DENVER • Starting with the Peyton Manning signing, almost every big decision the Broncos front office has made since John Elway took over has worked out.
One exception: the time they tried to draft the “Dougie.”
While zeroing in on Doug Martin in this year’s draft, the Broncos traded away a late-first-round pick, thinking the running back from Boise State would still be there when they picked a few spots later. Their trading partner: Tampa Bay, which used the pick to take Martin 31st in the draft.
The teams meet Sunday with the Broncos (8-3) needing a win to wrap up the AFC West title and the Buccaneers (6-5), with their prize rookie, Martin, trying to stay in the thick of the NFC wild-card chase.
“He was very high on our board,” Broncos coach John Fox says. “He’s a guy that I know our personnel people liked, our coaching staff liked. His success doesn’t surprise me whatsoever.”
Propelled by Martin, fourth in the NFL with 1,050 yards rushing, a strong comeback season from quarterback Josh Freeman and the tough-love approach from first-year coach Greg Schiano, the Buccaneers are among the league’s biggest surprises.
They have won four of their last five and are tied with Minnesota and Seattle for the NFC’s last wild-card spot.
It was at the end of October that Martin’s potential went on full display. He had 214 combined yards in a 36-17 win over Minnesota on Oct. 25, then ran for 251 yards — highest total in the league this year — in a 42-32 win over Oakland on Nov. 4.
Schiano says his rookie running back reminds him of Baltimore’s Ray Rice, the 5-foot-8, 215-pound two-time Pro Bowler who Schiano coached at Rutgers. Martin is 5-9, 210.
“They both have some unique abilities: vision, patience, balance, strength, those kinds of things that allow them to be really good running backs,” Schiano says. “Some of those things you can develop and some of them are God given, and that’s what makes those two special.”
For his part, Martin says he knew the Buccaneers were among the teams most interested in him as the draft approached, while he hadn’t heard much from the Broncos.
“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 says.
Though the Broncos failed to land Martin, they still made some productive picks in the draft.
The second-round choice they received from Tampa Bay turned into defensive tackle Derek Wolfe, who has started every game and picked up three sacks.
The Broncos filled their running back needs in the third round by choosing Ronnie Hillman out of San Diego State; Hillman has given the Broncos depth and provided a change of pace. He has 52 carries for 197 yards.