The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense broke a bunch of the franchise's single-season records in 2018, including those for most points, net yards, touchdowns, first downs and yards per play, as well as the highest third-down conversion rate. And it did all of that without a particularly productive rushing attack.
Indeed, Tampa Bay ranked 29th in the NFL in 2018 with 95.2 rushing yards per game. Some of that was by choice; the Buccaneers passed on a higher percentage of their plays (63.1%) than all but five other teams. Not only did the offense frequently find itself hurrying to erase an early deficit, but the passing attack was sogood that it made since to emphasize it. But the Bucs averaged just 3.9 yards per carry when they did hand it off, which was second-worst in the NFL. When the offense tried to establish a ground game by running on first down it wasn't successful frequently enough. The average across the NFL on first-down carries was 4.5 yards; the Bucs were 31st at 3.9.
New Head Coach Bruce Arians will try to correct that issue in 2019. As he tries to fine-tune the game of quarterback Jameis Winston, he also wants to give Winston a better chance to avoid turnovers by giving him a more reliable rushing attack. That's the question for the Buccaneers' offense as a whole in 2019: Can it present more of a threat to opposing defenses on the ground and thus be more balanced overall?
That's not just a question for the Bucs' returning running backs. There are ostensibly 11 men involved in every running play, and the proficiency of the offensive line is obviously critical to a good ground game. There will presumably be scheme changes with Arians and his staff taking over, and perhaps some additions to the backfield or the offensive line.
But, just like every player on the roster, the Buccaneers' running backs have questions to answer in 2019, and that's why we've revived our "Burning Questions" series as we approach the beginning of the new league year in March. In the weeks ahead, we're going to pinpoint one burning questions for each player on the roster, going position by position. The tight ends were first, followed by the wide receivers; now we turn our gaze to the offensive backfield.
As will be the case at every position, we are only including players who are currently under contract for 2019, or could have tender offers as restricted and exclusive rights free agents. For the pending unrestricted free agents, obviously, the burning question that must be answered first is, 'Will they be back?'
One Burning Question for Each Buccaneer: Running Back
Players under contract for 2019: 3 (Ronald Jones, Dare Ogunbowale, Shaun Wilson)
Potential unrestricted free agents: 1 (Jacquizz Rodgers)
Potential restricted free agents: 1 (Peyton Barber)
Potential Exclusive Rights Free Agents: None.
Peyton Barber:Will he once again handle nearly 80% of the handoffs doled out to Buccaneer running backs?
Barber is due to become a restricted free agent in March, assuming the team extends him a qualifying offer before the start of free agency. Given that he was the team's leading rusher in 2018 and that there currently isn't much depth at the position, this seems likely to happen. And since restricted free agents infrequently change teams – most eventually sign their tender offer, turning it into a one-year deal that then leads to unrestrictedfree agency – Barber should be in the backfield mix next fall.
The question is, how much of a mix will that be. Barber accounted for 234 of the 296 carries by Buccaneer running backs last fall, or 79.1% of all the handoffs. If one factors in receptions out of the backfield, Barber handled 254 of the 364 touches by Buc backs, or 69.8%. It's safe to say that's not how the Buccaneers' previous coaching staff envisioned things unfolding when the 2018 season began.
Barber, a former undrafted free agent out of Auburn, handled this role admirably. He was durable, starting all 16 games, and he was a reliable runner between the tackles, often gaining additional yards after contact. He didn't always have wide-open running lanes, but when he did find a crease he showed that he has added one-cut quickness in his three years in the NFL. Barber finished the season with 871 rushing yards, though his 3.7 yards per carry was not ideal.
Arians has run an offense around a single dominant back before. In 2016, his Arizona Cardinals gave 373 touches to David Johnson, or 79.9% of all the touches by the team's running backs. Of course, Johnson was a Pro Bowler that season and a dynamic back who averaged 4.2 yards per carry and 11.0 yards per reception. We don't yet know Barber's ceiling but Johnson was clearly one of the two or three best and most versatile backs in football in 2016, so it's probably not fair to make a comparison. The year before Johnson's Pro Bowl campaign, Arians' 2015 Cardinals had the league's eighth-best rushing attack but split carries quite a bit more between Johnson (then a rookie who would begin to emerge late in the season), Chris Johnson, Andre Ellington and Kerwynn Williams.
Unless Barber takes his game to a significant new level in 2019, it would seem more likely that Arians' Bucs will spread the handoffs around a little more. That would be even more apparent if the team adds to the position in free agency or the draft and/or…well, that's the topic of our next burning question.
Ronald Jones: Will he emerge as the explosive playmaker the Bucs envisioned when they drafted him early in the second round last year?
If the Buccaneers didn't expect Barber to shoulder 80% of the load last year, it's probably because they thought they would have their second-round draft pick out of USC on the field a lot more. As it turned out, Jones played in nine games and logged just 30 offensive touches – 23 carries for 44 yards and seven receptions for 33 yards. Tampa Bay had made Jones the 38th overall selection in the 2018 draft and the fifth of eight backs taken among the first 71 choices. As a Trojan, Jones had averaged 5.9 yards per carry and shown his explosiveness with a string of big plays. At the very least, the Bucs thought he could step right in as a complement to Barber and his more powerful running style.
As the season began, though, the coaching staff didn't see a role for Jones in the offense and he wasn't even active for the first three games of the season. The team chose to keep undrafted rookie back Shaun Wilson up instead so he could serve as a kickoff returner and get some work as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. Jones also missed a run of games in the middle of the season due to a hamstring injury, and when he came back he was used very sparingly. He did catch seven of the nine passes thrown his way, a good sign for a back who was considered a work in progress as a receiver, but only for 33 yards. The Buccaneers never really succeeded in getting Jones out in space with the ball in his hands.
Now Jones will start over with a new coaching staff, which in his case is probably a positive thing. He'll be freshly evaluated and Arians and crew will try to figure out how best to use his talents. He'll have an entire offseason to learn the new offense and hopefully will be more ready to show off his talents when his second training camp begins.
The Buccaneers may look for more help in the backfield this offseason, and simply from a numbers standpoint they'll need more ballcarriers, particularly if Jacquizz Rodgers is not re-signed. But they might also get a boost without having to add another ballcarrier, if Jones can emerge as the player the Bucs thought he was last spring.
Dare Ogunbowale:Will his potential contributions on special teams help him earn an opening-day spot on the roster?
Ogunbowale ended last season on the Buccaneers' practice squad and was then immediately re-signed to a reserve/futures contract for 2019. That's a thing for the first-year back, who hasn't really had a chance to go from start to finish with any team.
The former Wisconsin-Madison ballcarrier came to the NFL as an undrafted free agent with Houston in 2017, then spent about half of his rookie season on the Texans' practice squad. His first exposure to the Buccaneers was a week on their practice squad later that year, but he finished 2017 with the Washington Redskins. Washington released him in March of the following year and he wasn't on a team until the Bucs came calling again about a week into their 2018 training camp.
Ogunbowale ended up on Tampa Bay's practice squad again for about a month, then was off it for another month before returning at the end of October. Two weeks later he was promoted when Wilson landed on injured reserve, and he got a crack at the kickoff return job for a couple weeks. He also played on kickoff coverage during that span and logged a special teams tackle. The third back on the depth chart usually needs to contribute in some way in the kicking game in order to hold his spot, and Ogunbowale suggested he could do just that during his relatively brief cameo on the 53-man roster.
Ogunbowale is a relatively big back who had some good moments in training camp last summer after his late arrival. The Buccaneers apparently want to take a longer look at him this time around, and the more ways he can help the team would the greater of a chance he'd have to break camp with an active NFL roster for the first time.
Shaun Wilson: Can he emerge as a productive third-down back?
Wilson was a high-priority target for the Buccaneers when the draft came to an end last spring and all the teams began phoning the promising prospects who had not been selected. The very productive Duke running back was one of those who had slipped through, likely because he lacked ideal size. He doesn't lack speed or quickness, however, and like Jones he made a lot of big plays on the NCAA stage, including a handful of long kickoff return touchdowns. The Bucs thought he could at least be a candidate for that job and perhaps be able to make an impact as a third-down back.
Wilson got the active spot over Jones for the first three games but then the team decided to take a look at their second-rounder and didn't want to keep them both among the game-day 46, which meant Wilson was idle for about a month. He got another shot when Jones was sidelined by the hamstring injury but then was pushed to injured reserve by a shoulder injury after playing in two more games.
Wilson has since fully recovered and will be ready to go when the offseason program begins. His output as a kickoff returner wasn't eye-opening (17.4-yard average) but the sample size probably wasn’t big enough as he only got to bring seven kicks out. He did get to a play a bit on offense and was able to pick up 4.9 yards per carry on six totes, but his three catches only produced five total yards.
Of course, like the rest of the backs Wilson will be trying to carve out a role in a new offense and impress a new set of coaches. He caught 26 passes as a senior at Duke and does look a smooth receiver out of the backfield. Could he prove to be an undersized but dynamic part of an NFL backfield in the Darren Sproles mold?