The story of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' passing game in 2020 is an easy one to tell because it essentially followed a straight and ascending line. The signing of Tom Brady gave that aerial attack a leader who was a sure bet to produce big numbers while reducing turnovers, but it also meant that the quarterback and his pass-catchers would be learning each other on the fly. The result was an offense that started out good and then finished great when everything finally clicked.
The story of the Buccaneers' 2020 ground game is a bit more complicated. Even after the late addition of Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones was the clear starter for most of the regular season. Tampa Bay's rushing attack wasn't great by the sheer numbers, tying for 28th in the league in yards per game and finishing with almost the exact same season total as it had the last two years (1,523 in 2018; 1,521 in 2019; 1,519 in 2020). But the Bucs did improve their per-carry average by a noticeable amount, from 3.7 in 2019 to 4.1 in 2020 and Jones actually set a single-season franchise record with 5.1 yards per tote.
Thanks to a couple December injuries and a bout with COVID, Jones ended up in the support role at the end of the year and in the playoffs while Fournette morphed into "Playoff Lenny" and put up huge numbers in the Bucs' run to the Super Bowl. Fournette, who signed a one-year deal with the Buccaneers after his surprise release by the Jaguars just before the season, could have used that playoff performance as a boost in free agency, potentially finding a team with a clear need for a number-one back and leaving the Bucs' top job with Jones. Instead, as so many of his Super Bowl teammates did, he chose to return for another run at a title, setting up a very interesting backfield competition – or perhaps collaboration – for Tampa Bay in 2021.
The running back position is also one of the very few that has seen the arrival of a notable new veteran in 2021, as the Bucs have largely focused on keeping their Supe 55 band together. And there's also an intriguing young player in the mix from last year's draft. Tampa Bay's title-defense depth chart is probably as settled as any post-championship team in a long time, but there is still plenty to figure out in the running back room.
The 2021 NFL Draft is now in the rearview mirror and free agency has yielded just about all it's going to produce at this point. There will, of course, be some tweaks along the way as always but the Buccaneers began their OTA practices this week with a roster of 90 players, most of whom will still be around when the team heads to training camp in July. Over the next six weeks we're going to go through that roster, position by position, and see how the Bucs' depth chart looks heading into the 2021 season. Today we look at the running backs, and here's the schedule of those positional reviews:
- Tuesday, May 25: Quarterbacks
- Friday, May 28: Running Backs
- Tuesday, June 1: Wide Receivers
- Friday, June 4: Tight Ends
- Tuesday, June 8: Offensive Tackles
- Friday, June 11: Guards & Centers
- Tuesday, June 15: Defensive Linemen
- Friday, June 18: Outside Linebackers
- Tuesday, June 22: Inside Linebackers
- Friday, June 25: Cornerbacks
- Tuesday, June 29: Safeties
- Friday, July 2: Specialists
View the best photos from the second day of Bucs OTAs.
Jones was a high second-round pick out of USC in 2018 but he never found a role in the offense in Dirk Koetter's final season as the head coach. He found his footing in 2019 under Bruce Arians, however, and usurped Peyton Barber as the starter by midseason, eventually finishing with 724 yards and 4.2 yads per carry. Immediately after the Buccaneers selected Vanderbilt's Ke'Shawn Vaughn in the third round in 2020 it looked like he and Jones would be the primary duo in the backfield that year, but Arians and General Manager Jason Licht weren't done tweaking the roster.
Near the start of training camp, the Buccaneers brought in accomplished veteran LeSean McCoy, who had spent the previous year with the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. That added depth, veteran leadership and a good pair of hands out of the backfield, but the depth chart was shook up again just before the season when Fournette became available and chose to sign up with Brady. Neither Vaughn nor McCoy would end up with large roles but that last signing proved important.
"We felt like we had a very strong team last year and I think last year proved that a lot of depth at key positions helped us get to our goal of winning the Super Bowl," said Licht at the end of the season.
Now the Buccaneers are bringing back all of those running backs except McCoy, and his spot has been taken by long-time Bengal Giovani Bernard, one of the league's best pass-catching backs over the last eight years. Both Jones and Fournette showed they could be NFL feature backs in 2020 – and of course Fournette had already proved that for three years in Jacksonville – but 2021 is a new season and the handoffs and targets are up for grabs.
"When we come back we're not Super Bowl champs, we're just the Tampa Bay Buccaneers," said Arians, explaining his post-championship message to the team. "It's for everybody to find their role, whatever that might be, then embrace it. We did learn this year to embrace those roles and know that at any point in time they could change and be bigger or smaller. And team is still the main thing. We had a long talk about that when we broke up as a team."
- Leonard Fournette…Signed a new one-year deal to remain in Tampa on March 31, about two weeks into free agency; Prolific postseason performance included a team-leading 448 yards from scrimmage and an NFL-record-tying touchdown in four straight playoff games.
- Ronald Jones…Entering the final season of the initial four-year contract he signed as a second-round draft pick in 2018; led the Buccaneers with 978 rushing yards during the regular season and scored eight total touchdowns, including a team-record 98-yard run at Carolina in Week 10.
- Ke'Shawn Vaughn…Heading into the second season of the four-year deal he got as a third-round pick in 2020; Averaged 4.2 yards on his 26 carries in the 2020 regular season and scored the game-winning touchdown on a nine-yard catch against the Chargers in Week Four.
- C.J. Prosise…Re-signed with the Buccaneers on February 12 after spending most of the postseason on Tampa Bay's practice squad; Had 283 rushing yards and 411 receiving yards over five seasons in Seattle and Houston.
- LeSean McCoy…Was not re-signed after becoming an unrestricted free agent and is not currently on an NFL roster; Contributed 132 yards from scrimmage during the 2020 regular season but did not have a touch in the playoffs.
- Giovani Bernard…Signed a one-year contract with the Buccaneers on April 14 after being waived by Cincinnati the week before; Ranks third in the NFL among running backs over the last eight seasons in receptions (342) and receiving yards (2,867)
- Troymaine Pope…Signed a one-year deal with the Buccaneers on May 17 after a tryout during rookie mini-camp; Has played in 24 regular-season games with the Chargers, Seahawks and Jets.
Not only do the Buccaneers need to figure out how they're going to divvy up the backfield reps in 2021, but they also need to come to some long-term decisions along the way. Other than Vaughn, all of the team's running backs are on contracts that expire after this season. Will Jones do enough to earn a second contract in Tampa? Will Fournette find a more robust market for his services next spring after the temporarily-depressed salary cap shoots back up? Will the Bucs see Vaughn as their lead back of the immediate future?
Jones' steady progression over three seasons and his big-play ability – in addition to his 98-yarder against the Panthers he scored his one receiving touchdown on a 37-yard breakaway – make him a good candidate to maintain a very large role in 2021, even with Fournette's return. He's also just turning 24 in August and has relatively little wear on his tires with 453 touches through his first three years. Contrast that with Fournette, who had 800 touches over his first three NFL seasons after being drafted fourth overall by the Jaguars in 2017.
In his first four NFL seasons, Fournette has racked up 2,998 rushing yards, averaging 3.9 per tote and scoring 23 touchdowns. He has also proved to be a reliable pass-catcher, with 170 career catches for another 1,242 yards and two scores. He was the Bucs' top receiving back in 2020 and is a trusted blocker in pass protection. Of course, the Bucs also now have Bernard, who profiles as a possible third-down back.
Jones held on to his starting job after the arrival of Fournette but the Bucs' backfield did look like a bit of a time-share early on. Jones had 43 touches to 30 for Fournette over the first three weeks but the production was nearly equal with 142 yards and one touchdown for the former and 123 and two for the latter. However, an ankle injury sidelined Fournette for the next three games and Jones responded with three straight 100-yard outings. By mid-December, Jones had 180 rushes compared to just 69 for Fournette.
However, the pendulum swung the other way when Jones sustained finger and quad injuries and also spent two weeks on the reserve/COVID list. Fournette took over and scored three touchdowns over the last three weeks of the regular season, then exploded in the playoffs.
Other than his big play against the Chargers, Vaughn saw the majority of his action in blowout wins over Green Bay in Week Six and Detroit in Week 16, with a total of 20 carries and 104 yards in those two contests. He did finish his rookie season with a fine per-carry average of 4.2 yards. McCoy was inactive or had one or zero catches in 18 of the Bucs' 20 games.
Overall, Tampa Bay's rushing attack averaged 94.9 yards per game and, as noted, 4.1 yards per carry. The Buccaneers scored 16 times on the ground, including seven by Jones and six by Fournette. Tampa Bay ran the ball on 36.3% of its plays during the regular season, the third-lowest mark in the league.
However, the rushing attack did pick up in December and January. Tampa Bay eclipsed 100 rushing yards in five of its last eight games, scored on the ground at least once in every one of those contests and capped the season with 33 carries for 145 yards in Super Bowl LV. The Bucs' rush percentage in the postseason was close to 46% of the plays.
Three Key Questions:
· Will Leonard Fournette's outstanding playoff performance lead to a more equal share of carries with Ronald Jones?
Fournette surely envisioned a role more like the one he had at the end of the season when he chose to re-sign with the Buccaneers but it remains to be seen how far he will eat into the two-to-one ratio of carries Jones enjoyed over the course of the 2020 regular season. Upon his re-signing, Fournette said that playing with the Bucs' star-studded roster and not being the focal point of the offense as he was in Jacksonville was "humbling" for him. That said, he intends to fight hard for the primary role in the backfield in 2021.
"Going into camp we're going to have to compete," said Fournette. "Nothing's promised to anyone. I've been here before. I understand about competing. It's like college. Right now, we're just training, getting our bodies right. It's coming in knowing that we're going to compete for that starting job, and it's going to be a great one."
Circumstances outside of his control cost Jones the lead role in the playoffs and opened the door for Playoff Lenny, but the Buccaneers' coaching staff had shown a lot of confidence in their incumbent back along the way. Jones lost a costly fumble in a narrow Monday Night Football win over the Giants in Week Eight, and at the time it seemed to shake his confidence. When he fumbled again early in the Week 10 game at Carolina, Arians made a point of showing his confidence in Jones on the sideline and the young runner went back out and racked up a career-high 192 rushing yards. The Bucs' coaches will surely go into 2021 with that same high opinion of Jones.
"He's so young," said Arians. "When he got here he was so, so young and didn't really have that much background, but he had tremendous talent. His ability to cut, make people miss [and] break tackles was outstanding. It was just a matter of maturing as a back, slowing down [and] letting the game come to you instead of forcing everything. I was really, really proud of him because when he had the miscue in New York, it really put him in the tank because he thought he let the team down. We talked a lot about that – 'One play doesn't change games.' When he came to the sideline it was all encouragement and I really liked the way he bounced back and had a hell of a ballgame."
· Will second-year back Ke'Shawn Vaughn carve out a larger role after seeing only sporadic playing time as a rookie?
Vaughn is working hard on his pass-catching this offseason and is working to gain the coaches' trust in all areas of a running back's responsibility – rushing, receiving and blocking. He says he is ready for a bigger role in the offense in his second season. The issue, of course, is that he still has the same two backs ahead of him on the depth chart, and the Buccaneers are still loaded all across the skill-position depth chart.
That said, Arians and his staff are high on Vaughn's talents as a runner and believe he has the vision and cutting skills to be a productive back at the professional level. And with injuries always a possibility in the NFL, Vaughn could be thrust into a bigger role at any time. Both Fournette and Jones missed time last year but in each case the other was able to step up and fill the void, leaving little work for Vaughn or McCoy. Things could work out differently in 2021, but at the moment it's very hard to predict how much action Vaughn will see this fall.
· Can Giovani Bernard be a high-volume pass-catching back for Tom Brady in the mold of New England's James White?
There's little doubt that Brady liked throwing to White when they were Patriots teammates. From 2015-19, Brady targeted White on 86 passes per season. In his last season in New England, Brady targeted running backs on 166 throws, leading to 121 receptions. In his first season with the Buccaneers, he targeted backs 119 times and completed 84 of them.
There is context here, of course. Some of that reliance on White and other backs in the passing game in 2019 was due to an overall offensive cast that was a bit lacking. When he arrived in Tampa, Brady found himself surrounded by a multitude of weapons at receiver and tight end and was able to thrive by distributing the ball to the likes of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller and others.
Still, the more ways an offense can succeed the better and there could be room for a high-volume pass-catcher out of the Bucs' backfield in 2021. We can't dismiss Fournette as that player – in addition to his 36 catches to lead Bucs backs last year he had 76 receptions in his last season with the Jaguars – but the addition of Bernard adds another interesting option.
Though the Bengals released the 29-year-old back in April it wasn't because his production had been in decline. His 416 rushing yards were more than he had in the previous two seasons combined and, more to the point, his 47 catches were his most since 2015. He has been very consistent in that latter category throughout his career, posting between 30 and 56 receptions in every season.
Bernard is also working hard to absorb the playbook, which he recently said didn't overlap much with what he had encountered in Cincinnati. Not only is he participating in the voluntary OTAs with a group of mostly rookies and young players but he's also joining Brady and company in their own workouts away from the Bucs' facilities. Arians had a good first impression of Bernard when OTAs began earlier this week.
"He's really smart," said the coach. "He picked everything up and obviously he's been working with the older guys too, but he looked really good."