Bucs General Manager Jason Licht held a Zoom conference call on Thursday with the NFL Draft a mere two weeks away. Many have speculated running back is a priority for the Bucs – Licht and Head Coach Bruce Arians have said so in as many words, but Licht mentioned on the call that their trust remains firmly with current third-year back Ronald Jones.
"We do think Ronald hasn't even scratched the surface of what he can be," Licht said. "He made a huge jump from year one to year two. He didn't have to do much to do that because year two wasn't very good for him. But year two, we felt very good about where he came, and we think he still has a tremendous amount of upside."
The former second-round pick indeed leap-frogged in his sophomore campaign, rushing for 724 yards and six touchdowns while splitting carries with running back Peyton Barber last season. The Bucs employed a sort of 'running back by committee' approach to the tailback group, one which included Dare Ogunbowale, who was often used on third down due to his abilities in pass blocking and in using his hands as a receiver.
It's still the hope that Jones can further his development into an every-down back. Bucs Head Coach Bruce Arians expressed confidence in the third-year player in Indianapolis at the NFL Combine and suggested the same about Jones potential as Licht did above. Jones did manage 309 receiving yards last season, showing vast improvement from even his college days. While at USC, Jones was rarely tasked with catching the ball, instead using his speed and explosiveness to make plays on the ground.
"We have a lot of faith in Ronald, and in fact, we have more faith in him now that we ever have," Licht said. "But that's another position, as you can tell [when] you look across the league, some of the better teams they have one, two or three guys, sometimes four, that they can rely on in different roles in their offense."
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That is to say, it likely won't all be on Jones to shoulder the load. Barber departed in free agency, opening up a hole that wasn't previously there last season. And while Ogunbowale flashed a lot of good with his hands last year, he didn't quite get the touches to prove himself the pass-catching back the Bucs would need, especially with their most recent addition under center.
With quarterback Tom Brady at the helm of the Bucs' offense, an even greater emphasis will presumably be placed on having a reliable pass-catcher to come out of the backfield. Brady's main target from such a position has been James White the past few seasons. Last year, White racked up 645 receiving yards and five touchdowns, over double his 263 yards and one touchdown on the ground.
So, while Licht echoed those sentiments both he and Arians had been saying since before the NFL Combine in February about their faith in Jones and the running back group, Licht also noted Thursday that it won't stop them from looking to acquire another back in two weeks' time.
"It doesn't stop us from wanting to add to that group," said Licht. "Which may be something we do depending on who's there, where they're at and what other positions we're looking at."
In fact, both Licht and Arians have been knee-deep in backfield pass-catching prospects this entire offseason. They went into the Combine in Indianapolis with a keen eye on a crop that includes Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor, who showed he can be a receiving back last year for the Badgers, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire from LSU, who was used in a pro-style offense that demanded he catch as well as rush. In fact, Edwards-Helaire recorded over 1,800 all-purpose yards for the Tigers, including 55 receptions for 453 yards in 2019.
"Can they be a receiver?" asked Arians while discussing what he would be looking for during the running back workouts back at the Combine in February. "That separates guys from having to come off the field. I had Christian Okoye who led the league, but he never played on third down. Edgerrin James never came off the field. Marshall Faulk never came off the field. For me, I'm looking for that type of guy."
And if that guy exists in the draft at the right spot, Licht and Arians won't hesitate to take him.