TAMPA, Fla. – They never seem too distant, one running back entering a new career phase and the other beginning his. Doug Martin, after a stellar rookie year, is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ future at the position. But he sees parts of himself in rookie Mike James.
That is why Martin is quick to offer praise for the Miami product, taken in the sixth round, 189th overall, when given the chance. These are early days of relationship building between draftees and their teammates, a time when advice is given and impressions are made. Growth happens.
Late Wednesday morning, Martin stood near a practice field after an OTA session at One Buc Place and considered his evolution. A year ago, Martin lived James’ situation, fresh out of Boise State as the 31st overall pick. He became one of the NFL’s most prolific rushing talents, earning 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns on 319 carries.
He matured into an answer. Now, Martin is eager to help with any questions.
“He’s a good guy,” Martin said of James. “He’s a smart guy as well. I know exactly what he’s going through, because I was in that position last year. I know he’s in that playbook, trying to learn. I’m out there helping him out.”
James’ selection, as it relates to Martin, stands as a contrast to another Tampa Bay draft choice: quarterback Mike Glennon, a third-round pick (73rd overall). Many outside the region view Glennon as a threat to starter Josh Freeman. Coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik, however, have said this is the incumbent’s team. There is little reason to think Freeman will lose his job this fall if he stays healthy.
Still, perceptions (false or not) take on their own life in a high-speed age. Assumptions involving quarterbacks have a long existence. This development is not exclusive to the Bucs, see: Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre with the Green Bay Packers or Geno Smith and Mark Sanchez with the New York Jets. Post-draft “controversy” is predictable. It will occur again.
Yet for many reasons, James’ selection is seen as a benefit for Martin. The two players are similar in their demeanors: humble, soft-spoken, committed to improve. It is easy to picture their working relationship growing into a scenario that enhances both.
“There’s always room to improve,” Martin said. “Stats are stats. We’ll see this season, and hopefully, if I step my game up, then I’ll increase those stats.”
There is room for him to do so. Martin hopes to improve as a pass catcher and fine-tune his route-running skills. As part of an offense last year that averaged 24.3 points per game (13th overall), he finished third on the team with 472 yards with one touchdown on 49 catches.
His vision as a rusher is there, advanced for a 24-year-old. Now, he can work to become more dynamic.
“I wouldn’t say (it was) exactly a surprise,” Martin said, smiling, when asked if his rookie production caught him off-guard. “I was very grateful for the opportunity the coaches gave me. I was starting. I just went out there and worked my butt off, and the rest is history.”
Now he can work for the future. On Wednesday, when asked how he plans to advance in his sophomore campaign, Martin said, “I had a good season, a great season, last year. And I just want to get better all-around.”
This is a personal challenge, but part of that responsibility will fall on Schiano and his staff. Martin’s task ahead is two-fold: (a) Gain a deeper grasp of his role from running backs coach Earnest Byner and (b) preserve his health. Along the way, he can be a giver and mentor James. Along the way, he can become more complete.
“Oh, man, the talent’s amazing,” James said, shortly after drafted. “You’ve seen the games. It’s amazing. I’m just glad to be a part of it. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
That enthusiasm is similar to what Martin lived last spring. Unlike the strange tension following Glennon’s selection, James’ arrival offers positives: A chance for Martin to grow in a different way, as a mentor, as a guiding presence without the chatter that lingers for Freeman when Glennon is discussed.
Granted, the quarterback and running back positions in the NFL are different beasts. The spotlight is hotter behind center. Still, the contrast is revealing.
“Look, we know what he can do,” Schiano said of Martin. “It isn’t like he’s a rookie, and we’re trying to figure it out. So we’ve got to make sure that we get him ready to play. Don’t take it for granted that he’s going to be the same guy, because none of us are. But once he has shown that he’s ready, then we’ve got to make sure we get him to game one and all the rest of our games healthy.”
All part of Martin’s evolution. All part of growth in the game.