Tampa Bay Buccaneers

One Dozen Debates: Ground Game

The Buccaneers know they will be without Doug Martin for the first three weeks of the season, so training camp will be a good time to figure out how to arrange the backfield early on.

Pictures of the Buccaneers' running backs during OTAs and mini-camp.

The first time Jameis Winston turns to hand off during a practice rep in this year's training camp, he'll probably give the ball to Doug Martin. However, that definitely won't be the case the first time Winston hands off in Week One of the regular season.

That's not a pessimistic prediction of Martin's results on the practice field when camp begins this Friday; it's simply a reality. A league suspension that began at the end of last season will keep the sixth-year running back sidelined for the first three games of 2017 no matter how effective he is in July and August.

Given how good Martin looked during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offseason program – much as he did during the run-up to a fantastic 2015 campaign – and how hard he has been working, it's a good bet that he'll have a strong camp, as well. Hopefully, after the rest of his suspension is served, Martin will prove that he remains one of the league's best running backs, just as he did when healthy in 2012 and 2015.

"Doug has been working his butt off," said Buccaneers Running Backs Coach Tim Spencer in June. "He's been hustling, he's been doing all the things that he normally does. He's working hard, studying, training well, finishing plays. He sets the tone. He really does set the tone for the rest of the backs and they sort of come up to his level."

Still, the Buccaneers have to prepare for all 16 games, and that includes Weeks 1-3, so it will be important to watch how the rest of the backs fare in the weeks to come, particularly when the pads go on four days into camp. Even without Martin, the Bucs have plenty of options in the backfield, including Charles Sims, Jacquizz Rodgers, Jeremy McNichols and Peyton Barber.

Under Head Coach Dirk Koetter, the Buccaneers like to run the football. Tampa Bay ranked seventh in rushing attempts per game last year, after landing eighth on that list in 2015, when Koetter was the offensive coordinator. Even if Martin looks like the best option during training camp, the Bucs are not going to abandon the ground game while he's away. That's why the next topic in our One Dozen Debates countdown to Training Camp involves the running back corps. The countdown to camp continues: From the uncertain depth chart at safety to the presence of *Hard Knocks *to the next step in the development of Jameis Winston, we're looking at one key question a day, and that will take us right into the start of football on July 28.

We may not have all the answers just yet, but we'll try to define the issues. Read along with us and each day you can let us know where you stand on each debate.

*Debate #10: What will the running game look like during Doug Martin's absence? *

First, let's clarify that we are going under the assumption that Martin will return to the roster after his suspension ends. As both Koetter and General Manager Jason Licht noted during the offseason, there was no need for the team to rush that decision, and that remains true on the eve of camp. Still, nothing has happened since Martin returned from treatment that would suggest he has moved farther away from a likely return. Nothing is certain, of course, for Martin or any of his teammates as camp begins, but we'll frame the debate in that manner.* *

"I think just from my own experience, when Doug is practicing like this, when he's finishing plays, when he's got that burst, got that pep in his step, it's carried over to the field," said Koetter during the spring. "We have a ways to go, we've got to get through preseason. We've got to get through preseason games healthy, Doug has got to stay healthy. There's more things that have to happen. Again, time is on our side. I know everyone wants to know, they're anxious to know. There's just nothing to know right now, we've just got to wait this out."* *

Of the remaining backs, Sims has been around the longest, joining the team as a third-round draft pick in 2014, the same year the Bucs selected star wide receiver Mike Evans. The best of his three seasons so far – not coincidentally the season in which he had the best fortune in avoiding injuries – was 2015, when he formed a nearly unstoppable duo with Martin. Those two were the only pair of running back teammates in the NFL to each surpass 1,000 yards from scrimmage that year, which Sims accomplished by running for 529 yards and catching 41 passes for another 561. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry and 11.0 yards per reception, both outstanding marks for running backs.* *

Sims and Martin were perfect complementary weapons in 2015, though the Bucs have used the former as a lead runner quite a bit, too. He's shown he can be a dynamic weapon in a variety of ways, as he did with a highlight-reel, tackle-breaking touchdown catch in last year's season-opening win in Atlanta.* *

Pictures of Martin during the Bucs' OTAs and mini-camp.

Sims got the first crack at taking over for Martin last season when the latter went down early with a hamstring injury, so it will be interesting to see how the team utilizes him during the first three weeks. The difference this time around may be last year's emergence of Rodgers, who took over for Sims when he too was knocked out by injury. Rodgers, who had never been given an extended chance to be an every-down back during his first five seasons, was a revelation, logging the first two 100-yard games of his career and averaging 4.2 yards per tote for the whole campaign. In the end, he was the Bucs' leading rusher in 2016, picking up 560 yards, most of it coming in his five starts.* *

Rodgers is a versatile back who has two 50-catch seasons on his NFL resume and could also play a third-down role if the Bucs needed him to. Chances are, he'll get a chance to do a little bit of everything during the first three weeks of the season.* *

Barber made the team as an undrafted free agent a year ago and eventually got his chance, too, as the injuries in the backfield piled up. He logged 55 carries and turned them into 223 yards and a touchdown, averaging 4.1 yards a pop. Listed at 5-11 and 225 pounds, Barber is a very solid back and could give the team a valuable short-yardage option even when the backfield cast is complete. However, during the first three weeks, there may be more opportunities for the young player to continue his development.* *

The newest member of the backfield is rookie Jeremy McNichols, a fifth-round pick who not only shares an alma mater with Doug Martin (Boise State) but has also been compared to his Broncos predecessor in terms of running style. His third-day draft status should not be an indication that he's a long shot in the competition; this was a very deep draft at the running back position, and there are plenty of former fifth-round picks who have produced big numbers, such as 2016 Bears rookie Jordan Howard, the NFL's second-leading rusher last year. In fact, another recent fifth-rounder out of Boise State, Miami's Jay Ajayi, is now a very productive starter for the Dolphins.* *

McNichols comes into the NFL with surprisingly polished pass-blocking skills, which is no small thing. Rookie running backs sometimes struggle to find playing time if the coaching staff is not confident that they can protect the quarterback, but that shouldn't be an issue for the Bucs' newcomer. In addition, he is considered versatile enough to catch passes as a third-down back or run between the tackles on first and second down. It will be interesting to see if McNichols is in the mix to start, and if the team gives him a large number of carries in the first three weeks to see if they want to use him extensively the rest of the season.* *

Fortunately, there are plenty of reps to go around during training camp, so the Buccaneers will have time to figure out how they want to approach the first three weeks of the season. Spencer says that each competitor needs to approach camp as if the starting job is up for grabs, period. Surely that also includes young backs Russell Hansbrough, Quayvon Hicks and Blake Sims.* *

"Everybody is going to be on point trying to be number one," he explained. "That's what we do. Everybody has to prepare like they're number one. That's how you make the team really and we will choose from that. What we try to do is give guys an opportunity. We coach them up and we try to make them make the decision about whose here and whose not here."* *

And who is getting that first handoff from Winston on September 10.

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