TAMPA, Fla. – There isn't much debate about the NFL's top running back; it's Adrian Peterson.
There is room for debate, however, about the NFL's next top running back. Six rushers (including Peterson) averaged more than 80 yards per game last year. Two were rookies. Both got stronger as the year went on, averaging more than 100 yards rushing per game in November and December.
But only one was also a dangerous pass-catching threat.
That would be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Doug Martin.
The Muscle Hamster seems to be overshadowed in every situation he's in. Martin ran for more than 1,400 yards in 2012, but the Minnesota Vikings' Peterson ran for nearly 2,100. Martin was one of the most explosive rookies in football in 2012, but the Washington Redskins' Alfred Morris played alongside Robert Griffin III and made the playoffs. Martin's already 12th in Bucs franchise history in rushing yards – after one season – but he's lost most of the summer spotlight to new teammate Darrelle Revis.
And although Revis will continue to be the Bucs' biggest story, Martin is likely to be the Bucs' biggest star. And the 24-year-old Pro Bowler could be one of the league's biggest stars as soon as this fall.
"Doug is special," Bucs running backs coach Earnest Byner said Wednesday. "He has the potential to be one of the top backs in the league. And if you look at history, he has a chance to be one of the special ones."
Martin is likely to be better this season, for a variety of reasons. His rookie year came mostly without the help of two of the best guards in football: Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph. Nicks missed nine games because of a left toe injury and Joseph missed the entire campaign following a preseason knee injury. Those two are presumably healthy now, and the Bucs just acquired former Cleveland Browns star Peyton Hillis, who should help not only with workload but also with blocking.
Then there's the improvement Martin has made on his own over the offseason. "He's become a better runner," Byner said. Martin is more aware of the Bucs' zone scheme, so he'll know where linemen will be earlier in his attempts. Byner also says Martin's positioning on screens will improve. "In the passing game," he said, "he's gonna be better."
He wasn't bad last year, with 472 yards receiving. That's more than 1,900 offensive yards as a rookie, playing mostly without two former Pro Bowlers in front of him.
More tellingly, there was no apparent rookie wall. Martin's stats vaulted not only in the latter part of his season, but in the second half of his games. He ran for 4.1 yards per carry in his first 10 attempts per game, and 5.5 in attempts 11-20. He ran for 820 yards in the third and fourth quarters and 586 in the first and second. Fantasy owners love Martin for his speed and quickness, but coaches love him for his toughness.
"He's a throwback," said Byner. "He's one of these guys who can play every down. He can stay in on third."
In fact, there was no sign at all from Byner that the Bucs intend to scale Martin back. The very first question about Martin on Wednesday was about what the running backs coach expects from Martin this season.
His answer: "even more ownership."
So the hype will go to Revis. The ball will go to Martin. And if the last half of last season is any indication, a few records might end up going to him, too.
NFL.com video on Darrelle Revis 'going to camp':
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