Tampa Bay Buccaneers

State of the Bucs: Running Backs

Taking a position by position look at the Buccaneers heading into the 2021 season, continuing with running backs.


Position Group: Running Backs

Players: Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette, LeSean McCoy, Ke'Shawn Vaughn

2020 Evaluation: Running back remained a topic of discussion throughout the season as both Jones and Fournette split carries, though Jones had the advantage in the regular season by a large margin. The coaching staff made a point to say they'd always go with the 'hot hand,' even last year before acquiring the latter three on this list, and 2020 proved that philosophy. Jones rushed for a career-high 978 yards, falling just 22 shy of hitting 1,000 on the season. He got 139 additional yards in three postseason games to eclipse the mark including the playoffs. He also toted seven carries into the end zone for another career high on the year.

But the playoffs saw a resurgence from Fournette, who had just 367 yards in the regular season, though he was productive with six touchdowns. He nearly matched that yardage total with 300 rushing yards on 64 carries in four playoff games for the Buccaneers. That came with three touchdowns on the ground, including one in Super Bowl LV, along with another receiving touchdown in New Orleans. That Super Bowl touchdown was special, too. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the 27-yard score was 22 rushing yards over expectation and saw Fournette clock in a top speed of 19.96 miles per hour. The touchdown probability on the play was just 0.9%. Fournette was so productive in the postseason that 'Playoff Lenny' was born… which later turned into Lombardi Lenny and is now… Literary Lenny? The Bucs got the most out of Fournette, who came at a discount after being released by Jacksonville prior to the 2020 season. He was looking for redemption and suffice it to say, he got it.

Fournette was utilized a lot on third down, which had been the role McCoy was thought to have been brought in for at the time of his signing at the start of the Bucs' abbreviated training camp. Instead, McCoy took on more of a player-mentor role. It was something he ended up thriving in, becoming close with Fournette especially. The two did a Thanksgiving turkey giveaway together this year. But the season ended the same as the one before it did for McCoy: with a Super Bowl ring. McCoy won back-to-back championships with two different teams as he was on the Chiefs for the 2019 season that culminated with a Super Bowl LIV win.

At the other end of the spectrum, rookie Ke'Shawn or 'Sneak' Vaughn was more or less limited by the numbers game. With the three aforementioned backs ahead of him and Vaughn starting training camp on the COVID-19 list, his development took center stage rather than his production. His most significant work of the season came in the second half against Detroit when most of the starters were rested with the Bucs holding onto a big lead at halftime. In all, Vaughn rushed 26 times for 109 yards on the season and caught one touchdown. It was a moment that many likely won't forget in Week Four against the Chargers, because it prompted Vita Vea and Pat O'Connor to have this conversation:

2021 Outlook: Vaughn was a third-round pick in the 2020 draft and he remains under contract along with Jones, who will be entering the fourth and final year of his with the team in 2021. Both Fournette and McCoy were acquired on one-year deals and are likely to test free agency, especially Fournette who was spotlighted on a national stage in the postseason and shined. Tampa Bay is still in need of a reliable pass-catching back that quarterback Tom Brady likes to utilize so much. Fournette led all backs in 2020 with 233 receiving yards on 36 catches but that's a far cry from what Brady was used to out of his backs in New England. If the Bucs are looking to further bolster their offense in 2021 in their quest for two, that's likely to be one of the integral features and/or changes. Whether they can get that out of their existing backs or if they go after another in the draft this year remains to be seen.

If they do want to address this need in the draft, they'll have two very battle-tested backs available to them, though it might cost them their first-round pick. Both Alabama running back Najee Harris and Clemson back Travis Etienne are comfortable and fluid pass catchers. One or both of them could easily be first-round picks for back-needy teams, of which the Bucs are likely one. Picking last in the first round means you're also picking last in the second round and by the time the ticker would get back to Tampa Bay in round two, both the aforementioned prospects will almost certainly be gone. However, in order to know their need at running back, the Bucs first need to see if they are able to hold onto Fournette in free agency.

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