The Bucs are returning all of their starters from their Super Bowl team. Additionally, they are returning most of their backup players, as well. This means the defending champions should have very little to figure out for the 2021 season. Outside of their running backs, of course.
Tampa Bay has a crowded and talented running back room. It doesn’t feel like there is enough football to go around between Ronald Jones II, Leonard Fournette, and newcomer Giovani Bernard. Each man brings a different skill set and warrants more touches than the rest in their own way.
So how should the carries be divided up?
The case for Leonard Fournette
The man they call “Lombardi Lenny” is back and fresh off his impressive playoff run. The fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft scored a touchdown in each of the Bucs’ playoff games last year. This drove the Bucs to re-sign him to a one-year deal. Bruce Arians said a few weeks ago that the starting job will play out in camp, but if you ask me, Fournette is the favorite to win the job.
Fournette has a good blend of size and speed with enough pass-catching ability to make him a legitimate three-down back. While he might not be great at anything, he can do a bit of everything. This well-rounded skill set makes him more valuable to the team in all situations than the rest of this running back group.
Fournette showed that he can be the primary ball carrier in the playoffs. He rushed for over 4.5 yards per carry in three of the four playoff games. That’s more than a full yard per carry than Bernard averaged last season and well above his career average. On top of that, his 138 receiving yards in the playoffs was only 27 fewer than Jones had all year.
Combining his ability to be the workhorse ball carrier with the ability to catch the ball is what really separates him. Fournette has caught over 100 passes over the last two seasons. This is a skill set that Jones has just not been able to consistently display. As a result, Fournette is more dangerous in the play action game as a guy who can run and catch the ball on fakes.
The case for Giovani Bernard
Bernard comes to Tampa Bay with a pretty clear-cut role: He is a pass-catching specialist. Entering his ninth season, Bernard has six seasons with 300+ receiving yards. That’s three more than the rest of the running backs on the team combined.
However, Bernard isn’t likely to be a featured ball carrier. He has never run for more than 730 yards in a single season and hasn’t averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry since 2017. On top of that, Bernard is the oldest of this group of running backs. He will be turning 30-years-old this season has played more seasons than the rest of the group combined.
This type of specialized role is beneficial to both Bernard and the Bucs. There are other guys to take the bulk of the carries and take that burden off of his plate. He can simply focus on catching the ball and giving Tom Brady the pass catching option that this team lacked last season.
The case for Ronald Jones II
When you think of the Bucs and their greatest running backs in history, who comes to mind? Names like James Wilder, Mike Alstott, Warrick Dunn and Michael Pittman are probably right near the top. However, one name you might not think about is current running back Ronald Jones II.
Entering his fourth season, Jones ranks 14th on the Bucs all-time rushing list and 12th in career rushing touchdowns. Perhaps this says more about the history of Bucs running backs, but it is still impressive for a guy who has 387 career carries. Given another 100 carries at his current pace, which should be expected this season, Jones will move into the top-10 of franchise rushing yards all-time.
Jones’ 4.5 rushing yards per attempt is the second-highest average than anyone above him on the franchise all-time rushing list. On top of that, Jones is efficient in protecting the ball. He fumbles only once per 77.4 carries. That number is far better than the top-2 rushers in Bucs history, James Wilder (once per 36 carries) and Mike Alstott (once per 42 carries).
All this is to say that Jones is perhaps the most effective ball carrier that the Bucs have ever had. And he has done this in a platoon role; never starting a full season in his three-year career. These numbers lead to an obvious question: Should Jones get an expanded role in the offense?
The biggest obstacle to Jones’ playing time is teammate Leonard Fournette. This was evident last year in the playoffs where Fournette assumed the role as the starter and was featured more in the postseason. Despite being significantly more efficient running the ball than Fournette, who averaged 3.8 yards per carry in 2020, Jones will have to fight for the starting job.
This is in large part due to Jones’ struggles with catching the ball. This has happened with even basic catches at times and makes it difficult to feature him in many passing or play action situations because the defense doesn’t have to respect him. Fournette has been better in this area, although not great himself. This is a large reason as to why the Bucs signed Bernard -who excels as a pass catcher- in the offseason.
It is likely that Bernard gets many of the obvious passing down opportunities and will get a share of carries. So this leaves a situation where Jones and Fournette will still compete for the rest of the carries. Jones being the better runner, Fournette being the better pass catcher.
The role that would make the most sense for Jones is that of the closing running back. As the best ball carrier, he is a prime candidate to run out the clock while the team has a lead. He has proven to be the most difficult rusher to stop and can shorten the game if given the carries. His sound ball security, as mentioned earlier, only adds to his value in this position.
How exactly things will be divided up is not clear at this point. We know Bernard will specialize as the pass catcher and get some carries. How many is yet to be seen, but due to his age and ineffectiveness as a ball carrier he certainly won’t get most of them.
The competition for carries between Fournette and Jones is the one to watch as the season goes on. Fournette’s versatility and value as a pass catcher make him the favorite to be the starter next season. However, there is a case to be made that Jones should get more carries.
This platoon of Fournette starting, Jones closing and Bernard specializing as a pass-catcher can work. In fact, it could prove to be extremely effective from week-to-week. This scenario provides the Bucs with three running backs that can cause matchup problems for defensive personnel. Any team would love to have a potential three-headed attack such as this.
Last year we saw a hot hand approach to the running back room. This worked well enough to compliment a strong defense and passing attack. This year, a more defined role for the backs could turn this rushing offense into one of the better groups in the league. They have as much talent as anyone. This staff just has to figure out how to best use them.
Who do you think ends up the leader of the Bucs’ running backs? Let us know in the comment section below!