Adrian Peterson Gets the Glory but Doug Martin Is Future of NFL Running Backs
A recovery from a torn ACL didn't stop Peterson from rushing for 2,097 yards, the second-highest total in NFL history. He had 348 rushing attempts, on which he averaged more than six yards per carry.
Although Peterson is coming off of a career-best season, the window of his prime could only have a couple of more seasons left. He is 28 years old, leaving him just two more years before he reaches the magic age of decline—30—for most NFL running backs.
Only four running backs—Thomas Jones (twice), Fred Taylor, Willis McGahee and Ricky Williams—have rushed for more than 1,000 yards in any of the past six seasons after turning 30, according to Pro Football Reference's player season finder index. In contrast, eight running backs have rushed for more than 1,000 yards in the season they were 29 years old.
If Peterson's career follows recent trends, he likely has two more seasons left as a top-tier running back. While Peterson could certainly go above the trend, he should not be counted on to remain an elite NFL running back four or five years from now.
When Peterson's career starts to wind down, who will be the NFL's new star running back? Twenty-four-year-old Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin looks like a good bet entering his second season in the league.
Martin became an immediate standout in his rookie season. He finished the season among the NFL's top five in rushing yards (1,454), rushing touchdowns (11) and total carries (319).
Martin ran for more than 100 yards in five individual games last season, highlighted by a 251-yard, four-touchdown performance against the Oakland Raiders in Week 9. To the contrary, he had two games in which he had less than 10 rushing attempts and 50 rushing yards.
Martin had his big plays and big games last season, but he was one of the league's most consistent and reliable backs. The No. 31 overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft saw his well-rounded game as a running back translate to immediate league success.
Unlike Peterson, whose combination of size, power and speed make him spectacular, Martin does not have impressive measurables. His size (5'9", 215 pounds) and speed (4.55-second 40-yard dash at 2012 NFL Scouting Combine) are both considered average at best for an NFL running back.
This is where I must confess that I overlooked Martin's ability as a running back prospect. Following the 2012 NFL draft, I called Martin's selection as a first-round pick "poor value." One year later, it appears that the Buccaneers instead got one of the draft's steals by getting him as late in Round 1 as they did.
Considering Martin to be a "reach" as a first-round draft pick came as a result of placing too much focus on his lack of explosive measurables. There are many traits in Martin's game that allow him to overcome those shortcomings and consistently frustrate defenses.
Taking Advantage of Open Lanes
Martin does a good job out of the backfield of not only finding holes but committing to them and accelerating through them to make plays.
Martin has very good vision. He exhibits great awareness of where his blockers are picking up defenders, and follows his blocks to find holes in the defense. He is a patient but not hesitant runner; he allows his blocks to set up for him but consistently keeps his legs moving forward toward the opposing end zone.
Martin also has the lateral quickness to quickly make a move into a hole. He uses both his quickness and ability to run through contact to squeeze through tight holes. When he makes it through a tight hole, which leaves him with room to run, he can then take advantage of the open field by quickly accelerating to full speed.
Making Defenders Miss
The key trait that makes Martin a big-play threat is his ability to make sharp yet smooth cuts in the open field without disrupting the flow or speed of his rush.
When a runner has to fully plant or slow his forward momentum to make a cut, his ability to extend a run is diminished. Martin is able to keep himself moving forward with speed while making slight but effective cuts to bounce away from a defender.
Making a cut is rarely an accentuated point in Martin's run because he has very active feet and consistently makes subtle moves within his open-field runs. He has shown, however, that he can also make a defender miss with a devastating stop cut, such as the move below at the end of his 67-yard rushing touchdown against the Raiders last season.
Hard to Bring Down
In order to stop Martin, a defender must wrap him up and make a sound tackle. Martin consistently runs hard and bounces away from weak tackling attempts.
Martin has the strength to absorb hits and consistently keeps his legs driving forward through contact. As a result, Martin constantly extended plays after contact, as he does a good job of maintaining his momentum and balance. Even when he is taken to the ground, he gets an extra yard or two by falling forward through the tackle.
Martin was one of three NFL running backs to gain more than 1,000 yards after contact last season, according to Pro Football Focus premium statistics (subscription required).
Durability and Reliability
Martin had the second-most snaps (841) and fourth-most rushing attempts (319) of any NFL running back last season, according to PFF (subscription required). Even with his heavy work load, he remained strong as the season progressed. Two of his 100-yard games came in the final four weeks of his rookie season.
Martin maintained an impressive 4.6 yards per carry last season, showing that he did not just run the ball often, but did it effectively. Even more impressive, Martin fumbled the ball one time last season which ranked him the best among the five running backs with 300 rushing attempts last season.
Martin is a rarity in today's NFL, a true three-down running back. In addition to being a durable and consistent runner, he is an asset in the passing offense.
Martin does a good job of getting open out of the backfield and making catches, and then using his open-field running traits to extend short receptions into bigger gains. Martin had the fourth-most receiving yards among all running backs last season with 472 yards on 49 receptions.
Martin's combined total of 1,926 yards from scrimmage last season was third among all NFL players last season, behind only Peterson and Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
Martin is also an effective pass blocker. His pass-blocking efficiency rating of 94.2 last season was third among running backs with 100 or more pass-block snaps last season, according to PFF (subscription required).
Combining all of these elements into his total game, Martin already makes a strong case for being the league's most well-rounded back. His long-term future looks the brightest of any young running back in the NFL.
Let's take a look at two of his four touchdowns against the Raiders last season to see how Martin combines the many strengths of his game to be a dangerous runner.
On the first touchdown shown (67 yards), Martin accelerates quickly out of the backfield and immediately takes off left. He follows a block with his speed, then runs through a poor tackling attempt just past the line of scrimmage.
He accelerates through the contact and takes off to the left sideline where he hits full speed. At the 10-yard line, he makes the stop cut illustrated earlier to beat the last line of defense and stroll into the end zone.
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Martin's run to a 70-yard touchdown, also shown in the video, started by using his vision and quickness at the line of scrimmage. He started right, but as his blockers set up a hole to the left, he makes a sharp cutback while continuing to accelerate and hits the hole with speed.
From there, he quickly hits full speed running up the middle of the field, and maintains that speed even through two tackling attempts. He outran the defense by maintaining his momentum all the way to the end zone.
Martin's best performance of last season may have come against one of the NFL's weakest defenses, but it was an illustration of how special a player Martin can be. Combined with his consistency throughout the year, Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans and Martin fantasy owners alike should feel great promise about his future.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.
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