TAMPA, Fla. -- When Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians was asked in July if there was a competition between Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones to be the No. 1 running back, he said, “Oh, yeah. It’s going to be a heck of a one-two punch. Whichever one’s the 1 and whichever one’s the 2, they’re both gonna play.”
As the Buccaneers get ready for their third preseason game Friday night against the Cleveland Browns, here's a closer look at how the depth chart is sorting out among the running backs -- a unit that must improve (they finished 31st in the league last year, averaging 3.92 yards per rush) if they want to fulfill Arians' vision for a balanced offensive attack.
The incumbent: Peyton Barber
A reason Barber had some success last season -- leading the Bucs with 871 rushing yards and five touchdowns -- was because of his ability to get yards after contact, a product of good leverage and powerful running. His 436 yards after contact last season ranked 11th in the league. This preseason, Barber has averaged 4.6 yards on five carries.
Barber has gotten first-team carries with Jones stepping in after, although Barber is still more trustworthy with the ball in his hands and has been the one getting the first set of touches this preseason. He’s simply more powerful inside. Still, expect both him and Jones to play significant roles on Sundays.
“If you’ve got a guy that’s got a hot hand, you just keep feeding him. Everybody check their ego at the door because it’s all about rushing the football, pass protection [and] doing all of those things,” Arians said, adding that a different back would be handling third-down duties. “You should have a fresh guy all of the time -- that’s the nice thing about it.”
The contender: Ronald Jones
Some in the organization felt that after the spring Jones had, he could unseat Barber for the starting role. That hasn’t happened yet, although Jones enjoyed a really nice training camp and preseason, averaging 4.2 yards on six carries.
"It's night and day. I think the light has finally flipped on for him," Barber said of Jones' growth year over year. "He's looking good. I'm looking forward to what he's gonna do."
In the second preseason game, against the Miami Dolphins, Jones hyperextended a knee during the opening kickoff return and had only two touches after that, but one of them was a 10-yard run. He missed practice Sunday and Monday this week due to some swelling but was able to get back on the field Tuesday and Wednesday. He’ll be a game-time decision in Friday’s third preseason game.
Jones’ hands weren’t much of a factor at USC, but running backs coach Todd McNair identified that Jones was using some odd angles with his hands when attempting to catch the ball and they worked all throughout the spring to correct it. Jones also bulked up this offseason -- from 208 pounds to 221 -- but he’s still learning to use his size between the tackles.
“With the added weight, I’m able to run in between the tackles more,” said Jones, adding that he feels much more confident this year. “[I] just feel heavier and stronger -- faster, too, a little bit.”
He has had some busts in blitz pickup, and he’s still working on his route running. What he has over Barber, however, is an extra gear. His success might be more heavily dependent on the performance of the offensive line and playcalling that can get him out in space.
The biggest surprise: Dare Ogunbowale
In some instances, Ogunbowale has outperformed Andre Ellington as a third-down back, although Ellington’s system familiarity, having played for Arians with the Arizona Cardinals, helps his cause for a roster spot. But it’s hard to overlook Ogunbowale, who not only looks powerful between the tackles but is a strong route runner, which is especially important when Arians lines his running backs up out wide.
"Just being able to finish runs ... [Ogunbowale's] route running is second to none. I feel he has some of the best routes in the NFL," Barber said.
“I feel like I’ve always been a pretty good route runner,” said Ogunbowale, a former walk-on at Wisconsin who grew up playing soccer. “I started off my college career as a cornerback, so going against receivers all the time, kind of picking their brains on what they saw from me ... when I switched over to offense, I took those things that I learned and it translated into me catching the ball. ... Route running has always been something that I’ve always kind of hung my hat on."
Ogunbowale was tied heading into Thursday night for the NFL lead with two touchdowns this preseason.
"He's made a real strong case," Arians said.
The veteran: Andre Ellington
After sitting out all of last season and letting some injuries heal, Ellington got off to a hot start in camp but has since been outperformed by Ogunbowale. Ellington’s role is as a third-down back and to serve as a mentor to the room, with his strength being the route running, but he botched a protection that resulted in a sack in the preseason opener and then lost a fumble against the Dolphins.
If the Bucs keep four running backs, Ellington would be one of the four. If they’re limited to keeping only three due to needs at other positions, it would come down to Ogunbowale and Ellington, with Ogunbowale being the better option unless they put a higher premium on Ellington’s veteran presence.
Jones sure values it. He didn’t have a mentor last season and some would argue that it hampered his development. Ellington has been helping Jones learn Arians’ offense.
"That’s helped a lot because it’s little words and little keys that you’ve got to know -- triggers that can change the whole play,” Jones said. “So, [I’m] definitely talking to him when I’m on the field [about] all that stuff. He’s been a big help, for real.”
The practice squad candidate: Bruce Anderson
An undrafted free agent out of North Dakota State with 2,140 rushing yards over his final two years, Anderson has seen limited action this preseason. He had four touches for 9 rushing yards against the Dolphins in the second preseason game. At this point, he’s a practice squad candidate at best, although his college tape is still impressive -- he’s got some quickness to him and moves well laterally. If the Bucs keep Anderson on the practice squad, it would allow them to carry just three backs on the active roster.
Factoring in the offensive line
Bucs running backs can’t do it alone -- they need help from the offensive line, a unit that struggled in run blocking last season. The Bucs averaged just 2.24 yards before contact per rush last season -- 31st in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information (more rushing yards before contact generally means better blocking).