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2020 Buccaneers Position Preview: Running Backs

Our 2020 Position Preview series rolls on today with a look at Tampa Bay’s backfield.

With the expected start of training camp approaching, we’re going to dive into the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers position by position. Today, we continue with the running backs.

The Buccaneers haven’t been particularly imposing in the run game for quite some time. And while the league has changed over the years and less emphasis is placed on the run nowadays, having a solid backfield certainly can’t hurt your offense. There’s obviously value in having a productive stable of running backs. With Tom Brady taking over a unit that already boasted an elite passing attack, the backfield could stand to take a step forward in 2020 to bring the offense to the next level.

Tampa Bay has finished in the bottom half of the league in rushing every year since 2015. That year, Doug Martin helped the Bucs average 135.1 rushing yards per game, which was good enough for fifth in the league. But ever since, the backfield production has been pretty pedestrian. Can things change in 2020? Before we look ahead, let’s take a look back at 2019 to see what the team is looking to improve upon.

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Rewind

The Bucs averaged 95.1 rushing yards per game in 2019, which was only good enough for 24th in the NFL. Carries were largely split for much of the season between Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones II. Barber, coming off of an 871-yard rushing season in 2018, had a letdown season. He ran for 470 yards and six touchdowns on 154 carries, averaging 3.1 yards per carry. It wasn’t necessarily a bad season by any means, but it wasn’t anything overly impressive. Down the stretch, Tampa Bay didn’t run the ball all that much. However, in each of the last four games, Jones totaled more carries than Barber. By the end of the season, it seemed clear that Barber would be moving on in free agency.

After a mess of a rookie season in 2018, Jones bounced back in a big way in 2019. He went over 1,000 yards from scrimmage, rushing for 724 yards and six touchdowns on 172 carries (averaging 4.2 yards per carry) while catching 31 of his 40 targets for 309 yards. Year two was a huge step forward for the former USC Trojan, and heading into year three, it looks like the reins will belong to him—at least as much as they possibly can in what will surely be a rotation in the backfield.

Dare Ogunbowale forced his way onto the roster last year after a strong training camp and preseason. He primarily worked as a third-down back, leading the team’s running backs in receptions with 35. T.J. Logan played sparingly on offense, but featured heavily as a kick return specialist until a late-season injury.

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Meet The Group

With Barber now in Washington after signing a two-year deal this offseason, Jones is set to take on a larger role in 2020. He enters the season as the team’s No. 1 back after an offseason in which head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht threw loads of praise his way. The Bucs’ brass believes in the potential of the 2018 second-round pick to continue to progress this year, which is why they didn’t sign any running backs in free agency. It’s also why they likely felt comfortable passing on a running back in the second round of the draft, instead waiting until the third round to add a complement to the third-year pro.

In that third round, Tampa Bay selected Ke’Shawn Vaughn out of Vanderbilt, surprising many—and upsetting some. Plenty of folks have questioned whether or not the Bucs reached for Vaughn, but without a fourth-round pick, the team surely didn’t want to wait until the fifth round to add a running back. Plus, there is plenty to like about what Vaughn brings to the table. He is a strong runner with plenty of potential in the passing game. Given his draft status, he’ll likely get every chance to be the No. 2 guy behind Jones this season.

The team also added Louisiana’s Raymond Calais in the seventh and final round of the draft, though he may be more of a special teams guy with occasional offensive snaps, assuming he makes the team. The running back group still includes Ogunbowale, Logan and Aca’Cedric Ware as well.

Vanderbilt v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Who’s New?

The newcomer with the highest profile is certainly Vaughn, as he was the Bucs’ third-round pick in this year’s draft. He started his collegiate career at Illinois, but eventually transferred to Vanderbilt, which is where he broke out. He ran for over 1,000 yards in both 2018 and 2019, leaving as one of the Commodores’ most decorated running backs ever. He has good speed and runs well in between the tackles, showing a strong capability of fighting through contact over his years in college.

The other newbie, Calais, is an intriguing prospect. As a late-round pick, the Bucs don’t necessarily have as much invested in him as they do Vaughn, but he could figure into the team’s 2020 plans. His speed and kick return experience make him a threat to unseat Logan as the return specialist this fall, for one. But his quickness could also afford him some opportunities out of the backfield, especially if he proves to be a reliable pass-catcher.

Vanderbilt v Mississippi Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Biggest Question: How Big of an Impact Will Vaughn Make in Year One?

As referenced previously, Vaughn will have every opportunity to assume the No. 2 role behind Jones this season. That’s obviously what the Bucs drafted him for, especially considering they haven’t signed anyone else that may be a potential complement to Jones. But that leads us to our big question with the backfield—how quickly can Vaughn make an impact? It’s not easy to jump right into the NFL at any position, much less running back. The rate at which the former Vandy standout can contribute to the Tampa Bay offense will depend heavily on his pass blocking. Protecting Tom Brady is the most important thing for this offense in 2020, so if you’re going to play running back for this team, you better be able to pass block. And considering Brady’s ability to get the backfield involved in the passing game, you’re going to need to be a strong pass-catcher as well.

Where Vaughn is in those two aspects of his game will determine the type of impact he can have as a rookie in 2020. To be blunt, this is as big of a question mark as the Bucs have right now. Because if for whatever reason the rookie struggles to adapt, it leaves Jones without a true complement. Ogunbowale is more of a third-down/role guy, not exactly a No. 2.

Plus, Jones as a feature back is a question in its own right. As much as he developed in 2019, no one can be certain that he can carry the load on his own if Vaughn isn’t up to speed. If Jones regresses or fails to be the guy he is expected to be and Vaughn can’t get going early on, there could be some trouble for the Tampa Bay backfield.

The Bucs very well could be betting on these two to get the job done this fall—as runners, receivers and blockers. But there must be some apprehension (more so with Vaughn than Jones, to be clear). If they were to open up some cap space to add a veteran to the mix, it may not be the biggest surprise in the world. Because as much faith as they seem to have in Jones, the depth behind him is alarmingly unproven. This position group is one to watch whenever we get to training camp/preseason—whatever that may look like in these strange times.

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