The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have two rookies in their running back corps, and both of them played extensively in Thursday preseason finale. The two young backs – Ronald Jones and Shaun Wilson – had very different paths to this moment, on the cusp of the Buccaneers forming their 53 man roster, and they also had quite different results on the field on Thursday night.
Neither of those things is likely to factor into their chances to stick around past Saturday's cuts or to continue to have significant roles once the games start to count.
Jones, of course, was the Buccaneers' second-round draft choice back in April, taken at number 38 overall, the highest pick the team had used on a running back since Doug Martin in 2012. Jones pretty clearly replaced Martin, who was released in February, in the backfield rotation, joining Peyton Barber and Jacquizz Rodgers. Wilson, on the other hand, came to the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent out of Duke, which meant his first camp was going to be a battle to win a roster spot.
Jones started the game on Thursday night and played throughout the first half. Wilson began the game as the deep man on kickoffs, then started working in on offense in the second half while Bobo Wilson took over the return duties.
Jones gained just four yards on 10 carries against the Jaguars, concluding a preseason in which he, and for the most part the Bucs' running game as a whole, never got on track. Wilson didn't get any new return opportunities (he downed a touchback on one kickoff and fair caught one punt) but he had already showed his skills in that regard in the previous game against Detroit. Of offense, Wilson carried seven times for 44 yards and caught two passes for 24 yards.
View the best photos of Running Back Ronald Jones during 2018 Training Camp
Jones finished the preseason with a strange line, running 28 times for 22 yards, though he did have a two-yard touchdown plunge on just his third NFL carry in Miami. On Friday, Head Coach Dirk Koetter reiterated what he said after Thursday's game: the slim numbers for Jones weren't solely the fault of the rookie running back, who is working very hard at his craft. Jones's first carry against the Jaguars was endemic of what has happened on a good number of his carries – defensive tackle Michael Bennett exploited a mistake at the line of scrimmage to shoot directly into the backfield and meet Jones immediately after he got the handoff. The play lost five yards, which is not a good way for a back to begin his stat line for the evening.
"Ronald Jones had three straight runs in the first half where we had a mental error by the blockers up front," said Koetter. "Then the fourth one is when we were backed up on our one-yard line and I'm sure if I were Ronald Jones I'd be thinking the same thing – get this ball out of the end zone after I'd just been hit for a five-yard loss. As I said last night, you know it's frustrating as a coach that we couldn't figure out something to get Ronald Jones in space. I just want to make it clear that this guy is working hard in practice. He's improved as a receiver. He's improved as a pass blocker. He knows his assignments, it's not a playbook issue. He just didn't get very many good running opportunities. That's really all I can say about it."
Wilson has drawn Koetter's praise repeatedly throughout camp and the preseason and he did so again on Friday. The rookie's path to the 53-man roster appeared to become smoother when veteran Charles Sims was first placed on injured reserve and then released, though he continues to get good competition from first-year man Dare Ogunbowale.
"I think everyone that played did something positive," said Koetter, when asked to pinpoint a player who had helped his cause in Thursday's game. "I don't think anybody that's going to make our team hurt themselves last night. The obvious answer there is Shaun Wilson. I mean, he played really good and he's continued to ascend throughout training camp. I mean, it'll all become more clear tomorrow."
The Buccaneers will make the necessary moves to get down to 53 players on Saturday, and then will begin preparing for the New Orleans Saints on Monday. There's a good chance that both Jones and Wilson will be involved in those preparations, and at that point their respective preseason numbers will become a moot point. Wilson obviously did a fine job in making his case for the roster after his initial underdog status. As for Jones, Koetter wants to find more ways to put his rookie back in a position to use his talents.
"Ronald's doing good things in practice," said the coach. "We're happy with where he is. I'm not happy – not anything to do with him – how we blocked some for him and then how coaching-wise we didn't do a good enough job getting him in space."