The Bucs believe Ronald Jones can take another step forward in 2020 but have also added a rookie who could factor heavily in the offense in third-round pick Ke'Shawn Vaughn
The 2019 Tampa Bay Buccaneers led the NFL in passing yards, scored more points than in any other season in franchise history (even discounting their six defensive touchdowns) and was among the league's top 10 in total yards, first downs and red zone touchdown efficiency.
That prolific offense did have two main weaknesses: a league-high 41 giveaways an a rushing attack that only generated 3.7 yards per carry. Obviously, the Buccaneers are attempting to address that first issue with the free agency addition of quarterback Tom Brady; we addressed Brady's excellent career interception rate in Monday's review of the quarterback position. Now we move on to the running backs, who will try to give Bruce Arians a more balanced offense in 2020.
The signing of Tom Brady was an incredibly dramatic move, obviously, but it was only one part of a rather remarkable offseason. The Buccaneers re-signed several key players on defense, employed the franchise tag for the first time in eight years and even reunited Brady with his favorite target, the now-unretired Rob Gronkowski. Then came the draft, which directly addressed prominent remaining depth chart needs, and the addition of 13 undrafted free agents that brought the roster close to the 90-man offseason limit.
That roster will likely still get some tweaks between now and August, even if the players don't get back on the field soon. But the group the Buccaneers have now is largely what it will take to training camp; most of the building work is done and the next task is whittling the roster down to 53 for the regular season.
Over the next six weeks we will be taking a close look at each position on the depth chart now that the draft and most of free agency are complete. Some positions needed more attention in the offseason than others after the 2019 season, but every spot on the depth chart has seen some turnover. Today we look at what the Bucs already had at running back, what they've added and lost and how it might all come together in 2020.
Roster Review Schedule:
• Monday, May 18: Quarterbacks
• Wednesday, May 20: Running Backs
• Monday, May 25: Wide Receivers
• Wednesday, May 27: Tight Ends
• Monday, June 1: Offensive Tackles
• Wednesday, June 3: Guards & Centers
• Monday, June 8: Defensive Linemen
• Wednesday, June 10: Outside Linebackers
• Monday, June 15: Inside Linebackers
• Wednesday, June 17: Cornerbacks
• Monday, June 22: Safeties
• Wednesday, June 24: Specialists
As was the case at quarterback, the Buccaneers have not made a lot of moves at the running back position but could still look quite different in the ground game in 2020. The main change is the addition of third-round draft pick Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who at the least should replace the snaps provided last year by Peyton Barber, who left for Washington via free agency.
Of course, running backs don't get their yards by themselves, so additions at other positions could also significantly affect how well Tampa Bay runs the ball in 2020. The most prominent of those are Gronkowski, a powerful blocker as a tight end, and first-round draft pick Tristan Wirfs, who is expected to step right in at right tackle and add more power and agility to the Buccaneers' line
Barber began the season as the team's starting running back, a role he carried all through the 2018 campaign while rookie Ronald Jones was struggling to find a place in the offense. However, the split in snaps was fairly even through the first seven games, with Barber getting 182 to Jones's 144. (Third-down back Dare Ogunbowale also got 175 offensive snaps in that span.) At that point, the carries were split almost evenly, with Barber getting 79 to Jones's 74, but Jones was averaging 4.2 yards per carry to 3.3 for Barber and the second-year player took over the starting job in Game Eight. From that point on, Jones got significantly more snaps (278 to 165) and maintained his 4.2-yard average while Barber slipped further to 2.8. Both backs scored six rushing touchdowns.
In his third-down role, Ogunbowale caught the most passes among the three though Jones ended up with more yards and had a nice 10.0-yard per-catch average. Ogunbowale maintained his third-down role largely because he was more trusted in pass-protection than Jones was.
• Ronald Jones...Third year of rookie contract; 1,033 yards from scrimmage last year, including team-high 724 rushing yards
• T.J. Logan...Fourth year of rookie contract after claimed off waivers from Arizona; Mostly used as return man in 2019, led team with 9.5 yards per punt return
• Dare Ogunbowale...Second year of two-year deal signed in 2019; Used as third-down back, led Bucs RBs with 35 receptions
• Aca'Cedric Ware...Re-signed to futures deal in January after 10 weeks on practice squad
• Peyton Barber...Signed with Washington as an unrestricted free agent; Second on team in 2019 with 470 rushing yards, tied for team lead with six rushing touchdowns
• Ke'Shawn Vaughn...Third-round draft pick; two 1,000-yard seasons at Vanderbilt, averaged 6.4 yards per carry
Barber's 28 games started, 2,333 yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns represent excellent production from an undrafted free agent. However, he owns a career average of 3.6 yards per carry and hasn't topped 4.0 in any of the last three seasons. The Buccaneers were likely looking for more dynamic play out of the backfield and think part of that will come from even more improvement from Jones.
"Well, we do think Ronald still hasn't even scratched the surface of what he can be," said General Manager Jason Licht. "He made a huge jump from Year One to Year Two. He didn't have to do much to do that because year one wasn't very good for him, but year two we felt very good about where he came. We think he still has a tremendous amount of upside.
"That doesn't stop us from wanting to add to that group, which may be something we do depending on who's there, where they're at and what other positions we're looking at. We have a lot of faith in Ronald, and in fact, we have more faith in him now than we ever have. But that's another position, as you can tell across the league - some of the better teams, they have one, two or three guys - sometimes four - that they can rely on in different types of roles in their offense."
In fact, the Bucs had a specific type of running back in mind heading into the 2020 draft, wanting to add one who could play on all three downs and possibly give Brady yet another dangerous weapon in the passing game.
"We'd like to add a pass-catching back," said Arians in March. "Our backs did a very good job in the screen game last year, especially RoJo. I thought he really excelled for the first time in the screen game. And, Dare was pretty solid. But just using backs out of the backfield as wide receivers, as primary receivers, that's not RoJo's deal. Hopefully we can find somebody like that who can compete with Dare on third downs and become more of a wide receiver threat."
Enter Vaughn, who has a quick burst through the hole, good open-field speed and a history of big plays at Vanderbilt, which led to a school-record 6.4-yard career per-carry average. Vaughn also got much more involved in the Commodores' passing attack in 2019 and showed good hands and creativity in space. The Bucs are sure they can find plenty of work for both Jones and Vaughn.
"The idea is to get him here and see what he does best," said Licht. "We know that he's got good speed. We know that he can catch the ball. We know that he's good in space - he's been very productive there. I think he's capable of playing on all three downs so you can't have too many good backs. You can't just rely on one good back. If you have a guy who can do multiple things, it makes him even more valuable to your team."
The Buccaneers' yards-per-carry average noted above ranked 28th in the NFL and their 95.1 yards on the ground per game was good for 24th in the league. However, Tampa Bay still tied for the 14th-most rushing plays in the league in 2019 and was one of only three teams (out of 18) that ran it at least 400 times but did not average at least four yards per carry.
The Buccaneers did finish the season with two of their better rushing games, getting a combined 242 yards and 5.8 yards per tote. Most of that belonged to Jones, who broke off 33 and 49-yard runs in those games against Houston and Atlanta, finally nipping the season-long trend of most of his long gains being erased by penalties. Jones accounted for six of the team's 10 rushing plays of 20 or more yards on the season; the other four were scrambles by quarterback Jameis Winston. Jones actually posted the exact same number of runs of 20 or more yards as did Carolina's Christian McCaffrey, even though he logged 105 fewer carries.
Beyond Jones and Barber, the Bucs only had 14 other carries by running backs, with 11 for Ogunbowale and three for Logan. Logan was used primarily as a return man, starting out with the kickoff job and then taking over on punts after Bobo Wilson's release. Ogunbowale did score twice among his 11 totes and also led the Bucs' backs in receptions.
Three Key Questions:
• How will the backfield load be shared between Jones and Vaughn?
If Vaughn does succeed in taking over the lead role on third downs, then these two young backs will probably end up with the vast majority of the carries and catches out of the Bucs' backfield. It could be close to the same nearly-even split the Buccaneers employed between Jones and Barber for much of 2019. As Arians noted on several occasions while operating with that duo, his intention was to lean on whoever had the hot hand, as we saw early in the season when Jones had strong outings against the 49ers and the Giants. Vaughn's path to increasing his snap count will probably go through his ability to make a big impact in the passing game. If he could develop into a James White type he would quickly become a favorite of Brady's.
• Does Jones indeed have the potential to make another big leap forward?
As Licht noted, it wouldn't have taken much for Jones to outdo himself in his second season after his rookie campaign consisted of 77 yards from scrimmage, 1.9 yards per carry and one touchdown. Fortunately, Jones beat those numbers by many order of magnitude, topping 1,000 yards from scrimmage last year, scoring a half-dozen touchdowns and averaging 4.2 yards per carry. None of those numbers put Jones near the top of the NFL's running back leaderboard in 2019 but they are more than an adequate competition to a backfield committee. In fact, they are very similar to what Sony Michel provided Brady and the Patriots last year in New England. The question is whether Jones can more consistently provide explosive plays, like he did in his USC days, and perhaps provide something in the range of 1,000-1,300 rushing yards in a season. The Buccaneers don't necessarily need Jones to put up those type of numbers with Vaughn around to share the load but, again, they would stick with the hot hand.
• Will there be any further additions to the Buccaneers' backfield?
Last year, the Buccaneers took five running backs into training camp, and that's exactly the number they have on the roster at the moment, so there isn't necessarily a need for any additions to that group between now and August. Still, that group includes a rookie and three running backs (Ogunbowale, Logan and Ware) who have a combined 16 carries for 29 yards in NFL regular-season games. Is it possible the Buccaneers will try to add a veteran with some experience to that group, like they did last year by signing Andre Ellington and Kerwynn Williams. Neither ended up making the team but the idea of adding experienced depth was obviously there. A good number of prominent running backs remain available in free agency, including Lamar Miller, LeSean McCoy, Theo Riddick and Isaiah Crowell.