The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and NFL have announced that running back Doug Martin has been suspended for violating the leagues PED policy for the next four games. This suspension comes at a bad time for Martin who had signed a $35.75 million contract that made him the fourth highest paid back in the NFL but struggled badly this year averaging just 2.9 yards per carry before being deactivated, perhaps in part due to a pending suspension, this past weekend. Martin’s $7 million salary in 2017 was fully guaranteed and would have protected him from any release, but it is likely that the guarantee is now void which will open the door up for the Buccaneers to either release or renegotiate Martin’s contract.
Contracts that contain guarantees in the NFL are typically enforced unless the player defaults in some way on the contract. Typically defaults are caused by missing time due to reasons that have nothing to do with football. Those generally include holding out for a better contract, conduct detrimental to the team, drug/PED suspension, suspension by the league for conduct, or incarceration. In addition a player loses 1/17th of his salary for each week he misses when suspended by the NFL.
I talked a bit about Martin last week and the risks associated with signing him. Martin is the type of player who falls into the “buyer beware” category because of his career trajectory. Martin exploded onto the scene in 2012 rushing for over 1,400 yards and 11 touchdowns and looked like he could be one of the next greats at the position to follow in the footsteps of Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson, generally considered the top players at the time. But Martin fell badly in 2013, rushing for just 456 yards in 6 games on a meager 3.6 YPC before landing on IR and then imploded in 2014 with just 494 yards in 11 games falling out of favor with the coaching staff. It was so bad that the Bucs decided to not pick up an injury guaranteed option for $5.6M on the 2016 season.
Despite looking finished Martin had a career rebirth in 2015 rushing for 1,402 yards. 2015 also happened to be his walk year which is the perfect time to have a career year since it is fresh on the minds of other teams. Because Martin was a first round draft pick and also had a year like that once before it added more credibility to the resume. But the fact should always remain that such a player is just as likely to drop back to his pre-walk year funk as he is to remain a star. But timing in the NFL is everything and teams will have to take on the risk to sign a player coming off the kind of season Martin had.
A good comparison to show how important that career year is and how it shifts risk to the team is to look at Alfred Morris. Morris broke into the NFL the same year as Martin and while he was not as high of a draft pick he surpassed his yardage total as a rookie by rushing for over 1,600 yards. He followed that up with a far more impressive effort than Martin rushing for 1,200 and 1,000 yards in 2013 and 2014, but fell in 2015. Morris was not well liked by the coaching staff and saw his yardage drop to under 800 yards in his walk season on a 4.7 YPC average. Teams then took notice of his year by year dropping efficiency going from 4.8 to 4.6 to 4.1 to 3.7 YPC and his lack of ability as a receiver and took an entirely different approach.
The difference in numbers was staggering. Martin signed for over $7 million a year with $15 million fully guaranteed at signing. Morris received just $1.75 million a year with $1.8 million fully guaranteed despite what was certainly a more consistent four year effort. Dallas took on no risk for more or less similar upside and downside while the Bucs had to go full blast on just as questionable a player, one who they didnt even think was worth $5 million just a year before, simply because of when their peaks occured and draft bias.
While this has nothing to do with Martin’s suspension, and I don’t believe that Martin ever had issues in the past like this that impacted his play, the PED violation should give the Bucs an out for an underperforming player. While Martin has said he will be entering rehab to correct whatever addiction he may have, the NFL is still a business and this will be a business decision for Tampa.
Martin is currently scheduled to be the 2nd highest paid running back in the NFL next year and will likely be the highest paid once Adrian Peterson is released from his contract with the Vikings. Off a season like this I dont know how the Bucs can pay that if the contractual guarantee no longer protects his salary. At the least this should open up his contract for renegotiation with salary tied to performance and/or games played. Martin was able to use his leverage last year to get a solid contract but now that its lost the ball is clearly in Tampa’s court.