How will the Buccaneers' backfield play out between Doug Martin and LeGarrette Blount?
This question has become a lot tougher to answer during the past month.
Back when training camps got underway and I was told I'd be writing up this battle, I was sure that I knew how the Tampa Bay running back situation would play out: All LeGarrette Blount had to do in order to be named the No. 1 back was not put the ball on the ground as he did five times in the second half of the 2011 season.
While Doug Martin was very likely to impress in games that didn't count, the logical plan would be for the rookie to be slowly weaved into the Bucs' offense as a change-of-pace back on third downs. Since Blount has only 20 catches in his two professional seasons and Martin comes from Boise State fully armed with skills in both pass catching and pass protection, the roles seemed to write themselves.
Even though there's a new coaching staff in town, led by Greg Schiano, I expected this backfield to look a lot like it did back in 2010, when Blount and Cadillac Williams worked in tandem. That season, Blount rushed 201 times for 1,007 yards, while Williams had 125 carries for 437 yards to go along with 46 catches for another 355 yards. That was close to a 2-to-1 split in carries with the yardage totals coming relatively close to the team having a pair of 1,000-yard producers from scrimmage.
Unfortunately for Blount, he got banged up in camp. Due to an injured thigh, he ended up on the short end of the 2-to-1 split in the game against New England. Martin excelled, rushing for 53 yards and a score while catching three passes, and suddenly he was being hailed as the next Ray Rice. Schiano, who coached Rice at Rutgers, made that comparison himself and elevated the rookie to the No. 1 spot on the team's depth chart. Call me crazy, but Blount didn't get outplayed, he didn't play. So, I don't believe Martin has beaten him out for the job, because the competition hasn't truly come to an end.
For one thing, Schiano told the Tampa Bay Times that this competition was not yet over. Blount still has every opportunity to go out there against Carolina in Week 1 and muddy the running back waters all over again. After all, there's no reason to think Martin will get 25 carries, so Blount will get a chance to impress against a Panthers defense that was the second most generous in all of football to opposing running backs last season with an average of 23.1 fantasy points allowed to that position per game.
Fantasy drafts held in the interim certainly took note of the change in the depth chart, though. Martin now has an ADP of 67.5 in ESPN live drafts, a 15.1 spot increase over the past seven days. Blount's value has dropped 3.4 spots since last week, to an ADP of 128.5. While I don't discount the buzz surrounding Martin, I do think that drafters are selling Blount short.
This offense will likely end up being somewhere in the neighborhood of a 60/40 time-share. While Martin is the logical choice to be given the bigger piece of the pie and is certainly worthy of a sixth-round selection in ESPN standard leagues, Blount should not be left on the scrap heap to rust alongside the rest of the droids that we are not looking for.
I'd happily grab Blount in the ninth or 10th round, but probably don't even have to do so in order to get him. He's going to be languishing on the board two or three rounds later than that in most leagues.
Given the very legitimate possibility that he returns to the 200-carry mark, at worst I'd expect him to finish with 800 yards on the season with 5-7 touchdowns -- which is exactly what he did last year when all eyes were on him. Throw in Martin for a one-two punch and you could well have a pair of 1,000-yard contributors in Tampa Bay yet again if Blount has a few pinball machine-type breakaways.
Sure, Martin is the sexier pick, and of the two backs, he's the more likely to finish in the top 20 at running back at season's end. But at what cost? He's still just a rookie and I'm just not sure why we're drafting him as if he's going to get 80-90 percent of the touches. For me, the bigger value is clearly Blount, who could still end up getting the bulk of carries on first and second down when all is said and done, regardless of whose name sits on top of a list that can change on the coach's merest whim.
And if I'm wrong? Well, what's a failed 11th-round draft pick really going to cost you?