There’s no doubt about it: The Bucs’ running back room is a loaded one. The four-headed attack of Ronald Jones II, Leonard Fournette, Giovani Bernard, and Ke’Shawn Vaughn has a chance to be one of the best quartets in the league.
It all starts with Jones, who led the team in rushing during the regular season. However, injury issues and COVID-19 issues forced Fournette into the starting role from Week 15-on. The former fourth overall pick stepped in and went on a tear during the postseason, recording 448 yards from scrimmage and four total touchdowns. It became clear that Fournette was “the guy” over the last four games of the season.
As a result, Bruce Arians is leaving the starting role open when it comes to the running back position in 2021.
“Obviously we had two really, really good ones at that position, and I really like Ke’Shawn Vaughn,” Arians said a couple of months ago. “I think with an offseason, he’s gonna have a breakout year, also. All those roles will be defined when we get to the last week of the preseason.”
But should it be an open competition?
Jones’ 978 yards on the ground were the 11th-most rushing yards among running backs in 2020. His 5.1 yards per attempt were the fifth-best in the NFL among running backs with at least 137 carries. This came to be despite Jones playing an average of 48% of snaps through 14 games. To put it into context, the 10 backs in front of him averaged 58% of snaps through 15 games. Only Nick Chubb and Jonathan Taylor played fewer snaps than Jones.
His cut in playing time was due to the presence of Fournette, who averaged right around 43% of offensive snaps during the 11 games in which he and Jones played together. In those 11 games, Jones was on the field for an average of 44% of offensive snaps. Fournette -and the Bucs’ coaching staff to a degree- held Jones Back.
There’s some evidence to support this. Jones led the league in rushing from Weeks 4-6 with 330 yards on the ground. He was able to do so because Fournette did not play in two of those three games. He also played just 1% of snaps against Chicago in Week 5. Those three weeks represent the highest snap count (63%) among any three week span in Jones’ career.
However, we know that raw stats don’t tell the whole story. That’s good news for the fourth-year back, though. Because he was among the league’s top backs in most of the top analytical categories, as well.
Per Sports Info Solutions, Jones finished with the sixth-best total EPA and tied Aaron Jones for the sixth-best EPA/rush attempt (0.5) among running backs with at least 137 carries in 2020. The latter is a better mark than the likes of Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Josh Jacobs, Ezekiel Elliott, and Chubb.
Jones’ 18.6 PAR (points above replacement) are good for seventh-best and he had the lowest “bust rate” out of all running backs with at least 137 carries. Points above replacement signifies a player’s worth above replacement-level. “Bust rate” is the percentage of rush attempts that resulted in an EPA of less than -1 (i.e. a very unsuccessful play for the offense). Therefore, Jones proved to be far above a replacement-level runner and he was the least team-harmful player at his position when running the ball in 2020.
He led the league with a mark of 3.0 yards after contact, per Pro Football Reference. SIS and Pro Football Focus have him with the third-best mark, but either way, he’s top-3 among the top analytics sites. Per SIS, Jones also had the NFL’s third-best EPA/rush attempt when facing seven or more players in the box. PFF graded him as the NFL’s sixth best runner.
Even Football Outsiders and Next Gen Stats gave Jones high marks in 2020. Per FO, he finished seventh in DYAR (which is another method to measure a player’s value from a replacement-level standpoint), 10th in effective yards, and eighth in success rate. If you’re not familiar with the last two stats, you can check out their explanation, here.
Next Gen Stats says Jones finished 2020 with the fifth-most rush yards over expected, the fifth-best RYOE per attempt, and the seventh-highest RYOE percentage. Jones’ name is in the top-10 of almost every advanced analytical stat you can find.
It’s pretty clear that Jones is by far and away the Bucs’ best runner. Based off these numbers, one can make the case that he’s one of the league’s best. But his struggles in the passing game and Fournette’s postseason play simply can’t be ignored. So, it’s somewhat-understandable why Arians is leaving the door open for the RB1 gig. To a certain point.
But if RoJo can take the needed steps to expand his game, then it shouldn’t be a tough decision: Jones should be the main guy moving forward in 2021.