The Tampa Bay Buccaneers suffered a blow to their running back depth on Friday, as Scott Smith of the team's official website reported that rookie running back Charles Sims would miss 12 to 14 weeks after an injury to his ankle required surgery.
Sims was the team's third-round draft choice, added to provide a strong backup to Doug Martin and compete with Bobby Rainey and Mike James in a crowded backfield in Tampa. But now that he's sidelined for the first two months of his rookie season, how do the Buccaneers adjust, and how does it impact the fantasy football outlook for the season?
Let's start at the top.
Keeping Dougie Fresh
Doug Martin was on pace to hit 1,000 carries within the first three years of his career under head coach Greg Schiano and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan's offensive scheme until an injury sidelined him in 2013. And, of course, Schiano's poor coaching led to his departure at the end of the season.
The addition of Sims, along with the decision to keep Rainey and James around, was seen as a way of taking some of the burden off of the shoulders of Doug Martin, and ensuring that he would stay healthy over the long-run and not be run into the ground like many young backs in recent NFL history.
But with Sims out, more of the offensive workload may fall back on Martin, who is only a year removed from being a top-five pick in fantasy drafts after his insanely good rookie season. And as our Brandon Gdula pointed out, rumors of his demise in 2013 were greatly exaggerated.
Martin had the most Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) of any back with more than 100 carries in 2012, and finished in the top-10 in Rushing NEP that year as well. Last season things went downhill in a hurry, but that was due to level of competition (Martin faced three of the top-six defenses in our rankings over the first two months of last season) and a horrible offense (led by Josh Freeman and rookie Mike Glennon, the Bucs were on a historically bad offensive pace before Martin was shut down for the year).
So even if we consider last season as "proof" that Martin isn't perfect, his 2012 production does include a lot more volume than 2013, especially as a receiver, and there's enough evidence to say that the "real" Doug Martin is somewhere in between the guy who dominated the Raiders two years ago and who let down everyone in fantasy football last year.
And Martin's role as a receiver will be important in the Bucs' offense this year. As Brandon mentioned in the article above, Lovie Smith's teams often feature a running back as a receiver on a regular basis, something Sims was drafted to do. With Sims out, Martin figures to get those touches, since his 2012 tape as a receiver trump anything done by the other Buccaneer backs.
Handcuffing the Muscle Hamster
But the "running back-by-committee" approach in Tampa isn't going to just go away because Charles Sims got hurt. The Bucs still need to make sure Martin isn't overworked, and they have a few backs in camp who stand to be fantasy relevant this season if they earn the snaps that Martin gives up to get a breather.
And if training camp and preseason are any indication, Bobby Rainey is miles ahead of Mike James and Jeff Demps for that spot behind Martin on the depth chart. Rainey has been running with the second team in camp and in the Bucs' first preseason game, even spending some time with the starters during scrimmages at One Buccaneer Place.
This may come as a surprise to those who followed the Bucs' running back situation last year, as it was rookie Mike James who impressed in relief of Doug Martin before he was injured as well. But it's easy to forget how small of a sample size James really provided.
The Miami product had only 70 touches last season, nearly 100 fewer than Rainey (who ended the season as the starter). And while Rainey wasn't as good according to our metrics (he was below average among backs with 100-200 carries), he's got more NFL experience, and that has given him an advantage this summer that he hasn't relinquished.
Rainey was on par with Lamar Miller and Steven Jackson last season according to our per-carry NEP data, leaving him near the bottom of the pack, but his efficiency numbers were closer to average than they were to the worst-of-the-worst like Andre Brown and Bernard Pierce.
So unless James is able to prove enough in the preseason to leapfrog Rainey (and having been to a majority of Bucs' training camp, he hasn't so far), it will be Rainey getting the first shot at replacing Sims as the second back in Tampa behind Martin.
James enters the fringe of relevance with the news of Sims' injury, but only barely, as he figures to be third in line. If Rainey falters, James will get his chance, but with Sims returning at some point that window won't be open for long. Jeff Demps is an intriguing change-of-pace back who has looked pretty good in camp, but his volume will be far too limited to be fantasy relevant.
So if you own Doug Martin and want to handcuff him, or if you don't own Martin but want to pick up the backup most likely to see time on the field in Tampa, you want Bobby Rainey either way. He's not the most spectacular back, but his experience advantage and his superior camp performance put him ahead of Mike James and make him a relevant option for the first two months of the season.