Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Bucs beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.
Sikkema’s Stat of the Week
Even if you’re not a big fan of teams prioritizing running backs in the draft, the Ronald Jones pick had to make you feel good – unless you didn’t like Jones pre-draft, I suppose. I was in that “feel good” camp. I am someone who doesn’t believe premium picks should be used on running backs (we’ll get to the data on that later), but when the Bucs selected Ronald Jones No. 38 overall in last year’s draft, I thought it was a great selection.
Jones was the fifth running back taken in the draft, and was coincidentally my fifth-ranked running back in the class – albeit Derrius Guice was in my Top 5 and wasn’t one of the Top 5 backs selected. Despite being my fifth running back, Jones was still No. 28 on my board, which goes to show how talented I thought that running back class was. Though I believe any of the guys I had ranked above Jones would have fit in Tampa just fine via overall talent, I knew that the team really liked the outlook for Peyton Barber as a bigger back, and Jones’ style was set up to be a perfect compliment. When the ink dried on Tampa’s draft haul, you had to be happy with how it looked.
But when it came to Jones, that was about as happy as Bucs fans would be with him in 2018.
Jones’ struggles started in training camp where he was never able to overtake Barber as the lead back. In fact, he was used as RB3 and RB4 more than RB2 or RB1 during camp. That showed in the preseason. Jones recorded just 28 yards on 22 carries in his four-game preseason stint, which came out to a whopping 0.8 yards-per-carry average.
Those struggles continued into the regular season. Not only could Jones not crack the starting running back rotation, he wasn’t even active on game days for the first three weeks of the season – Jones didn’t even know that there were a handful of players who made the 53-man roster who weren’t active on game days. When he did finally get some game time action, it was either in garbage time in the Chicago game or not very productive – or a mixture of both.
Jones ended the regular season with just 44 yards on 23 carries and one touchdown in a span of nine games in which he was active. Of all 20 running backs who were drafted in 2018, only two finished the season with less total rushing yards than Jones, and none had a yards-per-carry average less than the Bucs rookie.
But that was last year, and 2019 is a new year. There are plenty of rookies who do not pan out right away in their first year, so a down 2018 season is no nail in the coffin for Jones. After all, Jones was a 20-year-old young adult who moved across the entire country to a new place with new people and a new life. An adjustment period is very natural for any person in any walk of life at that point in time. But make no mistake, though Jones isn’t going to get cut before training camp or anything, his clock is ticking louder to become at least a serviceable running back.
Why? Because in an article written by Riley McAtee of The Ringer, he explains how running backs are more replaceable than ever due to players doing more with less.
In 2018, teams have rushed the football an average of 25.9 times per game, which would be the lowest figure in league history. That number has been trending downward for some time — the previous low was set in 2016 (26.0 rushes per game), and the low before that was set in 2015 (26.3). Yet despite this de-emphasis of rushing, NFL teams are averaging 4.4 yards per carry this year, which would be the highest mark in league history.
This isn’t even about draft position and how you value running back selections – though the data does certainly lend itself on the side of not prioritizing running backs, in most cases, due to again how much running backs are now doing with less work. This is about replacement value.
This is why watching Todd Gurley not even get used in the Super Bowl after signing a $45M contract makes you re-think some things. This is why the Steelers letting Le’Veon Bell sit out the entire year after averaging 104.2 rushing yards per game (3.8 YPC) just to see the team rush for 93.9 yards per game and yet 4.3 YPC in 2018 without him makes you wonder if it really is worth it to move on sometimes.
Case and point, in almost every single instance – even at the very top – if you’re a running back, you’re replaceable as long as your system is good.
Now, that last part is still something Tampa Bay is figuring out. The Rams had the passing efficiency to be able to move the ball without Gurley, and the Steelers under Mike Munchak had an offensive line that moved like a well-oiled machine. Tampa Bay had neither of those, despite finishing in the Top 3 in passing offense and total offense in terms of yards gained.
It’s about efficiency more than it is output. It’s often the small numbers, not the big ones, that hold the keys to success. It’s not about how many total yards you get, it’s about how easy it was for you to obtain them. When it comes to running backs, numbers say that in today’s age of football even the best are replaceable – sometimes even if they’re replaced by Day 3 and even undrafted players.
For Jones, it wasn’t all on him, and we’ll get to that on the next page when we take a deep dive into his film from 2018. But, he better make sure he’s doing everything he can to make his case for new head coach Bruce Arians, new offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, new run game coordinator Harold Goodwin and new running backs coach Todd McNair. Because being a second-round pick only grants you one year of exemption.
After that, it doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re not efficient with the ball on however many carries you get, they’ll find someone who is – they’re everywhere.