Several weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' new coaching staff finished up a deep dive into game and practice footage from 2018, an effort to evaluate each player on the roster in advance of free agency and the draft. After that work was complete, new Head Coach Bruce Arians visited each of his position coaches to see what they thought of their respective groups and what each one thought he might be lacking.
When Arians got to Tight Ends Coach Rick Christophel he got a quick answer: "I don't need anything!"
Indeed, Christophel inherited a group that includes a rising-star do-it-all starter in O.J. Howard, the Bucs' 2017 first-round pick, as well as one of the league's best red zone threats in Cam Brate. Christophel even has a third tight end in Antony Auclair who has proved to be a strong blocker and who is still developing after coming to the NFL from a Canadian college.
"I've never walked into a situation with so many [talented] skill players on our roster," said Arians. "I'm really looking forward to getting into voluntary mini-camp."
The Bucs are loaded at tight end, clearly, and the same can be said at wide receiver, which was reflected in 2018 in the team's number-one ranking in the league's passing-offense chart. On the other hand, the Buccaneers finished third-to-last in rushing yards last year. They haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Doug Martin in 2015 and they haven't cracked 4.0 yards per carry as a team in any season since. The offensive line and the play-calling are obviously significant factors in those results, but it would be fair to wonder if the backfield could use an infusion of talent to catch up to the team's loaded group of pass-catchers.
And perhaps that is the case. However, the cupboard is far from bare, at least in the view of Arians and the Bucs' general manager, Jason Licht.
Arians took part in that 2018 film review, as well, and has thus seen a full season's worth of work by every current Buccaneer. While speaking with the press on Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine – where the Bucs might actually be looking for some new pieces for their backfield – Arians was asked if there was any player who looked better on that tape than he had expected. After joking about Mike Evans and Lavonte David, Arians did have one specific answer.
"I can honestly say Peyton Barber," said Arians. "I've watched this guy and I [say], "Woo!" He's so subtle in some of the things he does for a big man."
Barber was an undrafted free agent out of Auburn in 2016 who got 55 carries as a rookie and showed some promise, averaging 4.1 yards per tote. A bigger back than Martin, he was helpful in short-yardage situations and displayed an ability to get extra yards after first contact. Barber has continued to show that latter ability in the two seasons since but has also honed his physique and added some sharper cuts to his game. Last year, he got his first opportunity to be the primary ballcarrier and rushed for 871 yards and five scores while also catching 20 passes.
Barber had led the team in rushing in 2017, too, but with only 423 yards, and the ground game lacked explosiveness. While they felt comfortable giving Barber the first shot at the starting job in 2018, the Bucs wanted to pair him with another back who could hopefully bring some more big plays to the offense. As such, they spent a high second-round pick on running back Ronald Jones, who was known for doing just that, and often, at USC.
Those plans did not come to fruition. Jones struggled to produce in preseason games and by the beginning of the regular season hadn't carved out a role of any size in the offense. He was deactivated for each of the first three games in favor of fellow rookie back Shaun Wilson, an undrafted player out of Duke who could help in the kick return game. Jones eventually got his shot about a month into the season but later suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out for about a month. He returned to a very limited role and by season's end had just 77 yards from scrimmage on 30 touches.
The Buccaneers don't think that lost rookie year will define Jones, who only turned 21 in training camp last year. His rookie campaign was undeniably a lost year but Licht is expecting a lot more in 2019. Some players thrive after a change of scenery; Jones didn't go anywhere, but the scenery changed around him with the arrival of Arians, Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich, Running Backs Coach Todd McNair and a new offensive scheme.
"A lot of times throughout the preseason, it just seemed like every time we handed him the ball there was somebody in the backfield," said Licht. "I think Ronald needs a confidence boost and I think he's going to get that. I know he's going to get that. Todd McNair is extremely excited about working with him, and Bruce Arians is as well, as well as Byron and our offensive line coaches. Nobody has given up on Ronald Jones. I expect Ronald Jones to have a big jump this year."
Arians had to make do with a committee of running backs for several of his five years as the head coach in Arizona, but he also had a stretch where he deployed one of the NFL's most dynamic and versatile backs in David Johnson. A third-round pick in 2015, Johnson came on strong at the end of his rookie season and then exploded in 2016 with 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 total touchdowns. Johnson was utilized extensively in the passing game, with 80 receptions, and the Cardinals found many ways to get him out in space where he could use his speed and quickness.
Jones will have to raise his production immensely in order to draw comparisons to Johnson. Still, Arians is looking forward to seeing what the young back can do with the same sort of playbook.
"Yeah, that's one of the things I'm [anticipating]," said Arians. "I'm really anxious to get on the field with all our guys but him especially, to see how much he can do of what we did in Arizona."
The Buccaneers may very well leave Indianapolis with their eyes on a running back or two they believe can help jumpstart their backfield. But it's also clear from what Arians and Licht said at the Combine that they believe there is still a lot of untapped potential in the team's current stable of backs.