Buccaneers 2021 Positional Outlook: Running Back

Previewing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' running back situation entering training camp ahead of the 2021 season.
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Over the next month until the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take the field for training camp, AllBucs plans to break down the team's roster, position by position, in order to prepare onlookers for what to watch for during the 2021 season.

This series isn't meant to turn into a projection of the depth chart, although starters at some positions will appear rather obvious. Instead, this exercise should provide insight as to which players should make meaningful contributions to a run at another Super Bowl and what the Bucs' depth looks like.

After breaking down the quarterback position previously, today we'll remain in the Buccaneers backfield by taking a look at the running back position.

Buccaneers current running backs

  • Ronald Jones II
  • Leonard Fournette
  • Giovani Bernard (signed as a free agent in April)
  • Ke'Shawn Vaughn
  • C.J. Prosise (signed as a free agent in January)
  • Troymaine Pope (signed as a free agent in May)

Starter: Ronald Jones II or Leonard Fournette?

Truth be told, the starter label may not be worth much when it comes to the Buccaneers' running back position. Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette will compete for the lion's share of first-team reps come training camp and the preseason, but it wouldn't be shocking to see the two share the role into the 2021 season.

Jones is entering a contract year as a former second-round pick by the Buccaneers. He's been productive over three years with the team, but inconsistent at times, totaling 1,746 yards and 14 touchdowns and an average of 4.5 yards per carry on 387 attempts. Jones has yet to break 200 rushes in a single season.

Although Jones proved his worth throughout the 2020 season, notably including his breakaway, 98-yard touchdown rush against Carolina in Week 10, so did Fournette. 

The former fourth overall selection in 2017 by Jacksonville signed with the Bucs in September, spent most of the regular season in the No. 2 role, but emerged at the end of the year as Jones nursed injuries. In the final seven games of the year - regular and postseason - Fournette posted seven total touchdowns and 606 yards from scrimmage on 118 touches.

There probably isn't a wrong answer when asked "Who should be the Buccaneers starting running back?" so long as the choices are between Jones and Fournette. Both fit the team's power-rushing scheme well and have made big plays in big moments. 

There will be a competition for the role this summer, but it could realistically result in reps being split between the duo.

Depth

Although Jones and/or Fournette will be on the field on first down more often than not, Giovani Bernard is undoubtedly going to cut into the bell-cow back's snaps as the season goes on. Tampa Bay signed the former Cincinnati running back this offseason and has praised him as a three-down-back, but make no mistake about it, Bernard was added to the team for his presence on passing downs. 

Although he's been productive on the ground, Bernard has been one of the league's best receiving and pass-blocking running backs for eight years. With the Bengals, Bernard caught 342 passes for 2,867 yards - averaging 8.4 yards per reception - and 11 scores. 

According to Pro Football Focus, Bernard has only graded out below the 63.3 mark once in a single season in his career (2015) and has reached a score of 80 or better three teams. The 60-range is considered league "average," and the 80-range is deemed "high quality."

With three running backs set to hold clear roles ahead of him, this leaves second-year back Ke'Shawn Vaughn as an odd-man-out in the rotation. 

Head coach Bruce Arians suggested earlier this offseason that he expects a breakout season from the Vanderbilt product, but it's hard to envision many opportunities for Vaughn to put such a year together as Tampa Bay's clear-cut RB No. 4. His experience in the system and draft pedigree as a former third-round pick suggests he has an edge over Prosise and Pope to make the roster, though.

Final thoughts

The running back position is one of the deepest spots on Tampa Bay's roster, as you can argue three of the four backs expected to make the roster are of starting caliber in this league. 

Tampa Bay obviously didn't make many moves in free agency outside of retaining its own stars, but Bernard's signing was genius on an inexpensive deal. His addition addresses a significant missing piece on the Buccaneers offense from a season ago, as neither Jones nor Fournette emerged as a dependable third-down back on a consistent basis. The two combined to drop 12 passes - Fournette finished the year with a miserable 28.4 pass-blocking grade, while Jones ended at 46.8.

It will be intriguing to see just how Arians and running backs coach Todd McNair officially split the snaps up, but having this many proverbial mouths to feed is a good problem to have.