Peyton Barber's name occupied the first line at running back on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' depth chart when it was released last week, and his arms took the first handoff of the game when Tampa Bay opened the preseason with a win in Miami on Thursday. Barber finished his second NFL season as the Buccaneers' starter in the backfield, and so far he has done nothing to lose that expected privilege to start his third season.
This is apparently the case despite the Buccaneers using a high second-round draft pick on USC running back Ronald Jones in April.
Head Coach Dirk Koetter said the team has not made any sort of conclusion at this point as to whether their backfield would largely be occupied by one back or be more of an equal timeshare. In addition to Barber and Jones the Buccaneers also return two tailbacks from last season in Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims.
"We'll see how it works out," said Koetter of the eventual structure of the Bucs' backfield and the distribution of touches. "We're not really leaning in any direction right now. We'll see how it works out. Peyton's our starter, and we're going to definitely use Ronald Jones and take advantage of what he can do. We do have the two veteran backs behind him. Again, we have three more preseason games. Let's just let it sort out a little bit more. We could go either of those ways though. We'll see how it sorts out."
Both Barber and Jones scored touchdowns in that win over Miami, though Barber, playing with the first-team offense, probably had a slightly more impressive game overall. Those two played the first half and then first-year player Dare Ogunbowale got the largest dose of playing time in the second half. Barber ran four times for 21 yards and was praised by Koetter for "finishing" his runs well, which was a strength of his in his time as the starter last season. Jones gained nine yards on eight carries.
The most likely scenario remains a good amount of work for both Barber and Jones regardless of which one is technically the starter. If the Buccaneers don't choose to rely on one "bellcow" back all season, they won't exactly be setting a new trend. Many NFL teams have elected to go with a committee approach in recent years, often quite successfully.
View photos from the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp practice Monday at One Buccaneer Place.
Last year, for instance, Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell was the only player in the NFL to log 300 or more carries. Just 10 seasons earlier, in 2007, there were six backs to cross the 300-carry threshold. This is a relatively recent development – in 1997 there were also six 300-carry backs and in 1986 (we skipped 1987 because it was a strike year), there were also six. In addition, there were only six players who logged even 250 carries last year, have as many as in 2007.
Pittsburgh also had the biggest disparity between the number of carries for its first and second-most active runners; Bell had 289 more than James Conner. In nearly half of the league's backfields – 14 teams – there was a disparity of less than 100 carries between the first and second backs. Two more teams had differences of 110 and 111 yards. Some of the most successful teams of 2017 ranked among those 16 that split the backfield workload somewhat more equally, including Philadelphia, New England, New Orleans, Minnesota, Atlanta and Tennessee.
So the question isn't necessarily if the Buccaneers have one more running backs who are capable of playing on every down and racking up 300 carries, but if they have a back they want to use in that manner.
"Peyton could be a three-down player if we asked him to," said Koetter. "The reason you don't see a whole lot of three-down backs in the NFL is because it's hard on them. It's hard. They get tired. They take a pounding. I don't think any position gets hit more and gets hit harder than running back in the NFL. Lineman of course, are hitting each other every play, but usually when those backs get hurt, usually somebody's got a 10- yard running start when they hit them.
"I do not think that we will be going with a three-down back just because I think it's very hard to do. I think those guys that are that in the league are really on an elite status."
DOTSON GOOD TO GO: Demar Dotson, a 10th-year NFL veteran and the Bucs' starter at right tackle – when healthy – for the last six years, did not play in the Buccaneers' preseason opener in Miami, despite the team being thin at his position. Dotson might also be held out of the next contest on Saturday in Tennessee, and it doesn't appear to be a priority to get him a significant amount of game action in August.
If the Bucs were preparing for a regular-season game at the moment, however, Dotson would very much be in their plans.
"He's right on track," said Koetter of his stalwart blocker. "He could've played last week if we needed him to. We don't need a guy that's in his 1oth or 11th year to play in the preseason. Look around the league – there were a lot of veteran players that didn't play in preseason [week] one."
Koetter isn't ready to divulge if Dotson will indeed make his 2018 debut this coming weekend. But it's clear from practice observations that he is getting more and more work every day. Dotson finished the 2017 season on injured reserve and then had to have a follow-up procedure on his knee in the spring. As a result, he did not take part in the offseason training program and, while he was cleared for the start of camp, he has been eased back into action. Lately that has included a lot more work in full-speed 11-on-11 drills.
Koetter does not seem concerned that Dotson's status will be in doubt when the regular season rolls around.
"Dot's progressing fine," said the coach. "We're easing him in as I said. He's going in 11-on-11. He's out there right in the middle of it. I'm very confident that Dot's good to go."
View exclusive photos from week three of the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp from Team Photographer Kyle Zedaker
A NEW SLOT FOR JUSTIN EVANS: For the second straight practice, the Buccaneers used second-year safety Justin Evans in a new role when the team went to its nickel defense. Because the Bucs are banged up at cornerback and specifically without two of their top three nickel-backs, Evans has seen a significant amount of time in the slot.
As Koetter explained after Saturday's practice, when Evans first made his cameo as a slot corner, the move was designed to ease the aforementioned injury depletion at that position. It also served the added benefit of opening up some first-team snaps at safety for rookie Jordan Whitehead.
Evans' value to the defense is too great at safety for the team to be considering any sort of permanent switch, even if the former Texas A&M star does show off some strong coverage skills. As noted on Saturday, this exposure to a new role gives Evans some experience there in case an emergency arises in the regular season and he is pressed into that job in a game that counts. That's one advantage of the switch, but Koetter noted two more on Monday.
"It gives Justin a chance to play a new position which will only help him understand the entire defense more," said Koetter. "Also, we think Justin's a playmaker and that gets him closer to the action. He got a lot of snaps at nickel and since we're working with Tennessee this week, he may be playing some nickel down in Tennessee."