Sometimes it’s all about timing in the NFL. For Ronald Jones II, that appears to be the case in 2020.
After a disappointing rookie year in which he totaled less than 100 scrimmage yards, Jones bounced back in 2019, finishing with the 25th-most scrimmage yards (1,033) among running backs. He was also a top-25 back in terms of DYAR and DVOA, per Football Outsiders.
The 23 running backs ahead of Jones —not including Kenyan Drake since he played for two different teams— were on the field for an average of 61.5% of their respective team’s offensive snaps in 2019. They averaged 1,422 yards from scrimmage and 5.01 yards per touch.
Sure, Jones’ total yardage lacks when compared to some of the league’s top guys, but there’s a big difference: Jones only played 36% of offensive snaps last year.
RoJo played 425 snaps in 2019 and touched the ball on 203 of those snaps (48% touch rate), leading to a 5.08 yards per touch mark, so what were to happen if he were to play the 61.5% of snaps mentioned earlier?
According to FO, the Bucs registered around 1,159 offensive snaps in 2019. A 61.5% share of that number would be around 713 snaps. If we stick with RoJo’s 48% touch rate and 5.08 yards per touch rate, then that means he would’ve finished with around 342 touches for 1,738 scrimmage yards, which would have been the fifth-most scrimmage yards in 2019.
More opportunities mean a greater chance for Jones to become a top-10 back in 2020. The former USC Trojan was actually asked about the prospect of becoming one of the league’s best running backs on Monday when he sat down with reports on a Zoom call.
“Most definitely. I just have to keep putting the work in and getting better,” he said. “I feel like I’m ready for the workload and things like that, so I most definitely see 1,000 yards in my near future and for years to come. So, just being that guy for the team – that would be good.”
The opportunities will be plentiful in 2020. Head coach Bruce Arians has made it clear on multiple occasions that RoJo is the guy heading into this season. “RoJo [Ronald Jones II] is the main guy. He’ll carry the load,” Arians told reporters last week. “All of those other guys are fighting for roles – [for] who goes in second when he gets tired, maybe who is the third-down guy. But they’re all fighting for a role and special teams will have a lot to do with that.”
“He improved dramatically from last April to December. He has shown that he’s the guy. He is a guy with a lot of talent. He is excellent in the screen game. His run after catch is good. Just for him – how much can he expand it? But I have all the confidence in the world [in him]. He put a lot of time in working out and catching balls to improve his hands in the offseason and it’s showing up already.”
It’s hard to ignore the jump Jones made from Year 1 to Year 2. He improved both as a runner and a receiver after struggling with both aspects during his rookie year.
“My first year I was in Dirk Koetter’s system and it was a challenge,” Jones said. “It was like a foreign language for me coming from college to the pros. Year two in Bruce Arians’ system, it’s been easier and things like that.”
According to Sports Info Solutions, Jones had a higher EPA/carry than Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley, and Le’Veon Bell in 2019. He broke more tackles per carry (1:7.5) than Derrick Henry and his 2.4 yards after contact were better than Ezekiel Elliot. This happened while facing the 14th-most 8+ man boxes in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats.
Jones was eighth in yards after contact per reception among running backs with at least 19 targets and was 12th with a 3% drop rate among running backs with 35 or more targets. He showed a very good ability to make guys miss in space and it showed up on film and the stat sheet.
20 of his 41 targets came either at or behind the line of scrimmage, yet quarterbacks still averaged 7.54 yards per attempt, which was the fifth-highest mark in the NFL among backs with 35+ receptions.
Where Jones really stands to rack up numbers is in the passing game. Brady targeted running backs 159 times in 2019, which was only behind Philip Rivers and the Chargers. Running backs were also targeted 36 times in the screen game, which was fourth-most. Jones was targeted on 17 of Tampa Bay’s 29 running back screens, so it appears he’s due for a bigger role in that regard, as well.
“For me it’s exciting because you get more touches that way,” he said. “I look forward to the challenge being more of a receiver this year and getting the ball in space, too. As a running back you can’t ask for much more, so that element, that part of it, is definitely more exciting and is something I worked on all offseason. So, I’ll be ready for that and when the time comes, hopefully I can double that number.”
Don’t get me wrong, RoJo can always improve in every regard, but he needs to continue to work on his pass protection. That’s been his biggest issue during his first two years. He was even benched for missing a block last year.
“I kind of just took it as a coaching moment – learn from it,” he said. “You can’t keep making the same mistake, so try to correct the old mistake and not make a new one.”
If he can become an adequate pass protector, then that will also keep him on the field more often. Part of the reason Dare Ogunbowale played so much last year was because of what he could do in pass pro.
One also hopes that the Bucs’ offensive line can improve upon a 2019 campaign that saw it rank 30th in both Power Rank and Stuff Rank, per FO, but that’s a different story for another day.
All it takes in the NFL is one opportunity and you better believe Jones is going to get his in 2020.
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