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SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. The Bucs Believe In Barber
New Buccaneers rookie running back Ronald Jones II has electric moves and speed for days. In what appears to be a promising crop of 2018 draft picks, Jones is one of the headliners and with good reason. He’s made a favorable first impression.
Yet Jones has yet to break off a 40-yard run yet – let alone gained a yard in the NFL. Jones hasn’t rushed for a touchdown nor has he led the Buccaneers in rushing yet.
But the 24-year old Barber is the one who led the Bucs in rushing last year with a career-high 423 yards and he’s in contention for the starting job this year after a strong finish to the 2017 season when he outgained Doug Martin and rushed for at least 50 yards a game in each of the last five contests.
While Jones is the Bucs’ shiny new toy, don’t sleep on Barber, who has worked hard on his physique and his speed this offseason and wants to be Tampa Bay’s starter.
“I want to keep finishing strong and I want to be the lead guy,” Barber said. “I feel I’m up for the task. I proved last year that I can do it, and that I can do it at a high level.”
After Doug Martin struggled mightily for a second straight season, the Bucs turned to Barber to run the ball in Green Bay after Martin suffered an injury the previous week at Atlanta. Barber posted career highs across the board with 23 carries for 102 yards (4.4 avg.) along with four catches for 41 yards, including a career-long 34-yarder in his breakout performance. Not only was Barber’s 100-yard game in a 26-20 overtime loss to the Packers the team’s lone 100-yard rushing effort, the 143 yards of total offense was the most of any Bucs back in any game during the 2017 campaign.
“It didn’t do anything for my confidence because I knew I could do it,” Barber said. “It was more having the coaches have confidence in me and showing them that I can play all three downs and special teams if they need me to.”
Martin returned to the starting lineup the next week against Detroit in a 24-21 loss, but was outplayed by Barber, who led the team in rushing with 58 yards on 12 carries (4.8 avg.). Barber added 53 yards rushing on 13 carries (4.1 avg.) in a 24-21l loss to Atlanta, followed by 51 yards on 13 carries (3.9 avg.), including a 34-yard jaunt in a 22-19 loss at Carolina.
Barber had one of his best outings as a two-year pro in a 31-24 upset over New Orleans in Week 17, rushing for 71 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries (4.2 avg.). When it was all said and done, Barber’s 423 yards and three touchdowns on 108 carries (3.9 avg.) and 114 yards on 16 catches (7.1 avg.) showed the coaches that he had the makings to be a capable starter. While no one will confuse Barber for Warrick Dunn or Mike Alstott, his skill set favors comparisons to other notable productive Bucs running backs like Reggie Cobb, Errict Rhett and Earnest Graham. Cobb and Rhett were each 1,000-yard backs in Tampa Bay history, and Graham came close in 2007, rushing for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“That’s my goal,” Barber said. “I want to get 1,000 yards – and more. That’s my goal this year.”
With the departure of Martin this offseason, running back was an undisputed need heading into the draft. In conversations with both head coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht before the draft, it was clear that they thought highly of Barber and were looking for a back to compliment his playing style and split carries.
“Our confidence level is high in Peyton,” Koetter said at the NFL Owners Meeting in March. “I’ve said many times that if a guy is on our team I have confidence if he is on our 53, especially, I have confidence in him. As we sit here today, Peyton is our starter at running back. Now that might change based on the draft. Shoot, we’ve already seen one trade that came out of nowhere. You just never know what’s going to happen. He started games for us last year and if Peyton is our starter then that’s fine.”
Licht echoed that sentiment.
“The talk of running back comes up a lot, but we do like Peyton Barber and we do like what Peyton brings to the table,” Licht said a few weeks prior to the draft. “He’s a big guy that can grind it out in your four-minute offense and also when he was given the opportunity, he played really well. Really he’s still young and on the rise.”
Even after the selection of Jones in the second round, offensive coordinator Todd Monken gave Barber a ringing endorsement.
“I don’t know what Ronald is going to do because Ronald hasn’t done it in the NFL,” Monken said. “I know what I’ve seen from Ronald and I know what I’ve seen from Peyton Barber. Peyton gives you a different dimension in the case of two yards being four yards, and four yards being six yards, and six yards being eight yards – finishing off runs. There is something about a run that gets finished off invigorates your team right along your sideline, or a great block by a wideout, or an effort play, or a guy that breaks a tackle.
“So those are things that I think Peyton brings that are part of a young player that you hope develops. That’s part of this league. You only get so many draft picks and you only have so much money. What do we count on? We count on Peyton Barber being better than he was last year.”
The ever-confident Barber wasn’t fazed by the team’s selection of Jones, and welcomes his addition to the team.
“Oh yeah,” Barber said. “He’s going to be one hell of a player and I’m excited to see him play.”
Jones brings the ability to reel off long runs with his breakaway speed, and that has stoked Barber’s competitiveness, as he wants to showcase his sneaky speed, too.
“I want to show people that I can break off the long runs and that I’m not just a power back,” Barber said. “I’m a lot quicker than people think also. I want to show everyone that I can be an all-around back.”
In order to get faster, Barber has gone on a strict diet and trimmed down this offseason.
“I took my excess fat and turned it into lean muscle,” Barber said. “I’ve been more prepared for my diet. I’m still a power back but this year I’m faster and quicker than people think. I feel like I’m only going to keep getting faster. At the Combine I ran a 4.62 or a 4.64, and then at my pro day I ran a 4.58. I’m getting closer to 4.5 right now.”
Barber didn’t lose any weight. He just turned fat into muscle and looks more sleek and sculpted than ever.
Bucs running backs coach Tim Spencer has seen Barber become a tick faster and more agile this offseason.
“He’s a pretty elusive big guy,” Spencer said. “He is a very elusive big guy with quick feet and good vision, good hands – good everything. He’s a good, solid football player. And obviously he does some (special) teams also, so he’s a good football player. I like the way he runs.”
One of the areas that Barber’s increased speed is expected to help the team is in the red zone where Tampa Bay struggled mightily last year.
“We didn’t have any scoring runs outside the 2- or 3-yard line,” Monken said. “How many more plays can we get from the 12, the 10 and further out to help ourselves? We have to run the ball better.”
As the team’s power back, Barber is going to get those short-yardage and goal line touchdown opportunities, but he also wants to contribute with some long distance scores, too.
“Oh yeah, that’s crazy,” Barber said. “That’s definitely something we’re going to improve on this year. We’re going to have a lot longer runs than that.”
Barber’s first touchdown was the longest run of his career – a 44-yard jaunt at San Francisco in a 34-17 win in 2016.
“Hopefully I can break off some longer than that,” Barber said.
It takes two capable backs to have success running the ball in the modern day NFL, and the Bucs have had their best years in the ground game when they’ve had a two-headed monster, whether it was Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn in the 1990s or Alstott and Michael Pittman in the 2000s. While Barber won’t be confused with the likes of Alstott or Dunn, he has the chance to be the “bash” while Jones provides the “dash” in Tampa Bay’s backfield in 2018.
“I think he has a high ceiling,” Spencer said of Barber. “This is his third year, so he has a good feeling of what we’re trying to do offensively. Peyton can catch the ball and run routes even though he’s a good-sized back. You see height-wise he’s 5-foot-10, but he’s 230, and that’s a pretty good combination. I like the way he runs. I like his attitude. I like the way he’s learning and picking up things. Obviously he’s in the mix, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out.”
Jones has the electricity and play-making ability to become a 1,000-yard rusher sooner or later, but in a league where there are very few holes and not much open field, being able to break tackles and slip tackles is a key trait that a power back like Barber possesses.
An improved Barber is capable of 1,000 yards too, which is why he shouldn’t be counted out for the starting role in Tampa Bay this year.