The NFL is about to go from zero to sixty in a hurry. All 32 teams are in the process of clearing their players for training camp, after which there will be an adjustment period that includes time for players to focus on strength and conditioning. By the time actual practices began – during the time when the cancelled preseason games would have been played – the regular season will only be a few weeks away. It's going to be a challenge for everyone, to say the least.
If there's one group that might be expected to hit the ground running, so to speak, it is fittingly the running backs. This is the position at which rookies generally acclimate to the NFL most quickly. It stands to reason that if a rookie running back like Doug Martin can make an immediate impact after a month of training camp and preseason games, a veteran back should be ready to go after a few weeks of practice.
Complicating matters for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, however, is the fact that rookie running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn was placed on the new reserve/COVID-19 list on Tuesday. That list was created for players who either test positive for COVID-19 or who have been quarantined after having been in close contact with an infected person or persons. That's an unfortunate start for the 2020 third-round draft pick, but hopefully he'll be back with the team by the time practices start in the middle of next month.
In response to that news, Head Coach Bruce Arians was asked if the Buccaneers would be adding a running back to the roster. He was pretty definitive in his answer: "We won't make any adjustments to that position."
That means that by September 13, the Buccaneers will have a running back corps made up of some combination of three or four (maybe five) of the following: Vaughn, incumbent starter Ronald Jones, 2019 third-down back Dare Ogunbowale, return specialist T.J. Logan, seventh-round draft pick Raymond Calais and first-year man Aca'Cedric Ware, who spent 10 weeks on the Bucs' practice squad last fall. The assignment for me and Staff Writer Carmen Vitali today is to pick from that group and then predict how the snaps, carries and targets will be distributed among them.
Our peek into the offensive backfield represents the seventh stop on our 10-part Camp Countdown, in which we are addressing a number of burning questions as actual football approaches. We've already discussed such topics as draft pick transitions and the third receiver competition; you can find links to the first six below.
Thursday, July 30: How do you see the offensive backfield shaping up?
Friday, July 31: Who will be the first player to intercept Tom Brady in practice?
Monday, August 3: Which player on the roster will make the biggest leap from 2019 to 2020?
Tuesday, August 4: Who 'wins' training camp? Offense or defense?
Today's Question: How do you see the offensive backfield shaping up?
I fully believe that Arians wants to take a committee approach to the running game, with one back or another occasionally taking over a game if he has the "hot hand." That's certainly how it shook out last year between Jones and the since-departed Peyton Barber, and I believe Vaughn may have a bit more big-play juice than Barber so I think he'll get at least the same sort of timeshare.
Last year Jones had the hot hand in the opener and thus he got 13 carries to Barber's eight and produced 75 yards. Barber came back in Week Two with a 23-carry, 82-yard outing in Carolina, in which Jones only got four handoffs. After that, Jones had two more strong outings (70 and 80 yards) and though the rushing attack went into hibernation for a few weeks to follow, Jones eventually replaced Barber as the starter before midseason.
Though that seemed like a passing of the baton – and in a way it was with Barber leaving after the season and Jones becoming the presumptive starter for 2020 – the timeshare continued for the most part. Five times in an eight-game span from Weeks 8-15, Jones and Barber had either the exact same number of carries or were within one tote of each other. Jones was a bigger part of the passing game, finishing the season with 40 targets and 31 catches to Barber's 24 and 16.
So basically my prediction is that 2020 will start much as it was in 2019, with Jones as the starter and primary first and second-down back and Ogunbowale as the third-down back. The fact that Ogunbowale already knows the pass-protection responsibilities and is good at blocking keeps him in that role to start. Vaughn begins the season spelling both of them and gets close to the same number of carries as Jones. Later, as Vaughn proves he can handle the pass-protection part of it and shows that he can run routes and make an impact as a receiver, his share of the snaps and touches will begin to grow.
I think the Bucs keep at least four. If it is capped at four, then whomever wins the return job between Logan and Calais gets that spot. It's possible, based on how many receivers the Bucs keep, that they'll hold onto five backs, in which case Logan and Calais are both on the squad.
Second day in a row where we're going to agree and I'm just going to expound upon you answer a little bit. Each of these backs have their strengths and I think the discrepancy in snaps between what Jones gets and what Vaughn gets will largely depend on how quickly Vaughn gets up to speed. His natural hands have to be appealing to a quarterback like Tom Brady, who likes to incorporate his running backs into the passing game. A lot. For reference, Patriots running back James White had 645 receiving yards on 72 catches compared to 263 yards on 67 carries.
Jones has worked a lot on his hands and receiving ability this offseason, though. It was a point of emphasis for him last year and he took a big step forward in improving that aspect of his game with 309 receiving yards on 31 receptions. Coupled with his 724 rushing yards, Jones had over 1,000 all-purpose yards in his second campaign.
Ogunbowale, being primarily used on third down, has the leg up in pass protection, as Scott mentioned. That's a huge responsibility BA asks of his running backs and Ogunbowale has proven he can handle the load.
We'll see how the former Ragin' Cajun in Raymond Calais can develop in this abbreviated preseason. Calais was one of the Bucs' seventh-round picks and like Scott said, will be battling primarily for that return specialist spot with third-year man T.J. Logan. The latter player arrived in Tampa last year after playing in Arizona under now-Bucs Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich. It makes Logan the more familiar face over the rookie but with Calais' 4.42 speed he clocked at the NFL combine, he might have a pretty good case over the incumbent.