ENGLEWOOD – Every so often, you get an up-close glimpse at the one who got away.
Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin doesn’t quite qualify. But the fact that he was taken by the Buccaneers with the No. 31 overall pick — the one that the Broncos surrendered in order to add an extra fourth-round pick while moving back five spots — will forever connect Martin with Denver.
“We wanted him, so that was the most important thing. We didn’t want to take a chance,” said Bucs coach Greg Schiano. “But to do a trade you need another end of the trade and then we’re grateful that Denver was willing to do it
The Bucs honed in on Martin — to the point that when the phone rang at the No. 31 pick, he believed it was the Bucs on the other end of the line, even though he was as yet unaware of the trade.
“I had a good feeling, because earlier on, I got a call from Tampa Bay, and they were just seeing if I was basically still alive and still moving,” Martin said. “I had a good feeling that it was going to be Tampa (Bay).”
In the end, the trade became Martin for defensive end/tackle Derek Wolfe (No. 36) and cornerback Omar Bolden (No. 101). The early returns on Martin — 1,050 yards through 11 games, putting him on pace for the most rushing yards by a rookie since Edgerrin James in 1999 — would give the edge to Tampa Bay, although the lengthier learning curve for defensive tackles and the ACL injury that Bolden suffered in the spring of 2011 means it’s still too early to call the winner of the deal.
Neither side is complaining, though. The Broncos needed help on the defensive line, and found a rookie starter who has shown enough promise in spurts to establish a long-term place up front. The Bucs found a starting running back who appears destined for the Pro Bowl — but plays a position that typically has a shorter career span and tighter trajectory.
“He was very high on our board,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “He’s a guy that I know our personnel people and our coaching staff liked. His success doesn’t surprise me whatsoever.”
But his success has outstripped even the loftiest expectations for his rookie season — particularly in the last six games, in which he’s rushed for 727 yards, added another 224 on 19 receptions and scored nine touchdowns.
Martin’s production, the straight-ahead speed, the decisiveness have evoked comparisons with Baltimore’s Ray Rice. Schiano, who coached Rice at Rutgers, believes they are legitimate.
“They both have some unique abilities, vision, patience, balance, strength, those kinds of things that allow them to be really good running backs,” Schiano said. “Some of those things you can develop and some of them are God-given, and that’s what makes those two special.”
Martin’s skill set and the circumstances in which he joined the Bucs are just two-thirds of what make his presence Sunday so compelling. The third is that he arrives on the heels of the Broncos’ worst rushing-defense performance since Week 5.
The Broncos’ performance against the run had been the league’s best since Keith Brooking became their starting middle linebacker in Week 6. Even after allowing 148 yards to the Chiefs — including 107 by Jamaal Charles — and 4.8 yards per carry, the Broncos remain the stingiest in rushing yardage per game (80.8) and yardage per carry (3.37), while allowing fewer rushing touchdowns (one) than anybody else.
“They attacked our edge and got us running sideways,” said Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard, “and that’s something that we can’t do.”
Even though the Bucs don’t run in the same manner as the Chiefs, the Broncos can expect to see some elements of Kansas City’s ground attack in future games. After all …
“It’s a copycat league,” Woodyard said. “Every time somebody had success, another team’s going to bite off of it and steal from that. Whatever they throw on the table, we’ve got to be ready to eat.”
But before the Broncos chow down, they have to catch their prey first — and since October, no one’s been tougher to catch than Martin.