It’s fair to say that most Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans were quite happy with the performance of Doug Martin last season, stepping up as a rookie and having one of the best offensive seasons of any player in Buccaneers’ history. When Martin was drafted in the first round, he was seen as a great compliment to LeGarrette Blount and someone who could develop into a solid player for the Bucs, but no one could have expected he’d have one of the best games in NFL history at the position, and finish the season with almost 2000 total yards. But with the fall of Blount and the breakdown of Cadillac Williams, it’s understandable that Bucs’ fans might be weary about a promising young running back, as well. So what do the numbers say?
Well, let’s just say it’s not a sure thing.
Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus did a study looking back at running backs from the past few years and evaluating their performance after their rookie seasons, and attempting to see how predictive rookie season statistics are going forward. While the focus of the article isn’t on Martin, there is some bits of information about him provided in the article. But if we borrow the numbers from Clay and focus in on the Dougernaut, can we learn more about how similar rookies have progressed?
The rookie with the most similar rookie season in recent years was first round choice and instant success Chris Johnson of the Tenneessee Titans. Johnson had 262 carries for 1300 yards as a rookie, and of course showed similar big play ability to Martin. But unfortunately, Steve Slaton also had a very similar rookie season, posting a very similar yards per carry and toting the football almost 270 times for around 1300 yards. For Johnson, he would follow-up his rookie season with another impressive year of running, and proved to be well worth a first round choice. But for Slaton, fumbles and an injury took him off the field in 2009, eventually leading to the rise of Arian Foster, who USA Today wisely predicted would have an impact on the team all the way back when the injury was announced.
So what’s the difference between Johnson and Slaton? Johnson showed an aversion to fumbling, much like Martin. And Slaton had a checkered history health-wise heading into the NFL, something that Martin clearly has not shown to this point (thankfully). Martin is also built much differently than Slaton, and even Johnson, as Martin has a 20-30 pound advantage over the other running backs despite being a similar height. This means that Martin is truly a different style of runner than these pure speedsters.
So who is a better comparison? It would likely be Matt Forte, who shows the same versatility as Martin, and also shares a similar build and strength. Forte was used heavily as a rookie, like Martin, and while he didn’t run as well in his second season, he continued to contribute in the passing game and provided an excellent weapon for the Bears’ offense when healthy. Clay has given Forte an “A” for his career following his impressive rookie year, and I am certainly in agreement with that. Forte has shown some injury concerns over the years, but he’s not as injury prone as you may think. And he has been one of the best running backs in the passing game while still providing solid numbers as a rusher. Doug Martin has all the skills and the opportunity to have a similar, if not better career.
But I’ll allow Clay to provide the best news to Bucs’ fans, as he gave the following nugget of information in his article:
Doug Martin is in good company. Among seven other first or second round backs who handled 100 or more rookie-season carries and managed a YPC above 4.0, three have been in the elite conversation (Johnson, McCoy, Rice), three have been decent or better (McFadden, Stewart, Mathews), and only one has really failed (Wells). This study offers optimism about Martin’s future.
In other words, it’s the ability to gain consistent yardage that sets Martin apart from other heavily used rookie runners. And with any luck, he’ll be healthier than Beanie Wells, Darren McFadden, and Ryan Matthews, and can more closely emulate the careers of Johnson, McCoy, and Rice, who have been franchise changing runners for their teams.