Is Doug Martin Due for Return to Pro Bowl Form in 2014?

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistJune 18, 2014

AP Images

During the 2012 NFL draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded up in the first round to select running back Doug Martin.

Spending a first-round pick on a running back in today's NFL is generally not seen as a smart decision. In fact, during the two drafts since Martin was picked, no team has selected a back within the first 36 overall picks.

During his rookie season, it appeared that Martin was immediately worth the investment. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry on 319 attempts for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns. Those yards came despite the fact that his offensive line was missing two starting guards for most of the season.

Producing as a runner in that situation was impressive, but every feature back these days needs to also contribute as a pass-catcher.

Martin finished his rookie season with an incredible 49 receptions for 472 yards and one touchdown. When combined with his rushing numbers, he had 1,926 total yards on 368 total touches. That meant he had the 77th-most single-season yards from scrimmage in NFL history on the 123rd-most touches.

Questions about the decision to trade up for a running back were all answered. Questions about the value of a running back in the first round seemed foolish.

That period of contentment didn't last long. During his second season, Martin averaged just 3.6 yards per carry on 127 attempts. He played six games before being injured but only managed 522 yards and one touchdown on 139 total touches.

His production in 2013 compared to 2012 was startlingly poor.

Martin had performed behind a less-than-stellar offensive line during his rookie season, so it was difficult to immediately think of a reason as to why he was struggling. With any running back evaluation, there are three keys that must be focused on.

1: The individual performance of the running back independent of his offensive line. 2: The execution of the offensive line. 3: The execution and approach of the defense.

The only reason to worry about Martin moving forward is if he is faltering in the first of those keys. If Martin's own performance is hampering his production, the chances of him producing again like he did in 2012 are less likely.

If the offensive line was the primary concern, then that is a good thing for Martin because that unit has changed. The Buccaneers have brought in Anthony Collins and Evan Dietrich-Smith to be veteran starters, while they will again hope that Carl Nicks can stay healthy.

When you check the schedule, it appears that Martin was simply shut down by the best run defenses in the NFL and performed well against lesser units. 

OpponentCarriesYardsYards Per CarryRun Defense DVOA
Week 1, NYJ24652.72nd
Week 2, NO291445.020th
Week 3, NE20884.427th
Week 4, ARI27451.71st
Week 6, PHI16674.211th
Week 7, ATL11474.326th
Football Outsiders,

This chart uses Football Outsiders' run defense DVOA metric that measures efficiency on every single play. As we can see, the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets both shut Martin down. The Cardinals had the first overall run defense, the Jets the second, according to Football Outsiders.

Not only were the Cardinals and Jets the top two run defenses, they were significantly better than the third ranked team.

In the non-adjusted run defense DVOA, both the Cardinals and Jets finished the season with minus-23.1 percent as their rating, while the third-place Detroit Lions were at just minus-17.8 percent. For context, the worst ranked defense finished with plus-12.2 percent.

During those two games, Martin had 15 total runs for either no gain or negative yardage, and one more that was negated for a horse-collar tackle. When you examine those runs, you find that Martin's offensive line was simply overwhelmed.

Outside of those two games, Martin averaged 4.6 yards per carry on 76 attempts, which is exactly the average he enjoyed during his rookie season when he was lauded as a Pro Bowler. In games where Martin's offensive line hadn't been completely overwhelmed, he proved to be a very productive back.

There is no reason to think that he won't be effective next season over a full 16-game schedule.

A huge part of Martin's game is his vision. He is also physically gifted, but the most consistent backs in the NFL are those who make good decisions and understand how to find and create running lanes on a snap-to-snap basis.

Running backs need to find a balance between the ability to make quick decisions and show patience. Martin's strength is his ability to make quick decisions without rushing his actions.

On this play, Martin immediately recognizes that he needs to cut back, even though there is enough space in front of him to tempt him inside.

As the red highlight shows, there is space for Martin to potentially attack in front of him. However, Martin isn't looking at the space when he gets the ball. He is reading No. 94 on the defense, who is sliding into that space with No. 55, the linebacker on the second level.

The defense is flowing to the left, so Martin plants his foot to cut back to the right. A missed block on the backside of the play means Martin doesn't have a free run to space, but he has a better chance of beating the defender coming from the side than the two defenders filling the initial hole in front of him.

Martin is brought down by an arm tackle from that defender, but he is able to create forward momentum and fight for a five-yard gain.

The linebacker on the second level was blocked out of the play by the Buccaneers' left tackle. That created the space for Martin to finish the play moving forward. While Martin is a strong runner who benefits from a low center of gravity, the chances of him doing that in tight space against two defenders is much lower.

Martin's awareness allows him to be proactive in attacking space.

Unlike many NFL running backs, Martin doesn't have one specific physical trait that stands out over the others. He is very well-rounded in terms of power and speed, while his quick feet and compact frame make him a very agile runner.

Standing at 5'9" and 215 pounds, Martin is able to slide through tiny gaps in the defense. However, more important than his size is his footwork.

When Martin attacks running lanes, he doesn't lose any speed because his feet are exceptionally quick. He can work his way through traffic with ease while not losing any balance or forward momentum.

Martin doesn't have the speed of Chris Johnson when he gets into the open field, but he does have enough speed and vision to create big plays. Over the past two seasons, Martin has 13 runs of 20-plus yards and five of 40-plus yards on 446 carries.

Those numbers don't include the three 40-plus-yard receptions he had in 2012 on 49 total receptions.

Martin's hands can be problematic at times, as he has dropped a few too many passes throughout his short career, but he is also a very dangerous receiver. His 49 receptions during his rookie season proved that he has the stamina to consistently be effective while staying on the field for all three downs.

In 2014, he may not need to stay on the field that often because the Buccaneers have a variety of options at the running back position.

Bobby Rainey proved to be a more-than-adequate starter in Martin's place last season, while then-rookie Mike James was very impressive before his season was cut short by injury. Despite retaining Rainey as a restricted free agent and the expected return of James, the Buccaneers added Charles Sims in the third round of the draft this year.

Maybe Sims, Rainey and James take away some of Martin's touches next year, but there's no question about who the most talented player of the four is.

Even if James becomes the goal-line back and Sims becomes the third-down back, Martin should have enough opportunities to put up big yardage and return to Pro Bowl form. There are very few backs in the NFL today who can be feature backs. Only a handful are asked to assume such responsibility.

Therefore, if the only knock on Martin is his potential usage, he is clearly one of the most talented backs in the NFL.


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