Keeping Doug Martin, Dirk Koetter Tops List of Buccaneers' Offseason Priorities

Luke Easterling@@LukeEasterlingCorrespondent IDecember 30, 2015

Dec 27, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin (22) during the first half against the Chicago Bears at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A Week 17 road trip to face the 14-1 Carolina Panthers is all that stands between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and another offseason of rebuilding under head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht.

The Bucs will likely end up with a top-10 pick in this year's draft, and they'll have plenty of cap space to spend on free agents. They've drafted fairly well over the past two years, but they've missed more often than they've hit on their free-agent additions.

But while many Bucs fans are likely already focused on the draft and free agency when it comes to Tampa Bay's offseason to-do list, there are two things the Pewter Pirates must do before they even get that far: re-sign Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin, and retain offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.

Martin's resurgence has been well-documented, as the former first-rounder has returned to the form that earned him a Pro Bowl berth as a rookie back in 2012.

The Boise State product bounced back from two straight injury-riddled seasons, dropping 20 pounds in the offseason and showing off an impressive combination of power and explosiveness all season long.

Through 15 games this season, Martin has rushed for 1,354 yards, trailing Minnesota's Adrian Peterson by just 64 yards for the NFL rushing title heading into the final week of the regular season.

Martin leads the league with 13 runs of 20 yards or longer, and he is the only running back in the NFL with at least 150 carries and a 5.0 yards-per-carry average.

Doug Martin leads the NFL in runs of 20 yards or more.
Doug Martin leads the NFL in runs of 20 yards or more.Elsa/Getty Images

The runner has helped power the NFL's fourth-ranked rushing attack, as the Bucs are averaging 139 yards on the ground, 90 of which are coming from their lead back.

After Martin missed 16 games over the previous two seasons, few could blame the Bucs for choosing not to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract for the 2016 season. But Tampa Bay's gamble has now bitten them on the backside, as Martin is headed back to the Pro Bowl and playing the best football of his career.

The dilemma for Tampa Bay will be whether or not to break the bank on a long-term extension for a running back. Martin will be 27 when the 2016 season begins, with 30 being the magic number when it comes to a drop-off in production for NFL running backs in recent years.

That could lead to the Bucs choosing to use the franchise tag on Martin to keep him in Tampa Bay next season—and even possibly again in 2017, if they wanted to use the tag again—as opposed to inking him to a long-term deal that could take him past the threshold of his prime.

Regardless of how they make it happen, making sure Martin is back in the Pewter and Red next season and beyond has to be a top priority for the Bucs this offseason.

Equally as important as keeping Martin is the need for Tampa Bay to make sure offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter returns next season.

After last year’s lack of stability on offense, due in large part to the sudden departure of newly hired offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford just before the start of the regular season, Koetter righted the ship quickly and impressively in 2015.

The Bucs currently rank seventh in the NFL in total offense, averaging just over 375 yards per game and 22 points per game, both significant improvements over last season’s output.

Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has brought stability and improved production to Tampa Bay's offense.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has brought stability and improved production to Tampa Bay's offense.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Jameis Winston has played like a veteran, Martin has been fantastic and the offensive line has overachieved throughout the season, but Koetter still deserves a huge chunk of the credit for bringing much-needed stability to entire unit.

His play-calling has been effective for the most part, and he’s putting his playmakers in position to maximize their strengths.

Koetter is likely to be a popular name this offseason when it comes to NFL head-coaching vacancies, which could put the Bucs in a difficult spot.

Continuity is extremely important when it comes to the development of a young quarterback, which makes it even more vital that the Bucs do whatever it takes to keep Koetter in Tampa Bay next season and beyond.

The Bucs have plenty of work to do to add depth in free agency and infusing young talent via the draft, but they need to get their two biggest tasks crossed off the list early this offseason by keeping Martin and Koetter.

Tampa Bay’s offense has had one of its best years in franchise history, and those two are integral to the continued development and success on that side of the ball.

Luke Easterling is a Featured Columnist covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and NFL draft for Bleacher Report. He is also a senior NFL draft analyst for Draft Breakdown. Follow him on Twitter @Luke Easterling.