With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Right up to the draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Boise State running back Doug Martin. While most of the talk about Boise State centers around quarterback Kellen Moore, the Broncos' excellent defense, and various BCS snubs or non-snubs (depending on which side of THAT debate you're on), Martin was the team's best player in each of the last two seasons. He is a tremendously versatile player -- a total yardage monster in a limited passing offense that has opposing defenses cheating up most of the time. Having never played football before when he enrolled at Saint Mary's High in Stockton, California, Martin developed quickly enough to run for 1,950 yards and 18 touchdowns in his junior year.
After spending time on defense and special teams at Boise through the 2009 season, Martin started lighting it up in 2010, when he started all 13 games as the team's lead back and gained 1,260 yards and scored 12 touchdowns on 201 carries. With defenses focusing even more on him in 2011, Martin exceeded all previous totals, gaining 1,299 yards and scoring 16 touchdowns on 263 carries. Martin saved his best for last, gaining 301 all-purpose yards in the Las Vegas Bowl, including a 100-yard kick return. That was the last we'd see of Martin in a Boise State uniform, and after great performances at the Senior Bowl and scouting combine, Martin may have finally managed to transcend his underrated status.
Pros: The first thing that pops off of any Martin tape you watch is that he is always looking to aggressively break contact. The good side of that is that he's had just 112 negative rushing yards in his entire collegiate career; when he gets going forward, that's pretty much where he'll stay. The bad side is that he will put the ball on the ground at times. Very decisive runner to the hole; even when he's making quick cuts to adjust to blocking, Martin doesn't slow down and he's always looking to blast the gap. Outstanding draw and delay runner out of any formation -- under center, shotgun, or Pistol. On sweeps and other outside runs, he keeps his eyes inside as well -- again, always effectively looking for the open gap no matter where he's directed. Hitting him at the line is a must, because Martin is strong enough to win most battles with linebackers at the second level.
As an outside runner and pass-catcher (his receiving ability is an important aspect of his game), Martin's best move is a quick juke to get the defender off-balance; he can then turn on the jets and blow by with surprising speed. If he's got a straight shot through the A-gaps and he doesn't have to move laterally before running, you'll see that speed again -- at 5-foot-9 and 223 pounds, Martin is thought to be more of a bowling-ball power runner, but he's quick enough to be an effective return man. The power shows up on short-yardage plays, when there are at least eight in the box and everyone knows Martin's getting the ball -- he's too fast for the linebackers looking to cut his sideline and too strong for cornerback takedowns. Consistent receiver on screens, swing passes, and straight upfield routes, but he could potentially do more -- in four-receiver sets, I could see him as a slot receiver or even split wide to alter coverages.
Cons: While Martin is very strong at the point of attack, he's not a pile-pusher in the Maurice Jones-Drew mold. If he doesn't have a gap, he will avoid getting stuffed for negative yards, but stronger run defenses might hold him to a few 20-yard games at the next level.
Occasionally runs too upright when he should get smaller in tight spaces. Pass-blocking is decent at times, but more an ancillary concern -- he'll have to improve it if he wants to become that rare every-down back that the rest of his skill set seems to project.
Conclusion: When analyzing Doug Martin, there's a lot to like, and very few red flags. He's a hyper-motivated gym rat with a chip on his shoulder from his own (most likely legitimate) perception that Boise State got blocked out of championship chances they should have been afforded. He's most likely the most versatile back in this draft class, and the few things he doesn't yet do well (blocking, occasional fumbling, adjusting his center of gravity in key situations) seem like pretty easy fixes.
Talking with Martin at the 2012 scouting combine put me in mind of another underrated college running back who gave an early indicator of the passion with which he would excel in the NFL. I remember Rutgers' Ray Rice telling the media with no lack of certainty that those passing him by because of the "too small-too slow" conclusion would live to regret it. Rice has since become the most well-rounded NFL back not named Adrian Peterson, and I think Doug Martin could eventually meet that same standard.
Pro Comparison: Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens
More Shutdown 50:
#40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers | #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina | #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska | #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska | #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia | #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami | #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State | #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU|#50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy