The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' running back room, like just about every position on the 2021 depth chart, is going to look a lot like it did in the 2020 Super Bowl season. LeSean McCoy has been replaced by Giovani Bernard, who might be in line for more action than McCoy got in 2020, but otherwise the team's top three backs from last year – Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette and Ke'Shawn Vaughn – are all still around and hungry for handoffs.
That said, the Buccaneers' running back situation isn't necessarily the same as it was heading into last season. Tampa Bay only picked up Fournette shortly before the first game and it was clear for most of the season that Jones remained the lead back. However, Jones ran into some late-season misfortune with COVID-19 and a couple injuries, which gave Fournette a chance to step up turn into a postseason star. Meanwhile, the Bucs used a 2020 third-round pick on Vaughn and probably want to find out what they have in him a bit more than the were able to do in his rookie season.
All of those backs were in the mix during the Bucs' just-concluded three-day mini-camp, but Head Coach Bruce Arians says the real competition for roles and touches in the backfield will start in about six weeks.
"It's a hell of a group," said Arians, starting his thoughts with Jones and Fournette. "Both those guys are starters in my mind. Whoever goes out first doesn't really matter to me. But that will be determined in camp."
As for Vaughn, as he tries to snag some reps away from Jones and Fournette he also has to wonder how much Bernard will eat into the pie. Arians would like to see more of the second-year back in his offense but says Vaughn's chances to play could hinge on special teams.
"Ke'Shawn's made a nice move but he has to be a better special teams players right now because of what's in front of him," said Arians. "But I have all the confidence in the world in him as a runner and a receiver. And Gio has added a nice presence back there."
Arians has not seen the Buccaneers' Super Bowl ring design and doesn't plan to until the team's ring ceremony on July 22. He wants to be surprised.
"It will be a special night," said Arians. "Hopefully we can put it to bed then and get on with next season. I have not [seen it]. I don't want to see it until I get it."
Buccaneers ownership sought out input from Arians and some players and Arians' only suggestion was a practical one.
"My input is that I wanted to be able to wear it," he said. "I have one that's so big you can't wear it. It just sits in a jewelry case. I want to wear it in case I don't have a reservation and I can get one."
Lavonte David, one of the players who provided input on the ring design, has seen the final product but most of his teammates have not. The reveal when the boxes are presented during the ceremony could lead to some unexpected emotions.
"I don't know – we'll have to see when they present us the rings," said wide receiver Mike Evans about how he expects it to hit him. "Right now I'm saying that I won't be emotional, but when it comes you never know. It could just hit you. It's definitely a huge accomplishment. I'm definitely going to cherish the ring and leave it for my kids and my kids' kids. Hopefully I get multiple [Super Bowl rings] in my lifetime."
You cannot accuse Shaquil Barrett of setting the bar low or playing it safe when it comes to his goals for the 2021 season. The first thing on the docket is to show that the high-dollar long-term contract he got in March is one the Buccaneers will never regret.
"It's just a good feeling to have that long-term deal, but nothing really changed," said Barrett. "I'm still going to prepare pretty much the same way, but I'm still super hungry. I'm ready to show them that I'm worth every last penny that I'm getting. I also want to show them I'm one of the best at my position."
It would be fair to say that Barrett has already proved that final point, which is what led to the long-term deal he's been coveting for several years. After leading the NFL and setting a new team record with 19.5 sacks in 2019 after arriving on a one-year prove-it deal, Barrett came in at 8.0 sacks in 15 games last year but was one of the NFL's leaders in QB pressures in both seasons. He also dominated in the playoffs with four sacks, leading the charge against Patrick Mahomes in Super Bowl LV with a sack and four pressures.
But that's okay because Barrett has even loftier goals.
"This upcoming year I'm working on being consistent game-in and game-out," Barrett began. "There were some games where I might have played good but in my head I don't think I played the way I was supposed to play. I most definitely want to improve on that. I just want to have the best season possible that y'all have ever seen from a defensive end/outside linebacker. I'm coming with a vengeance this year. Even though we won the Super Bowl I'm still hungry. I want to show my supporters that they're right to support me and show the doubters that they were wrong for doubting me."
But wait, there's more.
"I'm coming," he continued. "I want to be, individually, Defensive Player of the Year and if they want to give me MVP because the season that I have should be MVP-level. I'm coming, man. I won't be denied at all this year. When we get back I'm going to ready to go. This year is going to be real big for me."
The betting man would probably put Barrett's 2021 sack total somewhere between that 19.5 from 2019 and the 8.0 from last year. One thing is for certain, however: He is a highly motivated player in 2021.
After the first practice of mini-camp revealed a roster running at nearly full capacity, with 83 of the 89 players able to participate on the field, Arians turned that into better news by indicating that the six players who were held out of action would be ready for the start of training camp.
Of course, that was Tuesday, and there were still two more practices during which the possibility of further injuries existed. And, indeed, the list did grow longer, but only by a very small amount.
The most significant injury of camp was sustained by seventh-year safety Curtis Riley in the process of making a nice play. The only player injured during camp, according to Arians, was third-year cornerback Jamel Dean.
"He's a slight Achilles tear [suffered] when he jumped up and got that interception," said Arians of Riley. "We'll see how bad it is and if it needs to be operated on or not. I think Dean might have sprained a knee but nothing [serious]. He just bruised it a little bit. Nobody else got hurt at all."