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Player Spotlight: The Buccaneers Backfield

A detailed look at the state of the Buccaneers running back situation for 2015

The only thing worse than buying into an offense sure to feature a running back by committee is not knowing which running back to draft first.

We find ourselves in this predicament when we travel to the humid climate of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was just a few months ago that Charles Sims was anointed king of the backfield, leaving Doug Martin as a bargain in early best-ball formats. Now, after offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter expressed his desire to keep and feature Martin, roles have reversed.

According to ADP data from FantasyFootballCalculator.com, Martin has crawled into the sixth round (RB32), while Sims has tumbled to the 10th round (RB45). The fantasy football community is listening, Coach:

Our consensus ADP shows them to be a lot closer as RB35 and RB39, which is a strong indication that the crowd is unsure of how to treat this situation. Every draft will be different so the key is identifying which of these backs has the best chance to succeed in Koetter’s offense, and if said back is worth his price tag.

How do we make this distinction? We will always have more questions than answers in this sport, but there are three in particular that provide the clearest route to predictably.

ARE THESE RUNNING BACKS GOOD?

It sounds so ordinary when you say it aloud: is this player good at football? There’s a lot more to fantasy sports than talent, especially when it comes to running backs. But how good are these two in particular, and how good are they in relation to each other?  

To get a visual summary of their metrics let’s turn to our friends at PlayerProfiler.com, where we find Martin as a slower version of Ray Rice, and Sims as a less agile version of Matt Forte:

You have to like what you see here. All around decent speed and good comps. Martin especially shows promise with agility and strength. On the surface, either player could serve a full-time, three-down role.

Of course, there’s a lot more to talent than metrics. We yearn for cold, hard, physical proof of what a player can do when given his shield and his sword in full contact. Martin answered the call of duty in 2012 when he slashed and dashed his way to the seventh best rookie season ever by a running back, lending credit to the fact that NFL teams, when drafting a running back in the first round, have proven themselves trustworthy evaluators of talent.

Unfortunately, that 2012 season is looking more like a fluke than anything else. In the two years since, Martin has carried the ball 262 times for 950 yards—an YPC of 3.6. His targets and receptions have fallen from 70/49 in his rookie season to 44/25. You don’t even want to know about his red zone opportunities (15 carries, three targets and three touchdowns over two years).

Sims never had a chance. Just a few months after being drafted in the third round, he fractured his way into ankle surgery during the preseason. Months later he made his first NFL appearance and tuned up a vulnerable Falcons defense to the score of eight carries for 23 yards, and two catches for 17 more. Things wouldn’t improve much from there. As it turns out, rookie running backs coming off of surgery—especially those reliant on speed—might struggle a bit when catching pro waves.

Fantasy football godfather and NFL.com analyst, Chris Wesseling, notes that Sims is basically C.J. Spiller without speed or lateral agility:

 

Again, let’s provide context to the situation. Sims was a rookie running back coming off of ankle surgery. And it’s not like he, or Martin, got a lot of help from the offensive line. In 2014, Football Outsiders ranked them dead last in run blocking. But when Sims did find a little space, we saw things like this:

Hard times have fallen on the Bucs’ backfield. It’s hard to quantify where the problems exist. Maybe Martin is a one-hit-wonder that can’t hit the hole. Maybe Sims wasn’t healthy enough. Or maybe, perhaps, the team as a whole wasn’t functioning well enough take advantage of the talent in front of them.

In the end, we can confidently say both of these backs have the skill sets necessary to be featured for any offense in the league. It’s unfortunate that they happen to play for the same offense and, therefore, their short-term fantasy outlook is handicapped accordingly. Talent holds neither of them back.

At least, not their individual talent.

IS THE OFFENSE GOOD?

No.

In fact, from a rushing standpoint, it was quite literally the worst in the league last year.

  RSH RSHYD YD/RSH RSHTD TARG REC RECYD YD/REC RECTD FANT PT
Totals 280 1003 3.5821 3 93 66 561 8.5 1 180.4
Rank 32nd 32nd 30th 32nd 22nd 23rd 19th 8th 23rd 32nd

Let’s recap the above table: The Buccaneers were last in rushing attempts, last in rushing yards, last in rushing touchdowns and last in fantasy points by running backs. As a whole, they scored fewer total points than all but three other teams (Titans, Raiders, Jaguars), and managed a league rank of 30 with 292 yards-per-game.

That dumpster fire was fanned by their quarterbacks combining for 21 touchdowns and 20 interceptions while completing 57% of their passes. Imagine this team without the likes of Mike Evans or Vincent Jackson. Or, ever more dreamy, imagine any other team with Evans and Jackson.

Their defense didn’t help. They allowed the eighth most points and yards per game and ranked 30th in opponent average time of possession. We know there’s a correlation between pairing a running back with a good defense as it keeps the game script in our favor more often than not. The Buccaneers flunked game scripts class—and basically every other entry-level course of football—which is reflected as such in their two-win season.

WILL THE OFFENSE BE BETTER?

Yes.

It would take a grand lack of effort for them to be worse but I’m not one to speak in absolutes. Things are different now. They spent the first overall draft pick on a quarterback who some compare to Eli Manning. Evans is emerging as one of the best young wide receiver prospects. Jackson is aging but still an end zone threat that routinely has finished as a top-15 receiver over the last six seasons (minus last year when he finished 27th, and 2010 when he held out for 10 games). And then there’s the young tight end phenom, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who, at 6’6” 262 pounds, represents yet another weapon for Koetter.

Let’s talk about that Koetter offense. What says history of his play-calling and subsequent fantasy impact on our prized running backs? The table that follows, with data courtesy of ProFootballReference.com, shows us where his offense ranked in the categories that matter the most.

    Offense Offense Rush Off Rush Off Rush Off Rush Off Pass Off Pass Off Pass Off Pass Off Pass Off
Year Tm Yds Pts Att Yds TD Y/A Att Yds TD Int NY/A
2007 JAX 7 6 2 2 4 3 27 17 9 1 7
2008 JAX 20 24 18 18 10 17 11 15 24 12 23
2009 JAX 18 24 12 10 6 6 23 19 27 4 18
2010 JAX 15 18 3 3 9 5 31 27 11 25 17
2011 JAX 32 28 4 12 23 23 28 32 31 17 32
2012 ATL 8 7 26 29 13 29 8 6 5 12 4
2013 ATL 14 20 32 32 21 24 3 7 11 19 17
2014 ATL 8 12 27 24 17 21 3 5 11 16 7

In three years with Atlanta his team finished in the bottom of the league in rushing attempts and yards. Conversely, his passing attempts were at the top. This is in direct contrast to how his offense operated while in Jacksonville. There, we see a heavy focus on running the ball.

You might almost come to the conclusion that Koetter designs his offense around talent. In Atlanta he had Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, so it’s natural that his scheme became pass-heavy. In Jacksonville he had Maurice Jones-Drew and little trust in the passing game. Hence, three seasons ranking in the top five in rushing attempts and never worse than 10th in rushing touchdowns.

In Tampa Bay he’ll have a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback and three towering receivers. Time will tell if the Jameis Winston can make the transition from college to pro and justify the Buccaneers’ investment. At the very least he shows more promise than Josh McCown, Mike Glennon, Josh Freeman, and Dan Orlovsky. Those QBs, over the last three years, have combined for the seventh most interceptions and ranked 28th in completions. Surely Winston can outperform that threshold and at least provide enough production to turn the Bucs into a mediocre unit.

Generally, a good passing offense begets good production from running backs.  We’re not guaranteed anything with Winston and the 2015 version of the Bucs. Nonetheless, we can be optimistic that Koetter, with a rookie under center, will enforce a balance between his passing attack and running attack.

But, for any part of his offense to function, he’ll need good blocking. The offensive line struggled in 2014 and may be the single biggest factor in explaining how the Buccaneers managed only two wins despite their playmakers. Thankfully, they invested two second round picks to stoke the competition and reformat the unit.

The bad news is that it takes a few games, sometimes an entire season, for an offensive line to gel. With a pair of rookies on board, Martin and Sims might not see much daylight. But it’s a situation that almost has to improve. Our Matt Bitonti ranks them 17th overall. He writes:

“Overall this line has some interesting young talent but they will be relying on more rookies than most teams and could have an adjustment process early in the season. As the line settles, this unit could rise in the rankings.”

Mediocrity with this group, like this entire offense, would be an improvement.

POSITIVES

  • A New Offense: We’ve not made mention of the fact that the Bucs lost their offensive coordinator last year due to a heart condition. We wish Jeff Tedford the best, but that’s a tough way for a football team to begin a season. This year they have a veteran designing and calling plays.
  • A New QB: Seriously, how many quarterbacks does it take to compete in the NFC South? I’m thinking just one.
  • A New Line: When you’re the worst at running blocking, there’s only one place to go.

Negatives

  • Defense: We don’t have much to bank on when it comes to grinding clock, which is fertile grounds for running backs.
  • Offensive Line: How do you spin a positive into a negative? This group should be better as a whole but it will take an unknown amount of games before we see a difference.
  • Investment: Regardless of where metrics and age might be concerned, you almost have to draft both running backs. That wouldn’t be a problem if their roles were more defined, i.e., a primary back and a goal line back, but the situation in Tampa is far from smash and dash.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Even if we’ve answered three important questions, the bigger picture remains unclear. Yes, the offense will be improved—they might even be mediocre—but there is no concrete data on which to build a foundation for either back. Martin has been nothing short of awful since his rookie year, and Sims barely had a rookie year. The only thing we can hope for is some clarity come preseason followed by opportunity.

As far as economics are concerned, the recommended approach is to draft the cheapest back and hope for the best. In best-ball, I’m not too shy to draft both of them and gamble on the Bucs’ offense as a whole. In a perfect world, Martin gets traded and Sims takes the lead role. In a worst case scenario, Bobby Rainey takes advantage of injuries and earns extra playing time as a result.

All things being equal, drafting Sims around the 10th round is a fine alternative to the likes of David Cobb, Danny Woodhead and DeAngelo Williams. Drafting Martin around the eighth round is a little harder to justify when you mix in Giovani Bernard, Shane Vereen or Tevin Coleman, not to mention the equity offered by receivers in that same price range.

At the very least, we can find comfort in that neither player requires too much draft stock. At the very most, either could produce RB1 numbers should this offense apprehend its potential.

Both scenarios beg us to go with the cheaper option come August.

PROJECTIONS

Charles Sims Proj G RSH YD TD REC YD TD
PROJ-Dodds 15 140 553 3 27 227 1
PROJ-Henry 16 120 440 2 40 360 2
PROJ-Wood 16 200 800 5 28 250 1
PROJ-Tremblay 16 111 402 3 36 303 1
Doug Martin Proj G RSH YD TD REC YD TD
PROJ-Dodds 15 170 629 5 18 130 0
PROJ-Henry 16 200 765 5 21 160 0
PROJ-Wood 16 150 600 4 21 150 0
PROJ-Tremblay 16 143 530 3 16 104 0

OTHER VIEW POINTS

Beat writer, Roy Cummings, claims Martin had his best offseason in three years after losing out on a fifth-year option.

Joe Kania of Buccaneers.com notes that the running back spot is up for grabs, which includes pass-catching specialist Rainey. I guess we should just draft all three of them.