With Jameis Winston at the helm in 2019, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers boasted one of the NFL’s most anemic rushing attacks with only the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins averaging fewer yards per carry than Tampa Bay’s 3.7. While the arrival of Tom Brady wasn’t exactly a boon to the ground game, the Bucs did increase their YPC to 4.1, and there are expectations of continued growth this season with all the team’s primary contributors returning.
Although the one-two punch of Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette is an improvement over the 2019 version that featured Peyton Barber, there are reasons to question any optimism for significantly better results. At the heart of it is head coach Bruce Arians’ desire to be aggressive and push the ball downfield. After throwing 630 times versus 409 runs in 2019, those numbers were 626 and 369, respectively, last year; expect this to continue being a pass-first offense.
Jones and Fournette should hold the top two spots, but veteran Giovani Bernard, who posted 771 yards and six total touchdowns with Cincinnati last year, figures to carve out a role as well. With that in mind, let’s examine Tampa Bay’s backfield to see what kind of fantasy value they could generate in 2021.
Jones comfortably led the Bucs in carries (192) and yards (978) last season and finished with seven rushing scores to Fournette’s six. The USC alum has developed nicely since an abysmal rookie campaign, increasing his yards per carry from 4.2 in his sophomore season to 5.1 last year. Jones is a decent receiver as well but is undoubtedly the least accomplished of this group in that department.
While Fournette seems to be drawing more fantasy attention, likely based on some combination of name recognition and postseason exploits, there’s little reason to think Jones won’t be the primary ball carrier. He was more effective as RB1 during the regular season, and every time the narrative became that Fournette was going to take over it reverted to Jones in the top spot. The only serious factor that could reverse this is Fournette now fully grasps the playbook after coming over from Jacksonville late in the process a year ago.
Jones should be the first of Tampa’s backs off the board in fantasy drafts, and isn’t worth reaching for, but he has an ADP in the late seventh round, typically chosen one RB behind Fournette.
Between a pass-heavy philosophy and capable alternatives on the depth chart, Jones is a stretch as more than a low-end RB3 or flex.
Given his status as a former fourth overall pick and featured back during Jacksonville’s playoff run a few years ago, Fournette is still probably the most familiar name among Tampa’s RBs. He’s also coming off a strong postseason in which he amassed 448 total yards and four TDs. Don’t let those factors dazzle you.
In a dozen regular-season appearances, Fournette averaged 42.9 yards per game and topped 50 yards on the ground in a game just twice. His receiving exploits propped his value up a bit, but there are multiple reasons to expect regression there.
While the obvious one is the signing of Bernard and his 342 career grabs, you can’t overlook the impact of a full season from Antonio Brown. The former All-Pro was always a volume target, and he posted a 90-966-8 pace after returning from suspension last year, reinforcing his role as an underneath possession receiver.
There’s also more depth at tight end: Rob Gronkowski (45-623-7) has a year under his belt in the offense to go along with Cameron Brate (28-282-1) and the returning OJ Howard (11-146-2), who missed most of last season with a torn Achilles.
With all those extra mouths to feed where will Fournette (mid-7th ADP) gets the touches needed to matter, at least on a weekly basis? Unless he racks up TDs Fournette may hold nominal fantasy appeal. He has more worth in best-ball leagues, and will be roughly a consistent flex play in redraft if Jones is somehow out of commission.
After spending his first eight seasons in Cincinnati, Bernard joins the Bucs as a possible third-down back. It’s not hard to draw comparisons between Bernard and former Brady favorite James White, who compiled 320 catches during six seasons spent with TB12, but that’s an oversimplification. Those Patriots teams had limited talent on the outside — to that point New England’s then-WR1 Julian Edelman would likely be no better than WR4 in Tampa — and a different philosophy than the aggressive Arians.
Entering his age-30 season, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Bernard carves out a meaningful role offensively that doesn’t include multiple injuries. At most he has watch-list appeal or is a waiver claim should something happen to the two guys ahead of him.
Finally, the return of Fournette and addition of Bernard removes any 2021 draft value from second-year back Ke’Shawn Vaughn.