With the recent re-signing of Leonard Fournette, the Bucs have ensured that their running back group will head into 2021 looking largely the same as it did last season, with the exception of veteran LeSean McCoy. But while Fournette and Ronald Jones combined for 1,345 of the Bucs’ total 1,519 rushing yards during the 2020 season, their return does little to solve Tampa Bay’s problem of finding a reliable pass-catching back.
Despite splitting time at the position, Fournette and Jones each had five drops last season, per Pro Football Focus, putting them both tied for the fourth-most drops by a running back. The Bucs tried to improve the position through the draft, selecting Ke’Shawn Vaughn out of Vanderbilt in the third round, and they tried again to improve it by signing McCoy shortly before the season began, but neither showed enough to warrant significant snaps throughout Tampa Bay’s season.
Heading out of 2021 free agency, the position remains a need. A popular name to potentially fill the role was James White, one of quarterback Tom Brady’s former teammates in New England. But ultimately White remained with the Patriots on a one-year deal worth just under $2.5 million. Now, however, a new name has emerged.
Veteran pass-catching back Giovani Bernard was released by the Bengals on Wednesday and could be a name to look out for later this month, or after the draft if the Bucs don’t add another weapon to their backfield in late April. Over his eight-year career in Cincinnati, Bernard has totaled 2,867 yards and 11 touchdowns on 342 receptions for an average of 8.4 yards per catch. In 2020 alone Bernard racked up 355 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns with a catch percentage of 79.7 percent.
With his natural pass-catching ability and willingness to contribute in pass protection, Bernard could likely step in right away and play a crucial, although likely limited, role for the Bucs. PFF gave Bernard a pass block grade of 73.0 last season, with only three seasons in his career dropping below that mark while eclipsing an 80.0 pass blocking grade in another three.
Bernard’s addition to the Bucs’ roster would depend on a few variables though. If Tampa Bay thinks they’ll potentially attack the running back position through the draft, it’s unlikely that Bernard would be signed until May, which would require him not signing with another team until then. Even then, the Bucs could be looking at a very crowded backfield if they add a rookie to the trio of Fournette, Jones and Vaughn.
In addition, Bernard would have to come affordably. While the Bucs have shown that there are a number of creative ways to create additional cap space, Tampa Bay has just $2.285 million remaining in effective cap space and will still need to fill out the remaining gaps in their roster and sign a rookie class. After requesting his release from the Bengals and denying a pay cut on the $4.1 million that he was due for the 2021 season, will Bernard come cheap enough for the Bucs to make a realistic run at him?
All-in-all, Bernard could help the Bucs this upcoming season, but a lot of things have to fall just right for it to happen and I wouldn’t expect the move to be made any time soon.