The 2020 season has seen the Buccaneers load up in key offensive skill positions. The running back group has been no exception. With the 2021 season looming, multiple players from the team will be free agents. The Buccaneers will have to make some tough choices, especially since other key players at other positions will require more attention.
Returning On Contract
For the 2021 NFL season, the Buccaneers have two players returning on contract. Ronald Jones II will be entering the final year of his rookie deal. With his ever-increasing role and performance, he has solidified himself as the team’s number one back. Entering a contract year, the Buccaneers can expect nothing but the best from the young budding star. His return is certain.
Additionally, the Buccaneers will be bringing back third-round pick Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Vaughn saw limited snaps throughout the year. This is due partly to Leonard Fournette’s presence on the roster. In the two games he was called upon, he did showcase some abilities. Against the Green Bay Packers, he laid out 42 yards on five carries for 8.4 yards a carry. Vaughn saw some playing time late in the season and averaged 4.1 yards against the destroyed Lions defense. These are promising numbers in limited snaps in 2020. At the very least he may be ready to be a steady number two. Recently, the Buccaneers re-signed C.J. Prosise to a futures contract.
Free Agent: Leonard Fournette
Fournette at multiple times has talked about how he loves it in Tampa Bay and being apart of the organization. He is laying the groundwork for negotiations especially with his exceptional play in the post season. He may even be willing to come back for less than what he could take elsewhere. Of all the free-agent running backs the Buccaneers have this year, Fournette stands the best chance to be brought back.
Working well throughout the season, Fournette has posted some solid numbers. In games where he had double-digit rushing attempts, he posted no less than 3.47 yards a carry. In the Wild Card game against a stout Washington defense, he posted 19 carries for 93 yards. Subsequently, that is an average of 4.89 yards a carry. If the price is right, the Buccaneers will be trying hard to bring him back.
Free Agent: LeSean McCoy
Good for a quick pass play or screen, LeSean McCoy has done little to warrant staying on the roster to this point. His chances of being back with the Buccaneers next season seems very unlikely. For McCoy, 2020 marked the third-worst grade he has ever received from Pro Football Focus (PFF, subscription required).
Prediction: Allowed to walk
Free Agents: Kenjon Barner and T.J. Logan
With limited participation on the active roster, Kenjon Barner and T.J. Logan round out practice squad participants you typically find on any team. These individuals will likely not be offered a contract by any team until late into free agency. They also may not get a phone call till injuries and other issues for teams arise. They have had little to no impact and, subsequently, will find work hard to find.
Prediction: Allowed to walk but don’t be surprised to see Logan back on the practice squad in 2021.
The Way Forward
The easiest answer to the Buccaneers 2021 running backs room is the draft. Each year you can find multiple studs deep in the draft or after. For example, the 49ers once touted a three-headed monster with the likes of Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert. Both were undrafted free agents.
The likes of Chris Godwin, Shaq Barrett, Lavonte David, and a few others will be attempted to be retained. Not all can come back given the current cap situation and the money they will command. The Buccaneers will look to use their highest draft picks to replace the individuals listed here that they cannot retain. It is necessary to be in the hunt for a Super Bowl next year. Even after winning it this year.
The second option will be the free-agent market. Many high-profile names will be there. Kenyan Drake, Todd Gurley II, Tevin Coleman, and others will be tossed out as being tied to multiple teams. At this point, the Buccaneers do not stand in a position to need to sign any of them or have the money to do so. They instead will be looking towards getting a bargain or adding depth.
Primary Free Agent Target: Rex Burkhead
One individual to keep an eye on is Rex Burkhead. With the “Tom Brady Effect” in full swing and former teammate Rob Gronkowski possibly on the team in 2021, why wouldn’t Tampa Bay go after him? After all, with Burkhead, Brady gets a running back who knows his nuances and the details about his gameplay that make for a quick connection and familiarization. Additionally, he’s continued to be productive even after Brady’s departure.
His gameplay is well-rounded also. Posting solid PFF numbers in the 2020 season with an overall score of 78.2, 74.3 in rushing, and 81.1 in the passing game. His overall prowess and skill set leave defenses guessing. When lined up, his presence on the field is not an indication of a run or pass play. This inherently allows flexibility in gameplay and audibles. With this kind of elasticity being added to the offense via a substitute for Jones, the offense remains potent.
Prediction: Burkhead will sign with the Buccaneers if Leonard Fournette is not retained. Also, he may very well end up on the roster even with Fournette still in Tampa Bay.
The running back stable in Tampa Bay may look different next year. With any luck, they will be even better. Mostly because the entire starting offensive line will be returning.