The PewterReport.com Roundtable features the opinions of the PR staff as it tackles a topic each week that involves the Bucs. This week’s topic: Which Bucs Player Has The Most To Prove At Training Camp?
Scott Reynolds: RoJo Is Entering A Make-Or-Break Year
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All of the starting roles in Tampa Bay are pretty much settled heading into training camp except for the starting running back job. That will be decided between Ronald Jones II, last year’s leading rusher during the regular season, and Leonard Fournette, who was a star in the postseason. Fournette was re-signed to a one-year deal in the offseason and both he and Jones are in contract years in 2021. With the addition of Giovani Bernard this year to become the Bucs’ third-down back, Jones and Fournette will be battling for fewer opportunities – playing on just first and second downs in 2021.
Bucs RB Ronald Jones II – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Jones has made big strides in each of the last two seasons. He made a quantum leap from his rookie year when he rushed for just 44 yards and scored one touchdown while averaging 1.9 yards per carry. Jones finished the 2019 season as the starter and led the team with 724 yards and six touchdowns, while averaging 4.2 yards per carry. Even more important, Jones improved as a receiver catching a career-high 31 passes for 309 yards (10 avg.) to become a more complete running back.
The 2020 season saw Jones take another step forward. He led the Bucs with 978 yards rushing and a 5.1-yard average. His 98-yard touchdown run at Carolina was the longest in Tampa Bay history. Jones had a career-high four 100-yard games in 2020, including a personal-best 192 yards against the Panthers. Jones missed time at the end of the season due to COVID-19, a broken pinkie and a thigh injury, which allowed Fournette to step to the forefront. If Jones wants a big pay day in Tampa Bay or elsewhere, he’ll need to take control of the starting job – beginning in training camp.
Jon Ledyard: Big Opportunity For Mike Edwards
Mike Edwards wouldn’t have been my choice a few days ago, but Jordan Whitehead’s recent addition to the COVID list has changed things. Now Whitehead will likely miss the first 10-14 days of training camp, and maybe more. The Pitt product would certainly have begun camp as the team’s starting strong safety, with Edwards rotating in as the No. 3 option. With Whitehead out, there’s suddenly a path for Edwards to light it up and give the coaching staff a touch decision.
Whitehead played his best football last year, impressing in a simpler role than he’d been given the year before. He’s an ideal strong safety who does his best work as a blitzer and against the run, but Whitehead’s improvement in coverage was noteworthy. Edwards played a much different role, lining up predominantly at free safety in the 189 snaps he played during the regular season.
In that small sample size, Edwards intercepted two passes and had a third pick called back due to a line of scrimmage penalty. Edwards’ playoff performance may have been even better, as injuries forced him into 131 snaps in four games. The third-year safety intercepted one pass and broke up three others, one of which resulted in a decisive Antoine Winfield Jr. pick. I’m not sure Whitehead will lose his starting spot, but Edwards can push hard for more playing time with an outstanding camp and preseason.
Matt Matera: Johnson In Precarious Spot To Find Playing Time
The future in a season or two is bright for Tyler Johnson, but his immediate playing time for the 2021 season is up in the air. Johnson showed promise when given opportunities last season, recording 12 catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns. He also made an impact in the postseason with a clutch reception in the divisional round and drawing a pass interference penalty in the NFC Championship that closed out the game and punched the Bucs’ ticket to the Super Bowl. However, it’s a new season and different factors could be against Johnson this year.
The re-signing of Antonio Brown secures that the Bucs have their top three receivers in place, and Johnson won’t be surpassing any of them. Then there’s Scotty Miller’s role as the deep threat down the field. This would leave Johnson in the fifth spot, but the Bucs drafted the speedy and elusive wide receiver Jaelon Darden in the fourth round, who is expected to compete with Johnson and might be the team’s kick returner.
So how does Johnson see the field? He’ll need to be the receiver that everyone is talking about at training camp this summer, or he will have to find a role on special teams. The problem is that he played just 10 percent of the snaps on special teams last year. There will be an opening as Justin Watson will be out for the next four months if Johnson wants to contribute in that role. I don’t doubt Johnson’s skill set whatsoever, it’ll just be difficult to dress on game days when the path to move up the depth chart is not easy. A great training camp where Johnson balls out could change that and potentially give him some more offensive snaps.
J.C. Allen: It’s All About Health With O.J. Howard
There were a plethora of options here besides the players above. Can Vita Vea stay healthy and reach his full potential? Will Sean Murphy-Bunting be able to pick up where he left off in the postseason? Was “Playoff Lenny” the Leonard Fournette we’ll see in 2021?? For this season, the Bucs 2017 first round draft pick has the most to prove in his fifth year with the Bucs.
Marred by injuries throughout his four-year career, we have yet to see what a full 16-game season looks like for the talented tight end. In his first four years as a Buccaneer, Howard has totaled 105 receptions for 1,602 yards and 14 touchdowns. Decent stats, but he’s missed 22 of a possible 64 games. Overall, not the kind of production you want to see out of a top-20 draft pick.
Howard’s best season came in 2018, when he recorded 34 catches for 565 yards and five touchdowns, but he still missed six games due to injury. Dynamic with the ball in his hands, 209 of his 565 yards came after the catch. To start the season, it looked like Howard and Tom Brady were developing solid chemistry, as Howard caught the first pass of Brady’s Buccaneers career. He reeled in 11 balls for 146 yards and two touchdowns before tearing his Achilles in Week 4.
Howard needs to prove to the Bucs, the league and himself that he can stay on the field for a full season. Even with an extensive injury history, the Bucs picked up Howard’s fifth-year option last year, keeping him on the roster for just over $6 million in 2021. With uncertainty looming at the tight end position in 2022, the Bucs will need to make a decision on whether to extend Howard after the season or not. Bruce Arians called it “a huge addition to have him back.” Adding “the sky’s the limit for what he can do in this offense.” If Howard is able to make an impact and stay healthy, I see no reason why the Bucs wouldn’t bring him back for the 2022 season and possibly beyond.