COMMENTARY | Following a sensational rookie campaign, in which he amassed nearly 2,000 total yards, it is entirely fair to ask if Doug Martin of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can emerge as the best running back in the NFL.
Longtime Bucs' fans must pinch themselves for pondering such a question.
After all, the 37 year-old franchise so lacks a lavish history of runners that Martin is already its 12th leading rusher after a single season. Named to the Pro Bowl, the 24 year-old shattered expectations of the 31st overall selection of the 2012 draft, and supporters rightfully hope he becomes the club's greatest back.
However, the results from Martin's initial season should raise the bar even higher. In considering his many tools and potential for further development, I believe this talented player can rise to the top of football's elite rushers.
Breakout 2012 Season
The numbers are impressive. Playing in all 16 games of the 2012 campaign, Martin racked up 1,454 yards on 319 attempts for a 4.6 yards per carry average. His yardage was fifth highest in the NFL and a copious 11 rushing touchdowns also tied for fifth place.
The Boise State product additionally distinguished himself in the passing game, where he reeled in 472 yards on 49 receptions. Appropriately, this figure was again sufficient for fifth most receiving yards by a running back.
The stats suggest Doug Martin is already among the league's top five runners.
To rise to number one, however, the California native must first distinguish himself from another talented rookie. While last year's third overall pick, Trent Richardson, struggled with injuries, Martin's performance was actually exceeded by another first year rusher, Alfred Morris. Though less of a receiving threat, the Washington Redskins rookie averaged 10 yards per game more than Martin.
Though comparisons with Morris make sense, Bucs' fans dream loftier than surpassing the success of the surprising sixth rounder from Florida Atlantic. Instead, I wonder if Doug Martin will reach the elite level of Adrian Peterson, recently awarded the #1 spot on NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2013."
NFL's Best Running Back
Overcoming knee surgery, the Minnesota Vikings rusher nearly broke the single-season rushing record in 2012 with 2,097 yards on the ground and 12 touchdowns. Even more notable, Peterson racked up a gaudy six yards every time he carried the ball.
While those numbers are jaw-dropping, Martin is not as far removed as pessimists might think.
All backs are capable of exceptional days that inflate averages and Peterson earns more than anyone. But Doug Martin also enjoyed such a performance, when rushing for 251 yards and 4 touchdowns in a contest against the Oakland Raiders. Playing in his hometown, the Bucs' back nearly matched Peterson's record of 296 rushing yards in a 2007 game.
To measure consistency, however, my preference is to measure the capability of attaining 80+ yards on 20 or fewer carries. While such stats do not reflect extraordinary effort, they often indicate the runner helped control the field and afforded his quarterback a chance to win. Martin posted seven such performances last year and missed another by four yards.
In contrast, Peterson produced games of 20 carries and 80+ yards in 14 of 16 contests. That is stunning and does distant Martin from his greatness. However, in looking at Peterson's rookie season, he only accomplished the feat six times. Martin exceeded that and also bested Peterson's first year total of 1,341 yards on the ground.
It was during the 2012 NFL MVP's second campaign that his numbers exploded. Not only did Peterson's rushing yardage increase to 1,760, but he reached the 20/80 mark during 13 of 16 games. That consistency enabled him to emerge quickly as the league's best runner. Bucs' fans hope Martin makes the same jump in 2013.
The Cadillac Williams Fears
While blossoming into another Peterson represents the high side of Martin's potential, replicating the career of Cadillac Williams reflects a worst case scenario. Williams was Tampa Bay's first round pick in 2005 and expected to lead the attack for years. He began optimistically, with three consecutive games of 100+ yards, and 1,178 yards as a rookie.
But Cadillac's success was deceptive. While achieving the 20/80 mark during 8 of 16 games in 2005, Williams only netted 4.1 yards per carry. Martin bettered that by 0.5 yards, indicating he is a more efficient runner. Furthermore, Williams suffered through five contests in 2005 where he failed to reach 30 yards. Such a deficiency did not occur in 2012, as the Boise State rookie was held under 30 yards just one time.
Martin additionally rushed between 50-79 yards during seven games of 2012. These are the very performances that must be elevated to reach Peterson's level, since they indicate coach Schiano will not abandon the running game. Such persistence again distinguishes Martin from his predecessor, who only netted 798 yards and a miserable 3.5 yard average during his second season, before injuries marred the remainder of Williams' career.
Outlook for 2013
I expect Doug Martin to back up his robust rookie campaign and move closer to Peterson's lofty perch. The Bucs' new weapon offers a rare combination of power and speed, which prevents limiting him to one description or the other.
Guess who else shares that profile?
Yes, Adrian Peterson is described by the same terms, just as both runners share the under-appreciated ability to assist the passing game from the backfield. Though it is an uphill task to argue that the "Muscle Hamster" can become the NFL's best rusher, there is giant cause for optimism in Martin's corner.
Actually, there are two.
Nearly all of Martin's success in 2012 occurred with the team's starting guards sidelined to season-ending injuries. If the Bucs can return a healthy Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks to the offensive line, the unit will surely provide greatly improved rushing lanes for Martin.
Racking up nearly 1,500 yards without the bruising duo, imagine what the second-year player can do with his All-Pro guards?
Finally, last year witnessed Tampa Bay implement vertical passing abilities behind new wideout, Vincent Jackson, who joined Martin at the Pro Bowl. Upon studying film, this newly demonstrated asset may force opposing secondaries to play a little deeper in 2013, which would bring smiles to the backfield.
Dream big, Bucs' fans. Similar to Minnesota before the arrival of Adrian Peterson, Tampa Bay lacks a praise-worthy history of running backs. Doug Martin is ready to change that forever.
More by Jeff Briscoe from Yahoo! Contributor Network:
Jeff Briscoe is a writer who covers sports for the Yahoo! Contributor Network . A loyal Tampa Bay Bucs fan, he co-hosts the Florida-based radio show, The Sports Train.
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