The running back room for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have a different look this season after the team allowed Ronald Jones to leave via free agency.
While the exodus of Jones wasn’t unexpected, it does create a void, since he had been the team’s leading rusher in 2019 and 2020 and was No. 2 to Leonard Fournette last season.
New Tampa Bay coach Todd Bowles inherits a veteran, playoff-tested team that won’t have a lot of positional uncertainty. However, the running back battle behind Fournette will have to clear itself out during training camp and the preseason.
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When Fournette came to the NFL from LSU, he was widely viewed as the league’s next dominant back. That hasn’t happened anywhere close to expectations, because he has never been fully healthy in any of his five seasons. He has posted just two 1,000-yard rushing seasons and has missed 18 games due to injury to date in his NFL career.
When Fournette was a surprise cut the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2020, he came to Tampa Bay with high praise but remained mired behind Jones for almost all of the regular season, rushing just 97 times in 13 games. However, he blew up in the Bucs Super Bowl-winning playoff run, rushing 64 times for 300 yards, leading the team with 18 receptions and scoring four touchdowns in four postseason games. That carried into the 2021 season. As the main attraction, he rushed for 812 yards, caught 69 passes for 454 yards and scored 10 TDs.
Fournette enters this season as the unquestioned lead back in Tampa Bay, but his injury history requires the team to have a backup plan in place.
In two seasons, Vaughn has been used sparingly, rushing just 62 times for 289 yards, catching nine passes for 60 yards and scoring three touchdowns in 22 career games. It should be noted that with both Fournette and Jones out with injuries in the first round of the 2021 playoffs, Vaughn earned the start and carried 17 times for 53 yards and a touchdown.
As he prepares for training camp, Vaughn is currently No. 2 on the depth chart behind Fournette, which history has told us turns you into the No. 1 guy when Fournette inevitably misses time. The real mystery here is whether the third-year back can fend off a rookie challenger.
The Buccaneers used their third-round draft pick to select White, who carried a heavy workload in college at Arizona State. He has a nice combination of size, strength and vision. White doesn’t have the “wow factor” to make defenders miss and too often gets stopped once defenders get their hands on him.
He is likely a work in progress who will have to make a big impact in training camp to move up the depth chart and carve out a role. Competency in pass protection will be paramount, even if White is not treated as a third-down type. Keeping Tom Brady healthy is the preeminent concern for Tampa.
Giovani Bernard and Kenjon Barner
Bernard is entering his 10th season in the NFL after spending eight years in Cincinnati and last season with the Buccaneers. His usage and production were extremely limited last year. In 12 games, he rushed just eight times and had 23 receptions for only 123 yards.
That said, he was a free agent in the offseason. and the Bucs brought him back for another year. Recent reports, however, suggest he could be on the roster bubble.
Barner’s biggest claim to fame is that he has three Super Bowl rings – one with Philly in 2017, New England in 2018, and the Buccaneers in 2020. However, in nine games over two years in Tampa, he has just four rushing attempts and no receptions. Barner’s playing time has been almost exclusively on special teams, which is his path to making the roster.
Fantasy football outlook
Aside from Fournette, there isn’t a lot to love here. Fournette is a borderline RB1 because of the offense he plays in, but given his injury history, he’s more accurately in the RB2 range.
The battle to be the handcuff back in the event of injury likely goes to Vaughn, which makes him an RB4 candidate. White is going to be in the competition for the backup spot behind Fournette but at this point is a RB5, and that will be a stretch if Bernard makes the roster. The rookie has the most upside behind Fournette, though, so we’ll monitor this throughout the remainder of the offseason.
The two grizzled vets, Bernard and Barner, have some name recognition but no legitimate fantasy value, unless Fournette misses time and the younger players don’t step up.