Tampa Bay Buccaneers

S.S. Mailbag: Photo Evidence

This week, Bucs fans have questions about turnover reduction, Antoine Winfield, John Franklin and more

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach has anointed Ronald Jones II as "the main guy" in the team's 2020 backfield, and Jones is ready to chase that holy grail for NFL running backs, the 1,000-yard season. It certainly looks like a real possibility after the 2018 second-round pick followed a lost rookie season (44 rushing yards) with a breakout 724-yard season under a new coaching staff in 2019. Jones averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 172 handoffs last year, or 10.75 per game. If that usage rate goes up to 15 carries per game and he maintains or improves upon his yards per tote, he'll get there.

One of the things Jones did to prepare himself to be the main man in the Bucs' rushing attack is to get a little bigger and stronger over the offseason. At 23, he's ready to carry the load.

"I just have to keep putting the work in and getting better," he said. "In terms of the offseason, I put on about seven or eight more pounds of muscle, so I went from 218 to 225. I feel like I'm ready for the workload and things like that, so I most definitely see 1,000 yards in my near future and for years to come. So, just being that guy for the team – that would be good."

The Buccaneers may not have expected Jones to jump right into the NFL with a 1,000-yard season as a rookie, though they did use the 38th-overall pick on him in the 2018 draft, the highest selection they had used on the position since taking Doug Martin 31st six years earlier. The Bucs saw Jones's penchant for big plays at USC and thought he would be a nice pairing with Peyton Barber, more of a grind-it-out kind of back. It just didn't happen.

So Jones had to start fresh in 2019 and by midseason he had taken the starting job from Barber, though the two continued to split carries. Jones finished the season on a high note and is ready to chase that four-digit plateau in 2020. And that type of three-year progression feels different, at least for Buccaneer running backs. Most of the team's 1,000-yard backs have really hit the ground running. There have been 12 1,000-yard rushing seasons in team history, and each of the last eight were all accomplished by players who initially got to that mark in their rookie or second seasons (and occasionally again later in their careers). The list is easily recognizable as players who made an instant impact in the NFL: Doug Martin, LeGarrette Blount Cadillac Williams, Warrick Dunn and Errict Rhett.

You have to go back to the early '90s to find a player who followed a progression similar to what Jones is hoping to do. Reggie Cobb, a second-round pick in 1990 (30th overall), went from 480 as a rookie to 752 in 1991 and then to 1,171 in 1992. Prior to him, Ricky Bell went up a similar step-ladder from 1977-79, while it took all-time franchise rushing leader James Wilder four seasons to hit that mark. Of course, Wilder actually played a lot of fullback in his first three years before busting out in a huge way in 1984.

View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.

So Jones is following a pattern the Buccaneers haven't seen in a while. Is this just the way the NFL is now? Do teams always expect a highly-drafted running back to step right in and challenge the 1,000-yard mark, like Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette in recent years?

Well, not really. The three-year plan is actually not at all rare across the modern NFL. In just the last 10 seasons, 12 different running backs have rushed for 1,000 yards in their third seasons after not doing so in either of their first two. They are: Dalvin Cook, Aaron Jones, Derrick Henry, Marlon Mack, Lamar Miller, Demarco Murray, Shonn Greene, C.J. Spiller, Beanie Wells, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Darren McFadden and Peyton Hillis.

Cook probably isn't a great example because he was mostly held back by injuries in his first two years. In fact, his per-game yardage rate was higher as a rookie than it was when he surpassed 1,000 yards last year. But surprisingly few of the other 11 cases were really driven by injuries. Of those 11, six followed the progression Jones is trying to make, with each year's total higher than the last. Probably the most comparable example is Lamar Miller, who had 250 yards as a rookie with Miami in 2012, then jumped up to 709 in 2013 and 1,099 in 2014. His per-game average went from 19.2 to 44.3 to 68.7. Jones's per-game average as a rookie was negligible, of course, but he progressed to 45.3 last year. Getting close to 70 per game in 2020 would be a great target, and it would get him a little over 1,100 yards by season's end.

Now on to your questions for this week.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Scott,

I was looking through "Best Photos from Bucs Training Camp Practice, Aug. 16" and found the image 33/56 very disturbing. It's a picture of #25 (I won't say the name… to protect the guilty), carrying the ball like a loaf of bread. I know that's not what the coaches are teaching… "high and tight"… That made me want to ask the question: What are you seeing in camp that makes you think we'll see a reduction in turnovers and penalties this year? (It be a shame to continue to waste all this talent with Bucs beating Bucs…)

(Also, kudos to the photographer on 45/56… what a classic! Speed on speed – who won?)

Thanks, as always, Joel (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Gee, Joel, how kind of you to "protect the guilty" by not identifying the player…by name. I'm pretty sure most of us can figure out who number 25 is! (Though, to be fair, there are currently two players wearing number 25 for the Bucs right now, but I seriously doubt that we're talking about undrafted rookie safety Javon Hagan here.)

Yes, number 25 is veteran running back LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leader in yards from scrimmage since 2009, a six-time Pro Bowler and possibly even a future Hall of Fame candidate. McCoy signed with the Buccaneers this summer after earning a Super Bowl ring with the Chiefs last year, and of course it remains to be seen what sort of role he will carve out for himself in Tampa. Bruce Arians did mention on Wednesday that McCoy was stressing some of the Bucs' linebackers with his route-running today.

The picture to which Joel refers shows McCoy with the ball in his right hand and him appearing to be starting a cut to his left. The ball is not tucked up high and tight between his chest and his elbow, that is true; rather, the right arm is extended, probably as part of his cutting motion. If you want to take a look, here it is. (And Joel is right about how great that other picture is; check it out. Great work overall by the Bucs' photographers and they're putting up big galleries after every practice.)

And, of course, Joel is also right that no coach would ever teach a running back to carry the football the way it is depicted in the McCoy picture. There are some variations from coach to coach on exactly how to cradle the ball and how high up on your chest to put it, but "high and tight" is a perfectly good descriptor of the preferred method.

But, of course, we must remember that this is a still photo and that those can sometimes be misleading. News services routinely use pictures of their subjects appearing to have a certain expression on their face (a scowl or a smile) but that could have just been a split-second look as they were actually forming a different expression. In this case, McCoy might have just caught a pass and spun around and simply hasn't tucked it yet. I imagine this would be different if McCoy had just received a handoff and was headed towards the line.

Even if that was the case and McCoy was being more careless with the ball than a coach would like, that issue doesn't seem to have hurt his career. Over the last five years, he has a fumble rate of 0.8%, which is actually quite good and includes a very large sample size. It is better, for instance, than that of Christian McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliott. There's no way that a player who fumbled a lot more than average would have been able to stay on the field, year after year, game after game, long enough to rack up 2,950 career touches. According to Pro Football Reference, McCoy has 25 fumbles in his career, and only once more than three in a season. Two years ago, he logged 195 touched without a fumble in Buffalo.

Anyway, I am clearly being too defensive about all of this because, as it turns out, I'm not even answering the actual question Joel sent in! My bad. Joel used the McCoy picture as a jumping-off point to ask how the Bucs could reduce their turnovers and penalties from last year. That's fair.

The thing is, the Buccaneers had a turnover problem in 2019 but they didn't necessarily have a fumbling problem. The Bucs lost 11 fumbles, five fewer than their opponents. Yes, those 11 fumbles had the Bucs ranked tied for 22nd in that department, but five of them belonged to since-departed quarterback Jameis Winston. In fact, seven of the Bucs' 11 lost fumbles from 2019 were by players who are no longer on the team (Peyton Barber and Bobo Wilson had one each). Those three players also were responsible for 16 of the team's 23 fumbles overall (not fumbles lost). And cornerback Jamel Dean was actually charged with a fumble on the very heads-up play he made in Detroit when a punt may or may not have deflected off Justin Watson's hands and Dean tried to dive on the ball at the one-yard line, sending it out of bounds.

But I digress. In addition to those fumbles, the Buccaneers also threw 30 interceptions, all of them by Winston. That gave the Bucs a league-high 41 giveaways. Winston led the NFL in passing yards and set a number of Buccaneer records in 2019, including 33 touchdown tosses. He did a lot of good things in 2019 and over five seasons in Tampa. Still, it's obvious that those 30 interceptions played a big part in the Bucs finishing 7-9 with a team they felt should have been in playoff contention.

So, when Tom Brady was surprisingly available and interested in coming to Tampa, the Buccaneers jumped on that almost too-good-to-be-true opportunity. Among the many things that Brady has been good at throughout his career is protecting the football. His career interception rate of 1.8% is tied for fourth in NFL history, and that's over the course of nearly 10,000 passes. Last year, Brady's Patriots committed 15 turnovers in 16 games, tied for the third-lowest total in the NFL. To parrot a note many others have thrown out there, Brady hasn't thrown 30 interceptions over the last four seasons combined.

So what I'm seeing in camp that makes me think the Bucs will have a reduction in turnovers this year is that guy wearing the orange number 12 jersey. It's as simple as that.

Now, improving on the penalties? That's not anywhere near as simple. The Buccaneers did indeed lead the league with 133 penalties, though that statistic hasn't always been well-correlated with winning and losing. The Saints were close with 120 penalties last year and still went 13-3, for example. Of those 133 penalties, 72 were of the offensive variety, and here again is an area in which Tom Brady might have an effect. Already, multiple teammates have remarked on how much attention he pays to details, not only in regards to his own play but to those around him. The Patriots committed only 49 offensive penalties last year, and Brady's leadership likely had something to do with that. Only two teams committed fewer offensive penalties.

As for the defense, I guess I would just point out that it was a very young group last year. It still it is, but it has had some time to mature and draw tighter as a unit. It's reasonable to think that as all of these young core defenders gather more experience and make their games better that one aspect of that could be cleaner play, leading to fewer penalties.

Of course, neither of those two claims – Brady's influence and the defenders' maturation – is particularly quantifiable, so I don't know how strong those claims are. Otherwise, Joel, I can't tell you that I have seen anything to this point in camp that would qualify as evidence that the team is going to be less penalty-prone in 2020. In fact, one of the few complaints that Arians has had about his team's performance so far is too many penalties caused by Brady's very good hard count, both by the defense and the offense.

That's not particularly surprising this early in camp and there is certainly time to clean it up. As for the regular season, I would say we have plenty of reason to believe the turnovers will go down but we'll have to wait and see on the penalties.

Are players staying healthy so far in camp?

- @muscleheadwhorockdopekicks, via Instagram

Man, I had to stare at that Instagram handle for a full minute to make sure I wasn't being duped into printing an obscenity. After further review, it appears to be describing a workout warrior who is very fond of his shoes.

As for the question, please believe me that I am knocking on wood between each sentence as I type out my answer. I am very superstitious when it comes to sports and don't want to serve as a jinx here.

That said, the Buccaneers are off to a pretty good start. There is justifiable concern around the league that there could be a rash of soft-tissue injuries in training camps because of the cancelled offseason program. However, in Tampa at least, the "ramp-up period" before real practices, which included a 10-day period devoted mostly to strength and conditioning, appears to have worked pretty well. In addition, Arians has said that he's been very pleased at the overall shape of his players since they reported after being on their own for so many months. The vast majority of the roster came back in good shape and the ramp-up period only helped.

You're never going to fully avoid injuries even in the best of situations, and they can come in bunches so don't blame me if the picture isn't as rosy a week from now. But at the moment the team's main injury issues appear to be Justin Evans' continued presence on the PUP list due to the foot injuries that have caused him a season-and-a-half, and a soft-tissue injury that has so far kept rookie wide receiver Tyler Johnson on the sideline. Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul reportedly didn't practice on Wednesday but Arians said that was just a normal veteran maintenance day.

How is Antoine Winfield Jr doing in practice?

- @hdwinal, via Instagram

Pretty well, it seems. Before the Bucs started padded practices this week, Antoine Winfield Jr. was already doing enough to impress Head Coach Bruce Arians in the week of workouts that mimicked Phase 2 and OTA practices. Arians mentioned Winfield and tackle Tristan Wirfs as two of the rookies who were doing well so far and giving them exactly what they expected to see when they chose them in the draft.

Then, after one practice, Arians had more encouraging words for Winfield, albeit just a few of them.

"Very, very intelligent player," said the coach. "It's not too big for him. He'll be competing for a starting job quickly."

That last part is telling because the Buccaneers have a couple other safeties who apparently off to a good start in Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards, and both of them already have starting experience in the team's defense. If Winfield is going to crack the starting lineup early in his rookie season, it won't be by default because he's a high draft pick. It will be because he leapt over some pretty good competition. If Arians can already envision that happening, Winfield must be doing a lot of things right on the practice field.

Will John Franklin start?

- @agvp_91

It would be quite a surprising development if he did!

Franklin, a versatile athlete with a history of playing different positions, came to the Buccaneers as a cornerback in November of last year but by the time he got promoted from the practice squad to the active roster he had changed his number to 14 in order to play on offense. Ostensibly a receiver in the one game for which he was active, Franklin actually got his only touch on an 11-yard run.

This year, Franklin is running routes with the receivers, although Arians has mentioned that if Franklin were on the roster and active on a game day he could also have value as an emergency third quarterback. Chances are, Franklin's shot at making the team is to be a valuable Swiss army knife of an offensive player.

But to start at either receiver or quarterback Franklin would have to beat out Mike Evans or Chris Godwin or Tom Brady. I have a hard time envisioning that.

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