Bucs’ backfield is full … and interesting

by Gary Shelton on September 4, 2020

in general

Ronald Jones II is still the No. 1 back./TIM WIRT

Friday, 4 a.m.

The most improved position is quarterback. The biggest question is the offensive line. The deepest position is wide receiver, although tight end gets an honorable mention. The position with the most sizzle is the defensive line.

But the running back position of the Tampa Bay Bucs?

Suddenly, it's very, very intriguing.

Content beyond this point is for members only.

Already a member? To view the rest of this column, sign in using the handy "Sign In" button located in the upper right corner of the GarySheltonSports.com blog (it's at the far right of the navigation bar under Gary's photo)!

Not a member? It's easy to subscribe so you can view the rest of this column and all other premium content on GarySheltonSports.com.

I'll be honest. I wasn't a big fan of last year's running backs. Peyton Barber would get you three if you had a hole that gave him three, but seldom would he get any more. Ronald Jones was much better than his rookie season, but he left some yards on the field, too. And everyone else was just another guy.

As a group, the Bucs finished 24th in the NFL in rushing a year ago.

But now? You can look forward to seeing the mixture of backs behind Tom Brady.

There is Jones, who is the starter. Despite the integration of Shady McCoy and newly agreed to Leonard Fournette, Bucs' coach Bruce Arians stressed again that it's Jones' job and everyone is trying to fit into a role.

Still the Buc have elevated the position until you imagine the right player at the right moment.

"That’s one position I don’t think you can have enough good guys," Arians said. "That’s the one area where nicks and bruises really add up and when you can get a player of that caliber – I’ve gotten great reviews from people that know him and have coached him. He’ll fit right in and then we’ll see what role happens and how fast it can happen. RoJo (Ronald Jones II) is our guy, Shady (RB LeSean McCoy) is ready for his role, so it’s just going to be building roles as we go along and having enough quality players to finish this thing."

Whether the pecking order stays, which means Jones is having a good season, or alters has yet to be seen. But the Bucs don't have much money left, and they spent $2 million a year (another possible $1.5 million in incentives) to take a chance on Fournette.

The Jags never seemed satisfied by Fournette's character, but Arians said he wasn't concerned.

“No," Arians said. "The people that I really, really trust gave him high, high marks in everything that I care about. I can’t say what’s going on in Jacksonville, but all I can say is what’s happening in Tampa (and) he’ll fit right in.”

Arians doesn't think it will take long for Fournette to catch up.

“I think right away," Arians said. "He’s a very bright player and everything I’ve heard from the guys coaching him – he’ll pick it up really quick. We’re not going to force him – we don’t have to force him. We’ll just let him get in his pace and if I know him, he’ll be pretty fast-paced. We’ll try to get him up to speed as fast as we can and see if he can have a role for next week.”

So how do the Bucs use these guys? Assume that Jones, for now, is the first-down back, being spelled by Fournette. LeSean McCoy will be the third down back. Ke'Shawn Vaughn will be the youngster waiting for his chance. And everyone is hoping special teams gets them on the roster.

“It’s going to affect somebody, that’s for sure," Arians said. "(Fournette’s) skill set is very rounded. He’s a three-down player, so he fits right into the rest of the group. [He] added some outstanding depth at a position that’s OK.”

Still, Arians insisted, it all starts with Jones.

"It’s his job," Arians said. "Nothing has changed for him. We’ve just added a heck of a piece of insurance to see what kind of role he can cut out. RoJo – it’s his job if he wins it or loses it. He’s already got it, so he’d have to screw it up. I don’t see that happening.

“When a guy has interest and you have interest and it helps your football team, you’re going to do it no matter what position it is. You’re always looking for better players.”

It all has Bucs' fans -- and Arians -- thinking of the scoreboard. Thirty points a game?

"I don’t see any reason unless we turn the ball over," Arians said. "We would’ve scored 30 last year, but we gave the ball away so many times, gave so many drives away [and] missed so many kicks. If we play the way we’re capable of playing, 30 points [is obtainable]. For me, I always call it ‘production time’ – it’s not possession. I don’t [care] about possession time. Possession time doesn’t score any points. It’s what you do with the ball when you have it. If you have it for 30 minutes, you should have 30 points.”

A former teammate will welcome Fournette to the team.

“He’s always been a big brother to me," said Devin White, a Bucs' inside linebacker. "I actually got recruited by a lot of colleges as a running back and a linebacker – I was able to play either or. So, when I used to go on my visits (to LSU), they used to pair me up with him. We had a history of knowing each other before I actually signed and enrolled at LSU. When I got there, he still took me under his wing, even though I made the transition to go play defense.

"He said he always saw something in me, and I was willing to work, so he was willing to instill that mindset that he had, already [having] played at the college level. I took it and ran with it. He got me out of Breakfast Club as a freshman. I was making good grades, so they were kind of more lenient with letting me go workout in the morning instead of coming to Breakfast Club. I used to workout on the same rack with him, and whatever he did, I tried to do more. I always pushed myself against him. When it was time to do one-on-ones in practice, I made sure I’d go against him because best-on-best at all times. The only thing [was], at LSU I couldn’t tackle him. That’s what made the Jacksonville game last year even more special. There was no rules, there wasn’t (a) coach saying, ‘Hey, don’t take him to the ground.’ I was all the way hands on, so I kind of jawed a lot at him and he jawed back. That let you know that we were able to do that. (It was) not fussing and fighting, but we were able to talk trash and at the end of the day, shake hands and go on about our business.”

So how do you handicap this race? McCoy is the most accomplished (six pro bowls). Fournette is the low-risk, high reward player (two 1,000-yard seasons in the last three). Jones is the starter. Vaughn is the draftee waiting his turn. It's the most intriguing Bucs' backfield since the days of Alstott and Dunn.

If you're an opposing defensive coordinator, there is a reason to worry.


Previous post:

Next post: