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Buccaneers

Running Back Roulette in Tampa

Tampa Bay seems to have the perfect team set up for 2020. They’re returning two of the best wide receivers in the game, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. They drafted a stud offensive lineman to help boost what is a growing and improving front five. They are bringing back a defense that played a heck of a lot better in the second half of the season than the first half of the season and a defensive line that ranked No. 1 in rush defense.

Oh yeah, and they added that Brady guy and his buddy, Gronk, in case you didn’t hear.

There’s only one question that remains going into the 2020 season: Who is going to line up behind the Hall of Fame quarterback?

The Bucs have struggled to find the answer to this question since really the Dunn and Alstott glory days. They tried Cadillac Williams but once he blew his knee out, he was never the same. They drafted Doug Martin, “The Muscle Hamster”, who shined for a season but failed to stay healthy and maintain consistency. LeGarrette Blount provided some energy for a season but they didn’t find him to be a long-term option. They were in love with Charles Sims after drafting him in the second round and he turned out to rank up there with Ki-Jana Carter and Lawrence Phillips on the Bust-o-meter.

In their history, the Bucs have had just nine running backs to gain over 1,000 yards in a season, only two of which came in the post-Gruden era.

That leads us to 2020 where the running back picture is as shady as their past.

No one really knows what to expect at running back in Tampa. The team didn’t re-sign Peyton Barber who had a decent two seasons with the team, leading the team in touchdowns, but failed to crack over 500 yards rushing in a season. They got enough out of Ronald Jones II to bring him back and pass on star backs like J.K. Dobbins and Cam Akers in the second round of the NFL Draft.

In the third round, though, the Bucs did see value and surprised fans by taking Ke’Shawn Vaughn out of Vanderbilt. Vaughn is expected to compete with Ronald Jones for the starting position in camp (should there be one).

Vaughn is more of a complete back than Jones, scouts say, and is considered by many experts to be one of the more underrated backs from the 2020 draft. While Jones seems more one-dimensional, Vaughn has the vision to make cuts and burst through holes and make the big plays that the Bucs haven’t had in a long time. He also has more potential in the passing game. You have to go back to Warrick Dunn to find a back that had home run ability and speed like this.

Vaughn does have his shortcomings, though, that caused him to fall in third round. If he’s going to make it in the NFL, he needs to learn to be more patient and let blocks develop for him instead of rushing into the hole much like Michael Pittman used to do with the team some 18 years ago.

Fans already know what to make of Jones after seeing him for two seasons. The first words that really come to mind with him is “he’s okay.” He had an underperforming rookie season before putting together some good games in 2019, mixed with some underperforming ones as well.

With Vaughn, it’s the clear unknown, but they’re excited about the potential. Any rookie that comes in after being picked in the first two days of the draft will energize the fan base.

How the Bucs use the two backs will be up to Tom Brady. In New England, Brady used his running backs a lot in the passing game. Chances are the back that is able to be most effective as a pass-catcher and pass blocker to protect Brady will see the most playing time in the end.

The Bucs also return Dare Ogunbowale who is likely to be the team’s third down back again and drafted Raymond Calais on the third day to add some depth to the position. But those two guys aren’t likely to enter into the mix for the starting position. Ogunbowale’s strength, though, as a pass-blocker could earn more playing time than he had a year ago.

The most pressure right now is on Jones, the 2017 second round pick out of USC. The expectation game is reaching its limit and all the weight appears to be on his shoulders. He needs to show something this season or the Bucs could pull the plug on him. With Vaughn, they’ll be more patient and give him time to develop, especially given the fact that without offseason training, he will start behind the 8-ball more than most rookie backs would.

The Bucs have the roster in place to make a run at not just a division title this season, but perhaps more. If the running game can be a success, then it could be a very special season in Tampa.

Let’s just hope we have a season.

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