Before the 2012 NFL Draft, the last time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had taken a running back in the first round was 2005, when they jumped on Cadillac Williams with the fifth overall selection. Though Williams would end up seeing a very promising career somewhat diminished by injuries, he did burst on the scene in a most memorable way. Williams surpassed 100 rushing yards in his first three NFL games and eventually had to send his cleats to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, commemorating his fast start.
Tampa Bay used the second of two first-round picks in last April's draft on Boise State's Doug Martin. Six games into his NFL career, Martin has yet to record that signature running back accomplishment, the 100-yard rushing game, and yet his start looks at least as promising as Williams' did seven years ago.
So far, Martin has started all six Buccaneer contests and contributed 408 rushing yards plus 13 receptions for another 145 yards. That's a total of 553 combined yards that have him on pace for 1,474 by season's end, and that would be the fifth-best single-season total in franchise history. No Buccaneer has surpassed 1,400 combined rushing and receiving yards since Warrick Dunn in 2000. Martin currently ranks second in rushing yards among NFL rookie running backs, and he's second among all NFL newcomers in combined rushing and receiving yards.
Such projections come with the usual caveat that the season is not even half over, so it's dangerous to assume the same level of production for 10 more games. However, it's possible that 1,474-yard pace is underselling Martin's potential in 2012, because he appears to be hitting his stride. In the last two games, during which the Bucs' offense has put up an incredible 976 yards of offense, Martin has averaged 126.5 combined yards per outing and has scored one of his two touchdowns. He's also averaged 5.6 yards per carry and put up his three longest plays from scrimmage so far, a 42-yard reception and runs of 36 and 23. If there was one criticism of Martin's early-season performance, it was that the Bucs' rushing attack was failing to produce any long-gainers.
That part of Tampa Bay's attack is emerging now, and Martin says that's a credit to everyone involved, not just him.
"The offense is clicking well," he said Monday, after the Bucs rang up 513 net yards against the Saints. "That all comes with guys doing their jobs, and consistently doing their jobs. When everybody does that, the offense is very successful."
As should be expected with any rookie who steps immediately into the starting lineup, Martin says his comfort level in the offense is steadily rising, and that surely is helping his production do the same thing.
"I'm just trusting the O-Line, doing my job, what I have to do," he said. "[I'm] following my basics as I'm hitting the hole, staying on my track, holding the track and just doing my job, making people miss."
Indeed, Martin is a gifted open-field runner, which is why the Buccaneers knew the big plays would come. The offense knows that if it can spring the rookie back into the open field and put him in one-on-one situations with a linebacker or defensive back, he can take care of the rest. That's what happened on Sunday when he darted over left guard, found a seam and thoroughly faked out one defender before hitting the open field on his way to the end zone.
"It all has to do with those big guys up front, as well as [Erik] Lorig, our fullback," said Martin. "He had a good block, and Carl Nicks had a good block on the front side. I only had to make one guy miss and I was off to the races."
Though the Bucs' offense appears to be on a roll, it faces a tough challenge this week with only a few days to prepare for the Minnesota Vikings and their eighth-ranked defense. The first step was moving on quickly from Sunday's loss – Martin says the team can't afford to let that linger or it will have an effect on Thursday night in Minneapolis. The next step is figuring out how to translate all those offensive yards into more wins, as a string of narrow losses has the Bucs at 2-4.
"We just have to keep practicing hard, getting in the playbook, the film study, and just keep grinding," said Martin. "Eventually we'll get over that hump."