Training Camp Preview: In the Backfield, The Buccaneers Must Find Help for the Muscle Hamster


July 28, 2012; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin (22) runs with the ball during training camp at One Buc Place. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the next edition of our Training Camp Previews, where we go position by position to give you a look at how we feel each position will look heading into the regular season. We continue the series with a look at the Buccaneers’ running backs.

The plan is to take a look at each player and see what they’ve done in the past, and what sort of role we can expect from them in 2013. We’ll use our traditional “Good, Bad, Likely” format to give all possible outcomes for each position, and today we take a look at running back.

Doug Martin, 1 Year Experience, Last Season: Started for Tampa Bay

I think everyone in the NFL knows what Martin did last year for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The short, strong runner from Boise State made a name for himself with big plays and hard running, and he did all of this behind a makeshift offensive line. There has been chatter about Martin being inconsistent, as he did a lot of his work during one week in Oakland. But if his game against Oakland is completely removed from the equation, he would still be in the top 15 in touchdowns and barely outside of the top 10 in yards with one fewer game played. He had the third most runs of 20+ yards, behind only the great Adrian Peterson and the explosive C.J. Spiller.

Martin is poised for a huge year in 2013, so the good, bad, and likely for him is simple.

Good, Bad, Likely: Martin enters the season as the starter, ready to put up yet another incredible season. As far as training camp previews are concerned, Martin just needs to stay healthy and enter the year as the number one option at the position.

April 14, 2012; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes running back Mike James (5) runs the ball as defensive back Ray-Ray Armstrong (26) tries to make the stop during the spring scrimmage game for the University of Miami at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Mike James, Rookie, Last Season: Started for the University of Miami

I list James second, because I believe that he can do all of the things that Doug Martin can do, just not quite as well. James is hard-working and versatile, and stands to gain the most this offseason by proving that he can do everything at the NFL level. James was not an overwhelmingly great runner, and he wasn’t the best pass receiver as a back either. But he did his job and did so with a level of work ethic and maturity that drew the eye of the Bucs’ organization.

I don’t think James is the second most talented runner on the team, but much like Earnest Graham in the past, I believe that James will earn a role with this team in training camp and the preseason and provide valuable backup to Doug Martin.

The Good: James is the de facto number two running back, entering the season as the primary backup to Doug Martin and earning a handful of carries week one.

The Bad: James is likely to make the roster, but there is the most outside of chances that he fails to be a member of the 53 Buccaneers who start the season on the team. So the bad scenario is getting cut, or being the last man on the roster and not being active for games.

The Likely: I am probably too optimistic on James, and he’ll likely be on the fringe of being active every week. With so many other backs to compete with who have more experience, James has a lot to prove.

Michael Smith, 1 Year Experience, Last Season: Stood on the sidelines in Tampa Bay

Michael Smith is the more likely player to see the primary role behind Doug Martin, and it’s because of his athletic ability most closely resembling that of the Dougernaut. Smith is a quick guy who can also take on defenders when carrying the ball, but he’s never been a workhorse, even in college. That means he’s better suited for a backup role in Tampa, and he could be a solid option to run the same running plays Martin does, and occasionally register the same kind of results.

Smith is also a strong option to return kickoffs, which will be taken into consideration when the roster is put together. But he made the roster last year thanks to his special teams ability, and still failed to see the field due to an apparent lack of ability on offense. This offseason must display a marked improvement over last year, as he has the tools to be a useful player on a team with a dominant number one option like Doug Martin.

The Good: Smith is capable of breaking camp as the clear-cut backup, and holding that role week one and getting carries against the Jets.

The Bad: Unlike James, I think there’s a chance Smith could be cut. There are other players who can do the things he does, and he’s not been heavily invested in.

The Likely: Smith has the raw talent to do the things the Buccaneers want him to do. I feel like he starts to tap into that this year, and provides a solid resume this summer to earn a job with some carries in the fall and winter.

September 30, 2012; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Cincinnati Bengals running back Brian Leonard (40) carries the ball during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

Brian Leonard, 6 Years Experience, Last Season: Backup in Cincinatti

The Rutgers connection is much stronger in New England than it is in Tampa Bay, but Greg Schiano couldn’t resist bringing in this hard-nosed runner to compete in the backfield for his team. Leonard is a different kind of back; he actually more closely resembles Mike Alstott than he does any tailback the Buccaneers have seen recently. He’s not quite the same blocker that the A-Train was, and he’s certainly much easier to tackle, but he’s an ox who plays running back, and can be versatile in the run and pass game and be a nightmare for smaller DB’s to bring down. He catches the ball well out of the backfield, and also keeps his hands on the football extremely well. Coming out of college, he was a very unique prospect who was seen as a hybrid back who might stand out as a tailback in the NFL.

But Leonard has never truly caught on anywhere, and now he comes to Tampa, where he can fill a need as a bigger, stronger back who can also contribute to the offense as a catcher or runner. Erik Lorig is not going to carry the football, and he’s not a fantastic receiver either, so Leonard provides an upgrade there. So how does the offseason unfold for Leonard?

The Good: Leonard proves to be so valuable that the team doesn’t keep a smaller, quicker back, and opts to have him around to play a mix of fullback and tailback. He gets involved in the passing game, and spells Doug Martin in the running game from time to time as well.

The Bad: Leonard is not going to block as well as Erik Lorig, and if he fails to stand out as a weapon for the offense, he may just fail to make the roster altogether.

The Likely: This one is really tough to call, but I would say the most likely outcome is that Leonard makes the team over either Mike James or Michael Smith and provides a veteran backup for Doug Martin.

October 27, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Temple Owls running back Matt Brown (2) returns a kick-off against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the first quarter at Heinz Field. The Pittsburgh Panthers won 47-17. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Brown, Rookie, Last Season: Started on special teams for Temple

Matt Brown is a truly dynamic playmaker, but he doesn’t come in an NFL-sized package. The 5 feet, 5 inches tall running back from Temple was a phenom returning kicks and punts for the Owls, earning plenty of accolades along the way. But he’s not going to make it as a running back in the NFL, at least not a running back who plays with any sort of regularity. But he could prove to be useful on special teams, and on specially designed plays on offense.

The question becomes, is that worth a roster spot? That’s what training camp will decide.

The Good: Brown is too good as a return man and occasional running back option that he makes the roster and returns the first kick of week one.

The Bad: Brown is let go before the season begins.

The Likely: I don’t think Brown offers enough to be worth of a roster spot. I think the most likely outcome is for him to fail to make the roster, and possibly catch on the practice squad if he shows any flashes of brilliance.

Jeff Demps, 1 Year Experience, Last Season: On Injured Reserve in New England

Demps won’t be around for camp, from all indications, and therefore this preview isn’t relevant for him. His status as a member of the roster will likely depend on the performance of the other players on this preview, but he’ll have no chance to prove himself to the team.

Erik Lorig, 3 Years Experience, Last Season: Started for Tampa Bay

Lorig is going to be the starting fullback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013. He’s not the best fullback in the league, but he’s far from the worst, and he’s learning the job on the NFL level while still delivering key blocks for the Bucs’ running game.

The Good, Bad, and Likely: Lorig is the starting fullback.