Fantasy owners love handcuffs. We know that near the final rounds of fantasy drafts there are several backup running backs that go off the board. Some fantasy owners are looking for insurance if they selected an elite back in the top two rounds. Some fantasy owners are looking to 'rock block' an opponent by stealing away a backup for a key player on another team. And some fantasy owners are just looking for a lottery ticket to scratch.
There are some backup situations which are clear cut in 2013. If you have Vikings' RB Adrian Peterson then everyone knows you need backup Toby Gerhart. If you have Texans' RB Arian Foster then grab Ben Tate as his handcuff. If you have Eagles' RB LeSean McCoy then add Bryce Brown later in your draft. If you have Ravens' RB Ray Rice then adding Bernard Pierce is a wise move.
However, there are some situations which aren't so clear. In this series "Who's The Handcuff?" I'll examine these situations and determine which one (if any) of these backup RBs should be handcuffed to the starter. First up: Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin.
As head coach Greg Schiano told me last year at the Combine it was "back to basics" for the Buccaneers in 2012.The team wanted to get back to running the football effectively and that's exactly what they did with 2012 first-round pick Doug Martin. I loved Martin coming out of college and was anxious to see him get a huge workload at the pro level. Martin was arguably the best all-purpose back in his draft class but some questioned his level of competition at Boise State. Martin proved the doubters wrong, proved his fantasy owners right, and had an incredible rookie season. Last year Martin rushed for 1,454 yards, scored 11 rushing touchdowns, caught 49 passes for 472 yards, and scored 1 receiving touchdown. He finished the year as the third best running back in fantasy football and fantasy owners are expecting a repeat performance in 2013. Martin's current ADP is RB3 and he's coming off the board at 1.03 in 12 team PPR leagues. He didn't miss a game last year and is truly the three down workhorse that Schiano wanted to feature in his offense. Martin was also a workhorse in college and is not seen as a player with durability concern.
In 2012 the Buccaneers not only drafted Martin but they also spent a seventh-round pick on RB Michael Smith from Utah State. The speedster was known for his big play ability as evidenced by his final game in college. During the Idaho Potato Bowl Smith rushed for 157 yards on only 12 carries and had two touchdowns. He was productive in college even though he was a backup behind Robert Turbin (Seahawks, 2012 fourth-round pick). Smith finished his senior season with 870 yards rushing, nine rushing touchdowns, 16 receptions for 181 receiving yards, and two receiving touchdowns. He got stronger as the game went on and had more yards rushing (512) and averaged more yards per carry (7.7) in the second-half than he did in the first-half of games (358, 6.9).
Smith is listed at 5'8" 207 pounds and most feel he's merely a scat back or change of pace back, often drawing comparisons to Darren Sproles (Saints). However, Smith has a powerful upper body and can surprise defenders by running through arm tackles. During his senior season at Utah State Smith averaged 4.62 yards per carry on third-down with one-three yards to go. He's not your classic banger between the tackles but Smith is determined enough to lower his head and knife through the line.
He did have some durability concerns as he missed time in 2010 with a foot injury, and parts of 2011 with a groin injury. These durability concerns caused him to fall in the 2012 NFL draft, but it didn't stop NFL.com from calling Smith one of the late-round gems in the draft.
I had a chance to watch Smith during the week of practice for the Players All Star Classic in Little Rock, AR in January of 2012. His 4.33 speed immediately stood out but I also noted Smith was effective at making cuts at speed. Smith has good foot frequency and thus can change direction quickly without having to throttle down. During that week he was on the same practice field as Daryl Richardson (Rams) and looked better. Fantasy owners are excited about the prospects of Richardson in 2013 but many are ignoring the upside of Smith. During his rookie season Smith was used exclusively as a return man and failed to register a carry in 2012.
In the 2013 NFL draft the Buccaneers selected James in the sixth-round out of the University of Miami. He was praised in college for his all-purpose skill set. James provided the team with a quality backup but rarely got to show off with a sizable role. As a junior James was a reserve player behind Lamar Miller (Dolphins, 2012 second-round pick). As a senior he started 12 games but was second in rushing behind freshmen RB Duke Johnson. James rushed for 621 yards, six rushing touchdowns, plus he caught 30 passes for 344 yards and three receiving touchdowns in 2012. He's a versatile player who can also line up at Fullback and play special teams if need be.
James is bigger than Smith, measuring in at 5'10" 223 pounds and drawing comparisons to BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Bengals). Even though he has a size advantage James only averaged 3.33 yards per carry on third down with one-three yards to go in 2012. James can make plays as a receiver out of the backfield and was featured more when the Hurricanes were facing superior competition. Against ranked opponents James averaged 3.7 receptions per game, but against unranked teams James only averaged 2.1 receptions per game.
He has an average skill set and his vision as a runner is suspect. Too often in college James would press the line instead of seeing a cutback lane opening up. He'll take what is there and push for extra yardage but his initial burst isn't quick and at the pro level he could find more closed holes than open ones.
I watched James during the week of practice for the Senior Bowl in Mobile, AL earlier this year. James was a late addition and an injury replacement for Andre Ellington (Clemson, 2013 Arizona Cardinals sixth-round pick). He did not wow me during that brief time and one AFC scout told me he thought James was a 'jack of all trades and a master of none.' James gets by on being an effort player with a tireless work ethic but he may lack the juice to be much more than a reserve player at the pro level. A report from the Tampa Bay Times said in early May that some in the organization preferred James over Smith, but that we needed to see the competition in minicamp before determing a true backup.
I'm avoiding this situation for the most part if Martin is on my team. If you really want a handcuff then Michael Smith is the back to own if you want a lottery ticket pick and ONLY if you have a deep bench. Smith has impressed so much this offseason that he's getting work with the first-team during OTAs and minicamp. I reached out to Buccaneers insider Scott Reynolds from Pewter Report Magazine and he told me Smith has been turning heads in practice. According to Reynolds Smith has been getting first team work; with the nickel offense and on the third-and-long offense. Reynolds also said James is barely getting any reps at all with the team. In fact, 5'5" 165 pound Matt Brown (UDFA, Temple) has been getting more offseason reps than James at OTAs and minicamp. So if James was preferred by 'some in the organization' back in early May that doesn't seem to be the case at this time. Smith has the edge in offseason reps, and may enter training camp as the primary backup.
Even though Smith could be the top backup fantasy owners need to know this most likely will be a RBBC if Martin goes down with an injury. Not only could Smith and James split touches, but the team would certainly use Fullback Brian Leonard more if Martin was hurt. Stephen Holder, from the Tampa Bay Times, recently tweeted that Smith and James were splitting reps with the second team. Holder also says Leonard is the presumed third-down back. Leonard was added this offseason in free agency and is a versatile player who knows coach Schiano well from their days together at Rutgers.
Bottom line is this: Smith is an exciting big play back worth a last round pick if you've got the roster space in a deep league. If Martin were to miss time expect a RBBC featuring three backs (Smith, James, Leonard). Fantasy owners should not expect any backup RB currently on the Bucs roster to perform like Martin in case of emergency.