The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made preseason headlines with the signing of Leonard Fournette. But it’s not Fournette that pushes the Buccaneers and Tom Brady over the top in their quest for the Super Bowl. It’s the running back who was already there: Ronald Jones II.
Jones has put together back-to-back weeks with more than 100 rushing yards entering a Week 6 matchup against the Green Bay Packers. Both of those came with Fournette out with an ankle injury. Even upon Fournette’s return, though, don’t expect him to unseat Jones as the leading rusher in Brady’s backfield.
Two years in a row, Jones turned out to be a bust relative to preseason expectations. But his third year is different: The expectations were lower than they’d ever been, and the results are better.
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Why is Ronald Jones the top Buccaneers running back?
The Bucs picked Jones in the second round (38th overall) of the 2018 NFL Draft. He’d just completed a three-year career at USC, which has produced some pretty good running backs in its time. In Jones’ final year, he rushed for 1,550 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and 19 touchdowns.
Jones was expected to be Tampa Bay’s top back in 2018, ahead of Peyton Barber. But after 10 carries for 29 yards in Week 1, he never saw double-digit carries again. Jones eventually fell to multiple weeks of being inactive. His pass-catching and pass-blocking needed work, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
A lost rookie year was meant to be remedied in 2019. For the most part, Jones did what he could — he rushed for 724 yards on 4.2 yards per carry while scoring six touchdowns. But head coach Bruce Arians used a frustrating committee with the less explosive Peyton Barber, and the Bucs threw it a ton with Jameis Winston. Jones didn’t get a chance to fully dominate the backfield.
Entering his third year, Jones was finally supposed to be the man. Then shortly before the season, Tampa Bay signed Fournette after his release from Jacksonville. The Bucs had also signed LeSean McCoy in the offseason. Jones again looked like he could be crowded out of the RB conversation.
This time, Jones didn’t let that happen. He ran for 66 yards in Week 1, then after a down Week 2 ran for another 53 in Week 3 while serving some value as a receiver, too. With Fournette out in Weeks 4 and 5, Jones made the Tampa Bay backfield his own. In those two games, he combined for 37 carries for 217 yards to go with nine catches for 36 yards.
In a Tampa Bay Times story before the season, Arians called Jones “the guy” multiple times. That was before the Fournette signing. But if Jones’ last two weeks of successes are any indication, that still might be true.
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Is Leonard Fournette still good enough to help the Buccaneers?
Fournette, the No. 4 overall pick in 2017, is still a powerful runner with unusual speed for his size. He’s an asset to Tampa Bay. But Fournette may not be as primed as Jones to be the Buccaneers’ workhorse.
In his rookie 2017 season, Fournette had strong numbers padded by lots of carries, but he averaged only 3.9 yards per rush. That dropped to 3.3 yards per carry in 2018 before Fournette rebounded to a 4.3 rate in 2019. Of course, some of that trouble is on the Jaguars’ O-line and quarterback play, but it’s also some evidence that Fournette isn’t going to suddenly turn into Derrick Henry.
In his Bucs’ debut, Fournette ran five times for five yards. In Week 3, it was seven carries for 12 yards. If not for a big Week 2 of 12 carries for 103 yards and two TDs, Fournette might have already been relegated out of this backfield picture entirely.
Fournette, too, is an OK receiver. He’s got the power-running style that Jones does. In a lot of ways, he and Jones can both run the same plays in similar fashions. That means there likely will be weeks where Fournette plays a bigger role than Jones.
But Tampa Bay has been trying to unlock Jones for the last three seasons, and it has finally done so. Sometimes an injury is all it takes to change the trajectory of a positional depth chart. Fournette’s missed time with his ankle injury gave Jones an opportunity, and Jones seized it. At this point, the running path to the Super Bowl for Tampa Bay and Brady goes through RoJo.