TAMPA. Fla. — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers continue to turn heads with a flurry of moves — first signing Tom Brady in free agency, then trading for Rob Gronkowski, then signing LeSean McCoy last month and on Wednesday, signing Leonard Fournette to a one-year deal.
How does Fournette fit in with the Bucs? What are their plans to use him? What are the fantasy implications of his role? Here are answers to some of the bigger questions:
What does Fournette add that the Bucs’ other running backs didn’t?
Team’s fear Fournette. They devise game plans around stopping him. That hasn’t been the case for a Bucs running back since Doug Martin. Bucs running backs faced a loaded box on just 21.5% of snaps last year — third lowest in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Over the past three seasons, Fournette saw at least eight defenders in the box on 255 snaps — second most in the NFL, behind Derrick Henry. This creates more opportunities for shots downfield for Brady.
“I remember when we was game-planning — it was all about him,” said Bucs linebacker Devin White, who played with Fournette at LSU and faced him in the Bucs’ Week 13 game last season. “You’ve gotta pick your poison with us. And before he came [to Tampa Bay], you still had to pick your poison, but I think he’s a harder runner than the guys that we’ve got. I think we’ve got more elusive backs, and I feel like he’s a more downhill runner. You’ve gotta respect him in the run game.”
The other thing about Fournette is, he doesn’t need a great offensive line to block for him. He’s big enough and powerful enough to create his own running lanes and get yards after contact. Fournette’s 562 rushing yards after first contact last year was fifth most in the NFL, and he averaged 2.12 yards per rush after first contact, whereas Ronald Jones averaged 1.86 and McCoy averaged 1.39. And while the Bucs believe Jones has improved enough with his hands to be a three-down back, he can still can be a liability in pass protection. He was benched in the second half against the Jaguars last season for a missed blitz assignment that led to a sack. The Bucs believe Fournette is fine in this area — he’s a willing blocker and very strong.
Who’s the No. 1 running back? What happens to third-round pick Ke’Shawn Vaughn?
Coach Bruce Arians said Thursday that Jones will remain the starter. “It’s his job if he wins it or loses it,” Arians said Jones. “He’s already got it, so he’s gonna have to screw it up. I don’t see that happening.”
Jones will see the first- and second-down action; McCoy can take those reps too, as well as be the third-down back. The head-scratcher is that neither Jones nor McCoy plays special teams. Last year’s third-down back, Dare Ogunbowale, does — he was a special-teams captain last year. But he’s not as quick as McCoy or as powerful as Fournette.
Backup running backs still get a lot of touches in Arians’ offense. After Jones was named the starter in Week 9 last season, he had 98 rushes and former starter Peyton Barber had 75 from Weeks 9-17. In terms of total offensive snap counts for the season, Jones got 402, Ogunbowale had 343 and Barber 321.
If the Bucs’ running backs are Jones, Fournette, McCoy and Ogunbowale, it would mean potentially losing Vaughn and seventh-round pick Raymond Calais — if they don’t clear waivers and sign to the practice squad. Vaughn and Calais have missed time, not only because there was no offseason program: Both were on the reserve/COVID-19 list at the start of camp.
Arians isn’t ruling out keeping five running backs. “Anything’s possible,” he said.
“Special-teams roles affect everything. If there’s a fifth back that’s a core special-teamer versus a linebacker or tight end that’s not, then yeah, they’re gonna be on the team but inactive on Sunday. We’ll put all that together in the next 48 hours.”
Adam Schefter reports on the Buccaneers adding former Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette on a one-year deal.
Why did the Jaguars cut Fournette?
It depends whom you ask. Jaguars coach Doug Marrone insisted that this was strictly an “on the field” move, but Fournette was working with the first-team offense throughout training camp and in the team’s scrimmage — even if there were concerns about how he fit into coordinator Jay Gruden’s offense.
Off-the-field issues may have played a role. Fournette was “fined numerous times for being late to or not paying attention in meetings,” ESPN’s Mike DiRocco reported. Fournette served a suspension during his rookie season for leaving early during a bye week and skipping a team picture, and he was suspended in 2018 for fighting with Buffalo’s Shaq Lawson. Arians said he was not concerned with Fournette’s character, though.
“The people I trust gave him high, high marks in everything I care about,” Arians said of Fournette. “I can’t say what’s going on in Jacksonville, but all’s I can say is, [with] what’s happening in Tampa, he’ll fit right in.”
It’s also hard to look at all that’s happened in Jacksonville in the past year — trading Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue, plus dealing Nick Foles after giving him the most guaranteed money in franchise history — and not think the issues there extended beyond Fournette.
What does this mean for Brady and the offense?
The play-action passing game has been huge in the past for Brady and will be a staple for him in Tampa Bay this year, along with a renewed commitment for a balanced run/pass attack the Bucs got away from last year. When teams stack the box because of Fournette, it means opposing defenses are less likely to key in on or roll coverage toward Mike Evans, Chris Godwin or Gronkowski, for fear of leaving holes elsewhere. It means the Bucs are less likely to run into the same problems they did last year with opponents like the Saints, who took away Evans and Godwin and essentially grounded the vertical passing game.
How soon can Fournette make an impact?
If Fournette can pass three consecutive days of COVID-19 testing, he could meet with the coaching staff this weekend and receive his playbook, join the team for practice Tuesday and realistically play on Sunday at New Orleans.
The Bucs have spoken with Fournette’s previous coaches and believe he’ll be a quick learner, but they don’t feel like they have to rush him, either — or rush to carve out a role right away because they have Jones and McCoy. Fournette will have opportunities, though. Arians doesn’t believe in relying on just one back — he loves to divvy up touches — but he will go with the hot hand if there is one.
What is Fournette’s fantasy impact?
With so many new mouths to feed, we need to turn to Arians’ comments as a starting point for projecting this backfield.
Jones remains the top fantasy asset from this group. Though it’s safest to project Jones as the lead ball carrier in 2020, Fournette figures to be just behind and could overtake Jones at some point this season. Meanwhile, McCoy’s anticipated heavy involvement in third-down/passing situations (a role he may share with Ogunbowale) is sure to limit the fantasy upside of Jones and Fournette. Oh, it’s also possible that Vaughn will get some work later in the season.
All that being said, Jones is best viewed as a borderline flex option in 10- and 12-team leagues. Fournette won’t be a starting option out of the gate, but is worth a bench spot in the event that he passes Jones on the depth chart. McCoy and especially Ogunbowale and Vaughn (dynasty aside) should be on waivers. — Michael Clay
What moves do the Bucs still need to make?
One thing the Bucs addressed already was their interior offensive line depth, particularly center, which is why they brought in A.Q. Shipley to back up Ryan Jensen. So now their one true hole is depth behind starting outside linebackers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul.
The Bucs have been hopeful that second-year outside linebacker Anthony Nelson can step in and take over for the vacancy left by Carl Nassib as a rotational pass-rusher, but with no preseason, it’s hard to tell how Nelson has progressed in that department. The majority of his work last season came on special teams. In 146 snaps on defense, Nelson produced eight tackles, a forced fumble and a batted pass. But his pass rush win rate was 8.3% versus Nassib’s 18%, Barrett’s 24.4% and Pierre-Paul’s 11.1%.