Position Group: Running Back
Players: Kenjon Barner, Giovani Bernard, Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones, Ke'Shawn Vaughn
2021 Evaluation: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rushing attack ranked 26th in the NFL during the 2021 regular season, but that undersells a bit the effectiveness of the team's backs. Led by Leonard Fournette in terms of both rushing and receiving, Tampa Bay's backfield finished 15th in the NFL in yards per carry (4.34) and added a robust 110 receptions. Running backs also accounted for 20 of the team's 61 offensive touchdowns in 2021.
Fournette and Jones started out in a time-shared, literally trading starts in the preseason and into the first two weeks of the regular season, but it didn't take long for Fournette to establish himself as the lead back. Other than the four games he missed in December and January, Fournette started every contest and finished as the team's leading rusher with 812 yards, eight touchdowns and a fine average of 4.5 yards per carry. Fournette got the largest share of the snap count by far because he was a very effective pass-catcher and he improved in pass protection. At the time of his injury in December, Fournette was leading all NFL backs in receptions; he still finished third in the league with 69 for 454 yards and two receptions.
Jones ran for 428 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 4.2 per tote, but wasn't much involved in the passing game and was not trusted as a pass-protector. Vaughn saw just minor bits of action for most of the season but was pressed into the lead role at the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs and held his own. He scored a touchdown in the season-capping win over the Panthers then ran 17 times for 53 yards and a score in the Wild Card win over Philadelphia. Bernard filled a third-down role when healthy and did score three times on short passes, but saw his role diminished by Fournette's good work in the passing game.
2022 Outlook: Bernard, Fournette and Jones are all pending unrestricted free agents and Barner has essentially just been a return man, so this unit could change significantly in 2022. Jones has finished out his four-year rookie deal after being selected in the third round in 2018, and has clearly been surpassed on the depth chart by Fournette since late in 2020. He did have a promising 2020 season in which he ran for 978 yards and 5.1 yards per carry, but he could be seeking a new opportunity to emerge as a team's lead back.
Fournette joined the Buccaneers just before the start of the 2020 season after being released by Jacksonville. The former fourth-overall pick had to come to terms in the midst of that season to being something other than the focal point of an offense for the first time in his football career, but saw his patience rewarded when he got a huge opportunity in the 2020 Super Bowl run and made the most of it. However, that did not lead to the long-term deal he was hoping for in free agency and he chose to return to the Bucs' on a one-year contract. He'll get another shot at locking up something more substantial after proving that he could sustain his 2020 postseason performance.
Bernard is also a free agent and the Bucs may chose to find a younger player to fill that third-down role, possibly in the draft. Vaughn could potentially get a chance to lead the way in his third season after being drafted in the third round in 2020. Head Coach Bruce Arians has said on multiple occasions that Vaughn is a talented runner, so the young back could get a shot if he makes strides in pass protection and catching the ball.
Vaughn and Barner are the only backs currently under contract for 2022, so the Buccaneers definitely have work to do at the position, either by bringing back one of Fournette and Jones or by addressing the position in free agency and the draft. This spot is likely to see some significant turnover.