Some teams in the NFL don’t have a quality running back on the roster. Some, for better or for worse, only have one running back that acts as the team's workhorse. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have three quality running backs on their roster.
Well, sort of.
Second-year running back Bobby Rainey ran for 163 yards and two touchdowns last week against the Atlanta Falcons. Since joining the Bucs he’s averaged 5.47 yards per carry. But he’s only played two games with Tampa Bay thus far, and the only reason he’s on the roster is backup running back Mike James was lost for the season with a broken left ankle.
Prior to the rookie James injuring his ankle, he had some staggering success. In Week 9 in Seattle, against a pretty stout defense, James ran for 158 yards on 28 carries. On the season James averaged 4.92 yards per carry and started three games for the Bucs from Weeks 8 through 10.
But the only reason James was forced into a starting role is because second-year star Doug Martin was lost for the season with a torn labrum in his shoulder.
Martin ran for 1,454 yards and scored 11 rushing touchdowns during his rookie 2012 season and had 456 yards on 127 carries this season prior to his shoulder injury. Martin was the featured back from Weeks 1 through 7 and had started each of his 22 professional games since being drafted in 2012.
All three backs—Rainey, James and Martin—have shown the skill to work as Tampa Bay’s featured back, but only Rainey is healthy and on the active roster. James and Martin are both on injured reserve and cannot return to the team in an active role until the 2014 season.
There’s too much talent in each of these three rushers to send them back to their original roles of lead dog for Martin, No. 2 on the depth chart for James and third-string for Rainey. It makes so much more sense to get them each as many touches as possible.
Therefore, when the Bucs take the field for training camp prior to the 2014 season, look for the trio to start sharing carries. That is, if they’re all still on the roster.
Martin and James are both under contract for some time; Martin is eligible to become a free agent in 2016, James in 2017. But Rainey will be a restricted free agent after this season, according to Spotrac. There is a chance the Buccaneers won’t have to deal with this somewhat pleasant problem of having too much talent at running back.
If all three are back with Tampa Bay, though, the issue of how to proceed with all three getting carries will be extremely important for the Bucs to figure out.
When it comes to size, they’re all similarly diminutive. James is the tallest and biggest at 5’10” and 233 pounds. Martin is 5’9”, 215 pounds and Rainey comes in at 5’8”, 212 pounds.
But that’s not where the similarities end.
When it comes to catching the football, an attribute that can separate the top from the bottom of a running back depth chart, all three are adept. Martin has 61 receptions during his career and has played 1,158 professional snaps on offense (18.98 snaps/reception). James has 10 receptions in 158 snaps (15.8 snaps/reception) and Rainey has seven receptions in 112 snaps (16 snaps/reception). There’s nothing that really differentiates one from the other.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Rainey has only been asked to stay and help block in pass protection four times. James has only had 21 pass-blocking snaps. Neither has been given enough pass-protection assignments to know if blocking is a true strong suit. But neither has given up a sack or a quarterback hit.
Martin stayed back in pass protection 52 times prior to his injury. He did not give up a sack and allowed just two quarterback hits. Last season he gave up two sacks on 113 pass-blocking assignments.
When it comes to comparing Rainey, James and Martin, they are all similar in size, receiving skills and blocking capabilities—at least from the small sample size available. If all three return healthy and ready for the 2014 season, Tampa Bay will have a lot of work to do to determine how to divvy up touches.
All three can be explosive and all three can carry a heavy workload on a game-by-game basis. It’ll be interesting to see who emerges as the top option and how many touches each receives. Whether it’s a starter-reserve situation, a true committee with equal touches or a committee where the coaching staff goes with the hot hand at that moment, the Bucs can’t complain about having too much of a good thing.
And each running back is too good to keep off the field.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.