After a rough end to 2016 and a soul-searching beginning to the new year, Doug Martin had no trouble finding motivation when it was time to get back on the football field in 2017. He's trimmed body fat and added muscle mass, and he's looked as quick in his movements as at any time in his career. At the front end of his sixth NFL training camp, he's ready to attack every rep full-steam.
"You know, I have a chip on my shoulder," said Martin. "I just went out during the offseason and worked my butt off. I know this is going to be a big year for us. I have a lot to owe to this team and I can't wait to get back out there."
Martin didn't specify the nature of that chip, but the underlying motivation is surely the need to prove himself all over again. He's done that once already in 2015 after his superb rookie season was followed by two injury-marred campaigns. His 2015 season included 1,402 rushing yards, second-most in the NFL, and a career-best 4.9 yards per carry, and it was followed by a new contract in the offseason. Unfortunately, Martin's 2016 season was mostly consumed by a lingering hamstring injury and then an end-of-season suspension, and he finished with just 421 rushing yards.
That suspension will carry over into the first three games of the new season, but he's allowed to work with the team throughout training camp and the preseason. Those three games are the only adversity that remains in the situation; otherwise, he feels stronger for having gone through it.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' training camp practice on Sunday.
"Just thinking back on it is a little surreal to me," said Martin. Like, 'Wow, did that actually happen?' But, it did and it happened for the better. I'm glad to be back out here and I'm ready to move forward from that and show everybody out here what I came to do."
Martin has been drawing mostly first-team reps in training camp, just as he has throughout his career. In many ways, this year's camp is just like his first five; however, there is one difference that requires an added level of preparation. Martin hopes to make the most of the 13 games after his suspension, which means planning so that he can hit the ground running in late September after three weeks away from the team.
"This is my first time doing it and my last time," said Martin of working out a plan for that return. "We're definitely going to make sure my regimen is equal to the amount of work that should be done. We're going to get it right, I'm going to get it right for the season when I come back from the suspension.
"I will be out those three games, that's the reality of the situation. During those three weeks, I'm going to prepare myself to get my legs back under me and get ready to play."
It looks like that chip is going to remain on Martin's shoulder for the foreseeable future.
- The safety position figured to be a focal point in this summer's training camp, with four apparent candidates for two jobs, and that competition has not disappointed in the early going.
On Saturday, free agent signee J.J. Wilcox made several standout plays, while incumbent Keith Tandy got a vote of confidence from Koetter. On Sunday, holdover Chris Conte was a noticeable force on another good day for the Buccaneers defense, and second-round rookie Justin Evans continued to make strides after returning from an offseason injury.
Conte's good day included a diving interception off an errant pass down the middle of the field during a full-team period. Just moments later, the veteran defender appeared to read an audible to a swing pass and was able to meet the running back behind the line of scrimmage just after he caught the ball. Conte joined Tandy on the first-team defense for most of the offseason reps, in part because both Wilcox and Evans were battling minor ailments. That remains true now that all Wilcox and Evans are in play, but all four are getting good work in the first week of camp.
Koetter has noticed Conte's strong start but his mantra on Sunday regarding all the safeties was one of patience: "Three days in, three days in." This battle obviously has a long way to go before it will be decided.
"First off, Chris is really athletic," said the coach. "Chris almost is as athletic as a corner. He can really run, he's long, I think Chris's confidence is up right now. He, maybe in the past, would get down on himself a little too much, for no reason in my opinion. I think Chris is doing well, but it's also been good with keeping Chris working with that first group, J.J. and Justin Evans have really showed."
Wilcox started 38 games over four seasons in Dallas before jumping to Tampa as an unrestricted free agent. He's a hard-hitter who might show up even more on the practice field when the pads go on Monday morning. However, he's not assuming that there's a starting spot waiting for him.
"Those guys deserve the right to be where they're at," said Wilcox. "So like I said, I'm the new kid. I have to come earn my stripes. Those guys did a great job welcoming me in with the playbook. When I first got here, they both shook my hand and told me, 'Hey, if you need anything,' and we exchanged numbers. It's been great. I know it's the NFL, I know it's a business and at the same time they're going to put the best players out there [who] deserve to be out there."
- When Wilcox and his teammates put on those pads for Monday's practice, it will be the first time they've been cleared for full contact in 2017. Many Buccaneers have been looking forward to that day.
"Whenever you put the pads on for the first time, everyone is really excited, especially the defensive guys," said tight end Cam Brate, perhaps anticipating some hard hits on Monday. "They've been itching to hit the offensive guys for a while now, so we expect tomorrow to be the same way as we go full pads."
Even offensive players welcome a more physical practice because it more closely resembles the conditions of a real game. Martin looked extremely good during the offseason and he was notably spry on a series of short passes on Sunday, but he hasn't had a chance yet to show how well he can bounce off would-be tacklers. That could be a big part of his return to the Pro Bowl form he displayed in 2015, when he was the only running back in the NFL with 150+ carries to average more than three yards per carry after contact (according to Pro Football Focus).
"It's been a while," said Martin, who also missed the last two games of the 2016 season. "It's fall camp and everybody is excited to put the pads on and start hitting again. It's been a long time. I invite a lot of contact, that's just my style. I just can't wait to get the full pads on, so we'll see."
Functionally, the addition of pads will change the structure of practice a little bit. The offensive and defensive linemen did some one-on-one reps with shoulder pads on Sunday but the team hasn't yet gotten into most of the drills that work better with contact.
"When the pads go on there will be some more drills," said Koetter. "They did some one-on-one run-blocking down in the corner today, and they did some pass-rush drills. You could really see the intensity in the team drills today because the defensive line really had good push. The quarterbacks have to get used to those guys right in their face. But when they're over there working in one-on-one and two-on-two, those are pretty much live pass-rushes because they don't have to worry about hitting Jameis [Winston]. The main thing that changes is just the nature of some of the drills."