As the NFL offseason schedule transition to OTAs and mandatory mini-camp, Pewter Report has typically written about the top camp battles on the Bucs roster. But this year offers very little in the way of legitimate competition, as the Bucs return their entire starting offense and defense from a year ago.
Yet one position groups remains up in the air, at least in terms of how the lion’s share of snaps will be delegated. The Bucs running back room is at least three deep right now, with Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette set to battle for the biggest workload of the group.
“Of all the positions, it’s probably the one where those two guys will compete,” Arians said. “But they’re both gonna play. They’re so talented and they both bring so much to the table. Hopefully if they’re both healthy, they are splitting time. I know fantasy doesn’t like that, but those two guys…I mean, RoJo is one of the best runners I’ve been around. Lenny had that great run in the playoffs. He showed what they drafted him for in the top 5. So we’re blessed to have this group of backs, with Ke’Shawn and Gio. It’s a hell of a group.”
After sharing the load for 75 percent of the season, Fournette was a healthy scratch against the Vikings, the first game back from the Bucs’ bye week. Speculation became rampant that he was being phased out of the offense, but instead the opposite happened. Jones missed the next two games on the COVID-19 list, then battled nagging injuries the rest of the year. LeSean McCoy eventually returned to the inactive list and Fournette led the running back room in snaps in all but one game the rest of the season.
Fournette was only mildly impactful in his return to the lineup in Week 15, but still scored twice in a huge comeback win over Atlanta. The former fourth overall pick would go on to lead the team in rushing throughout the playoffs, carrying 64 times for 300 yards and three touchdowns. Perhaps the most improved aspect of Fournette’s game was his receiving, as he caught 18 passes for 148 yards and another touchdown through the air.
Bucs RB Bernard Adds Another Dimension
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Still, it was apparent entering the offseason that the Bucs could stand to improve at running back, particularly in the passing game. Pro Football Focus charged Bucs running backs with 15 drops on the season, a number that I believe is even lower than what the tape revealed. The group was also a black hole after the catch, without a single back hitting even 7 yards per reception. Pass protection was even worse, as Jones and Fournette were two of PFF’s lowest-graded pass protecting backs in the league.
Enter Giovani Bernard, longtime third down back extraordinaire, who signed with the Bucs shortly after the Bengals released him. During Bruce Arians appearance on the Pewter Report Podcast on Tuesday, I asked him if the Bucs entered the offseason targeting improvements to their backfield.
“No, I was actually extremely pleased with where we were in that (RB) room,” Arians said. “Then, when Gio became available, it’s like ‘hey, we have to look into this’. Because this is another proven guy on third downs who can really catch the ball and is a good pass protector. I love Ke’Shawn Vaughn, I love RoJo, Lenny. So we’ve got a great room going already, but throw Gio in there and add him into the mix. It’s one of the best rooms in the league, I think.”
Bernard hasn’t hit 500 yards rushing since 2015, but he’s built an impressive career off his ability on third down. A gifted pass catcher with excellent vision and burst after the catch, Bernard will make an immediate impact on long-and-late downs. He’s also one of the few backs in the league to consistently grade out well in pass protection, per PFF. That was a big reason why Tampa Bay targeted Bernard when Cincinnati released him.
“It was huge. He’s an excellent receiver, but he’s a hell of a protector and he’s extremely smart,” Arians said. “You don’t see any blitzers coming through that weren’t supposed to be getting to the quarterback with [Bernard]. He’s a bright guy and he can really still play.”
Still Hope For Bucs RB Vaughn
The addition of Bernard has put second-year running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn squarely on the outside looking in. Vaughn was used sparingly last season, dropping three passes on ten targets and fumbling twice. Arians remains vocally confident in Vaughn’s future, despite his current place on the depth chart.
“I think [Vaughn should] continue to grow as a player,” Arians said. “He’s a hell of a runner. Hell of a runner. He’s getting better as a receiver. Really bright guy, good blitz pickup guy. I would never be shocked if he was our lead dog. He has that type of ability to be our lead dog. You never know with injury. I mean, Lenny was sitting there not knowing what his role was. All of a sudden RoJo gets hurt, and he’s Playoff Lenny. So you never know in that room. You cannot have enough good backs.”
You can watch Arians entire interview on the Pewter Report Podcast right here.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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