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With Doug Martin questions, Bucs weigh options at running back

Running back Doug Martin wouldn’t be able to return to the Bucs until Week 4.

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Running back Doug Martin wouldn’t be able to return to the Bucs until Week 4.

TAMPA — Doug Martin is used to getting knocked down as a running back, but this time he needed some help getting back up.

Suspended four games for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy in December, one week after he was benched for a critical game at New Orleans that the Bucs lost, Martin voluntarily sought help at an undisclosed rehab center and completed his stay in February.

When coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht met with Martin a week before the league's scouting combine, where they closely watched a deep collection of talented running backs, he was clear-eyed and focused on the future.

"He looked good. He sounded good," Koetter said. "I'm proud of Doug for taking steps to get his health back. Doug's under contract. He was going to head back out to California to train. We tell the players, come back in April and then we'll see where it goes from there."

Where Martin fits into the Bucs' plans is uncertain.

"Fortunately, we have some time to make that decision," Licht said.

The decision will be much easier if the Bucs use a first- or second-round pick on a running back in the draft April 27-29.

And make no mistake, the Bucs might be foolish not to take advantage of a deep pool of ball carriers, including three projected to go in the first round — Florida State's Dalvin Cook, LSU's Leonard Fournette and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey.

Koetter is on record saying he believes it's hard to feature two running backs. Tampa Bay re-signed Jacquizz Rodgers and returns Charles Sims and Peyton Barber.

Some at One Buc Place sound excited to see Martin return to his old form. When healthy as a rookie and before his contract year in 2015, the former first-round pick from Boise State has been a 1,400-yard rusher.

"It will be great getting a guy like Doug back to where he was that will add to that explosion, because we just didn't have that in the run game last year, with all the injuries," offensive coordinator/receivers coach Todd Monken said. "We had six different guys carry the ball last year."

While the Bucs can't be certain how the draft will fall since they don't make a pick until No. 19 overall, there are more than a few factors working against Martin returning to the Bucs in 2017:

Martin's injury history hasn't been good

Three of his five NFL seasons have been marred by injuries. A torn labrum he suffered attempting to make a catch at Atlanta limited Martin to only six games in 2013. Prior to getting hurt, Martin wasn't lighting it up and had a 2.9-yard rushing average.

A series of recurring knee and ankle injuries prevented Martin from playing in five games in 2014. When available, his performance was subpar — 3.7 yards per carry and only two touchdowns.

Last season, Martin injured his hamstring in Week 2 against the Cardinals, tried to rush back too soon and wound up missing half the games. It was by far the worst year of his career, with a 2.9-yard average and only three touchdowns. Martin also is 28, and few invest in running backs past age 30.

Martin's salary is no longer guaranteed

The Bucs got what amounts to a get-out-of-jail-free card. Because of his suspension, they no longer are on the hook for $7.5 million in guarantees. While that contract seemed like a smart thing to do at the time, Martin's suspension may turn out to be an unexpected gift. Few teams fail to take full advantage of such morals clauses once broken.

The Bucs owed cornerback Eric Wright a guaranteed $7.75 million for 2013, but that went poof when, like Martin, he was suspended four games in 2012 for PEDs. Wright had little choice but to restructure his deal and was traded to the 49ers one week after a DUI arrest.

Martin's salary isn't prohibitive, but there may be enough uncertainty to not want to honor it.

Martin will miss the first three games

It's a big year for the Bucs. Can they be confident going almost a month with only Rodgers, Sims and Barber in 2017? And what kind of shape will Martin be in? Finally, if Martin has a relapse of any kind and used PEDs again, he would be suspended 10 games.

You have to root for a guy like Martin to write his happily ever after. However, Licht summed up the Bucs' running back situation this way.

"Not desperate. Always looking," he said. "Especially when you want to take advantage of a draft where you think it might be deep there."

With Doug Martin questions, Bucs weigh options at running back 03/18/17 [Last modified: Sunday, March 19, 2017 12:44am]
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