Of all the battles to be had during Bucs training camp, this is easily the biggest one.
It’s one of the few battles for a starting position. And based off the participants – it’s going to be a slugfest.
Ronald Jones II is entering his fourth year in the league and is coming off the best season of his career. Leonard Fournette is entering his fifth year and was a catalyst during the Bucs’ Super Bowl run.
When you throw in the fact that both players are in contract years, well, you can see why this is going to be a fun one.
The Bucs need to see the same improvement from both players during training camp
It’s pretty interesting to think that both players have the same weaknesses: pass protection and catching the ball.
While Jones is certainly a better pass protector, he still needs to improve in that area. Fournette, however, is not good in pass protection. Per Pro Football Focus, Fournette finished 30th out of 32 eligible players with a 28.9 grade in pass protection last year. Jones played half as many snaps as Fournette in pass protection and finished with a grade of 42.3, which is still below average. He didn’t make the cut of 32 considering he didn’t participate in at least 44 pass blocking snaps in 2020.
Pass protection -for a running back- is simply knowing about opposing defenses and what they’re trying to do in terms of blitz packages or when using a general pass rush. It’s purely coachable, but there’s also a level of understanding that the player must reach if they want to be effective in pass pro. Neither player has even been particularly good in this department, so if I were the Bucs, I wouldn’t bet on the light coming on during training camp. But, there’s always room for improvement and these two know whomever improves the most will likely earn the starting role, so there’s that, at least.
Both RoJo and Lenny also need to improve when it comes to catching the ball out of the backfield. Per PFF, Jones and Fournette tied for the fourth-most drops among all backs with five apiece. Per the 2021 Football Outsiders Almanac, all Bucs running backs combined for a league-leading 16 dropped passes in 2020.
Fournette does have the 13th-most receptions among running backs with at least 49 targets from 2017-2019, but he’s more of a volume receiver, evidenced by his 31st-best 77.6% catch percentage over the same span. Can he show that his 85.7% catch percentage in the playoffs is a sign of things to come?
RoJo had just one drop in 2019 and has shown numerous times that he can do good things after the catch; this play against the Chiefs being Exhibit A:
Ronald Jones finally caught a pass [without bubbling it first] and it results in a huge play and a score.pic.twitter.com/QHUenLPmlb
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) November 29, 2020
I mean, even Kleiman couldn’t resist joking about Jones’ issues with catching the ball. Will he be able to improve with another offseason of heavy work?
There’s no denying that Jones is the better runner, but whichever of the two can show improvement in these two areas will get the starting nod.
Will Bruce Arians continue to ride the “hot hand”?
Arians hasn’t been shy about pulling running backs out of the game when they’re not performing to his standards. He’s also stated several times that he prefers to play the “hot hand” at the position, even if that process has seemed murky at times.
Will he do that again in 2021? Even if one -or both- Bucs make a name for themselves in training camp?
This all obviously depends on how much they’ve improved. If it’s simply minor improvement, then yea, expect Arians to continue to shuffle his ball carriers in and out of the lineup. But will he do the same if one player takes off during camp, but then regresses during the season?
At the end of the day, Arians’ strategy of riding the “hot hand” could determine what happens more than the battle during training camp.
No matter what happens, the Bucs have a stocked running back room and should be in good shape for 2021
The Bucs have two starting-caliber running backs in RoJo and Lenny. The team added Giovani Bernard during the offseason, which not only fills the need for a reliable pass-catcher, but also adds depth. When you throw in Ke’Shawn Vaughn -who BA really likes-, there shouldn’t be too much worry if any of theses guys miss time due to injury.
Don’t get me wrong: The Bucs don’t need any of these guys to miss any time, at all. However, if the injury bug does hit the running back corps, then there are multiple options to pick up the slack.
And that’s always a good position to be in when you’re trying to win games, much less repeat as Super Bowl champs, in the NFL.