin's career will go. But the Bucs' best backs have been players they drafted — Ricky Bell, James Wilder, Mike Alstott, Warrick Dunn and Cadillac Williams (pre-knee injuries).

Because the average shelf life of an NFL running back is less than three years, few make it to free agency. And the best usually sign long term with the clubs that drafted them.

But there can be some intriguing free agents available and this year is no exception.

The Bucs are solid with Martin as the lead back. However, they'd like to have a quality backup to give Martin, who had 368 touches as a rookie, a breather.

LeGarrette Blount is a restricted free agent who will receive a qualifying offer. He was an undrafted free agent from Oregon acquired off waivers from the Titans, so a second-round tender of $2.023 million makes the most sense.

Blount fell completely out of favor with coach Greg Schiano during the season. Unable to play on third down, he had only eight carries in the final nine games of the season and did not play in the finale at Atlanta.

When the Bucs needed a third-down back, they used veteran D.J. Ware, who caught 14 passes for 100 yards and is a decent pass protector, an aspect where Blount struggles. Michael Smith, a seventh-round pick from Utah State, played only one game last season as a kick returner.

All three backups are eligible to return for 2013. But help might also come through free agency.

Top of the class

Steven Jackson, Rams

He opted out of the final year of his contract with the Rams and is on a run of eight straight 1,000-yard seasons. You can't argue with the production, but Jackson has a lot of miles on his tires and will be 30 in July. Price: $$$

Reggie Bush, Dolphins

At 28, Bush has topped 1,000 yards rushing only once. Last season he did a better job of running inside the tackles, rushing for 986 yards. But he only caught 35 passes, one more than his career low. His best role is probably on third down. Price: $$

Shonn Greene, Jets

Though he averaged only 3.9 yards a carry, Greene finished in the top 15 among NFL backs in attempts, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. Price: $$

Rest of the field

Michael Turner, Falcons $$

Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers $$

Cedric Benson, Packers $$

Felix Jones, Cowboys $

Bucs: Best guess

They might be intrigued by Bush as a third-down back and kick returner, but his salary demands and the role he likely will seek won't be a good fit for the Bucs. Tampa Bay could use another pound-it guy to provide a change of pace from the shifty Martin.

Key

$ = under $2M/year

$$ = $2-5M/year

$$$ = $5-7M/year

$$$$ = $7-10M/year

$$$$$ = More than $10M/year

Thursday: A look at the wide receivers

Intriguing backup running backs available through free agency 03/05/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 8:04pm]
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