The Tampa Bay Buccaneers released their first depth chart of 2021 on Wednesday morning, right about the time that the 90 men represented on that document were taking the practice field. There isn't much mystery this summer as to who will be starting in Week One, but the depth chart is still a notable compilation of information given that battling for spots on that chart is what training camp is all about.
Some players have more reason to be concerned about upcoming cuts – the roster must eventually be trimmed from that 90 down to 53 – but even those who are likely secure don't necessarily know how big their roles will be yet. Running back Leonard Fournette fits into that latter group.
Fournette met with the media on Wednesday right after practice, which meant he couldn't have seen that newly-released depth chart yet anyway. But he didn't plan on seeking it out and wasn't concerned with what it said.
"No, not at all," said Fournette, when asked if he paid attention to the depth chart that is made public. "Not at all."
And nor should he, frankly. It's worth noting that the title of the document is the "Unofficial" Depth Chart, which is a nod to the fact that it is always fluid and thus not always truly on the mark. For the record, Fournette is listed second at the running back position, behind Ronald Jones. That's exactly the way the depth chart read at the end of last season, though by that point it was clear that both players were fully worthy of being referred to as starters. Head Coach Bruce Arians essentially said as much in June during the team's mini-camp.
Even that distinction isn't particularly important to Fournette.
"Not really," he said to the idea of he and Jones being some sort of 1A and 1B. "We know what we bring to the table, what's expected. Whatever happens, if any one of us ever has to carry [the load], we're not going to miss a heartbeat. We're all taught the same thing, we all have a great coach."
The background is well known by now. Fournette, formerly the fourth-overall pick in the 2017 draft by Jacksonville, was waived by the Jaguars at the end of August and signed by the Buccaneers three days later. He joined a backfield led by third-year player Ronald Jones, who had assumed the starting job midway through the 2019 campaign. Jones continued to lead the way for most of the regular season, eventually getting about a two-to-one lead in carries over Fournette, and at times the former Jaguar's role was minimized in the offense, to his frustration. But Fournette fought through his emotions and was ready to take over when Jones was sidelined by COVID and a couple late-season injuries. Fournette then famously turned into Playoff Lenny and became the team's most effective offensive weapon in the postseason.
Now Jones and Fournette are both healthy and locked in for 2021 after the latter signed a new one-year deal with the Bucs in the offseason. The depth chart isn't as important as being ready to contribute when called upon.
"It just depends on the game plan, that's all," said Fournette. "Whatever they give me I'll take and we'll see from there. But other than that my job is to come out here and compete like I'm doing against the best and make each other better every day."
The Bucs have depth beyond Jones and Fournette, as well, especially with the addition of seasoned veteran Giovani Bernard, probably the best pass-catcher of the bunch. In addition, 2020 third-round pick Ke'Shawn Vaughn could play himself into a larger role. With so many players in the backfield vying for touches, every practice becomes important.
"That's why you have to come out here and compete every day," said Fournette. "Understand when you go home and get out of practice, you have to study. The MEs (mental errors), the minor details – that will separate the starters from the non-starters on this team."
* While there were few surprises on that first depth chart released Wednesday, one mildly notable entry was Codey Johnson getting the second spot behind Rob Gronkowski at one of the two tight end positions.
The Bucs list their starting offense as a two-TE package and have Gronkowski and O.J. Howard as the two front-liners. Cameron Brate, the third man in that very talented and productive trio, is listed behind Howard. What's notable about McElroy's position is that he is listed ahead of Tanner Hudson. Both McElroy and Hudson have received a large amount of snaps during the first three weeks of camp and if the Bucs keep four players at that position like they did for most of 2020, they would be the two most obvious candidates to round it out. Both are talented pass-catchers who are working to improve their blocking skills.
There's plenty of time for the depth chart to change, but for now the Bucs may be a little higher on McElroy as a blocker. They may also be intrigued by his untapped potential. McElroy managed to play three different sports – football, baseball and basketball – at the college level but overall doesn't have a lot of experience in his current profession. He only played one season of college football, at Southeastern Oklahoma and has to this point only played in one NFL game. He did make a 30-yard catch for the Buccaneers late in 2019 on his only target so far.
"Codey can run and catch, too," said Arians. "He's learning a lot of football; a lot of things are new to him. You wouldn't expect to be coaching some of those things at this level until you look at his background. Some of what's obvious to the rest of us isn't obvious to him. He's learning on the fly but he's a big, talented guy and he's willing to put his face in there, or his shoulder."
Meanwhile, second-year man Tyler Johnson is listed behind Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown at one of the two receiver spots on the depth chart. That puts him among the top six on the chart overall, which is the most likely number that the Buccaneers will keep at receiver on the 53-man roster. And Johnson has helped himself of late after a slow start to camp exacerbated by him arriving back in Tampa in less than perfect playing shape. Arians said Johnson has nearly eliminated that issue and has been on a roll for the past week or so.
"Yeah, Tyler's had about seven or eight really, really good days, had another great day today," said Arians. "He's getting in shape. He's probably got a pound or two to go. But yeah, he's made his commitment. We know what he can do. He's done a really good job blocking, which doesn't sound like much for a receiver but when you have guys who will block you can run the football."
* Arians wasn't just pleased with Johnson's performance on Wednesday. He set up the midweek practice to focus on one important aspect of efficient football and the players handled it well.
"Again, a very, very good practice," said Arians, happy with his team's work for a second straight day after a very rough outing for the offense on Monday. "Today's emphases were communication – a lot of shifts, a lot of motions, defensively making adjustments, offensively obviously executing those shifts and motions and the plays correctly. I was really pleased with it. It's a nice little buildup – obviously, [we] took the pads off – for Saturday night."
This is especially promising for the offense, which is hoping to continue evolving in 2021 after spending most of last season as a work in progress. At this point a year ago, new arrival Tom Brady was still trying to learn the Bucs' terminology and get comfortable with his various pass-catchers. Those hurdles have been cleared and Brady's crew was flying high over the last two months of 2020. Now there's room to build on that foundation.
"Yeah, we wouldn't have had all those shifts, motions and all those different gadgets that we were doing today," said Arians with a laugh as he remembered last year's camp. "He couldn't learn them, we couldn't learn them. Yeah, it's night and day having just one mini-camp and these practices versus last year."
Fournette felt as if he and his teammates had passed something like a pop quiz, making them more confident for the upcoming finals.
"I think it's something new that we're working on as a whole," he said. "I think we just started today. I guess it was kind of like a test, so we know our stuff that we've been studying and everybody is on the same page. I think we kind of needed it today."