Ronald Jones’ and Leonard Fournette’s Fantasy Outlooks: Who will lead Tampa Bay’s backfield moving forward?

Due to the head-scratching usage of Bucs RBs, who will lead the Tampa Bay backfield between Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette for fantasy?

In what could only be described as a sensational game to open the 2021 NFL season, fantasy football managers are left scratching their heads after the curious usage of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers RBs Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette, and Giovani Bernard. What did we learn from Week 1’s game against the Dallas Cowboys, and what does it mean for the Bucs RBs going forward in fantasy football?

Leonard Fournette dominated the splits as the Buccaneers’ RB1

Despite all the talk of this being Jones’ backfield, Fournette left little doubt if his playoff success would carry over into 2021.

Fournette played on 42 of the Buccaneers’ offensive snaps (64.6%), but going into the final drive, it was above 70%. Now, he was not overly efficient with those opportunities, but his usage does make you raise an eyebrow. Fournette carried the ball 9 times for 32 yards (3.6 ypc) and saw 7 targets, catching 5 for 27 additional yards. On the day, he ended with 10.9 fantasy points in PPR scoring.

His usage leads you to believe that this might be Fournette’s backfield. His 9 carries represented 69% of the backfield’s total usage. He saw 70% of the targets and all 4 snaps inside the red zone.

Fournette ended the 2020 season on fire. In the three playoff games they both played (Jones missed the first game), Fournette saw 59 touches to Jones’ 35, or 19.7 and 11.7 on a per-game basis. Then, in the Super Bowl, Fournette had a team-high 16 carries for 89 yards and a touchdown while adding 46 yards on 4 receptions. 

Combined with his Week 1 workload, it appears that Fournette is the RB1, not Jones.

Ronald Jones was a near no-show in Week 1

Many fantasy managers had Jones pegged to be the lead back in Tampa Bay. This was reflected in their ADPs, with Jones going at pick No. 77 and Fournette at pick No. 101, according to Fleaflicker. And it is easy to see why. 

Jones rushed for nearly 1,000 yards (978) and 7 touchdowns on 192 carries in 14 games. He also worked out of the backfield as a receiver, catching 28 of 42 targets for 165 yards and a score. Through Week 12 (Bucs’ bye week), Jones was the RB10 in fantasy, averaging 13.1 points and 16.2 opportunities per game.

Yet, those who did stick with him and plugged Jones into their Week 1 starting lineups face a difficult challenge. Jones played on just 6 snaps all game (9.2%) in Tampa Bay’s 31-29 come-from-behind victory. He carried the ball 4 times (30%) for 14 yards (3.5 ypc). He also did not see a single target all game.

For those looking for Jones in the second half thinking he switched his number at the break, you were correct to notice his absence. After his fumble at the 6:36 mark of the second quarter, Jones never saw the field again, seemingly in a Clifford-sized doghouse.

Head coach Bruce Arians is known to either ride the hot hand or bench a player for turnovers or dropped passes. This was an issue last season for Jones, as he dropped 5 of his 42 targets (11.9%) according to Pro Football Reference. Add in the early fumble, and there is a chance Arians could stick with Jones operating as a rotational back until he gets back in his good graces.

As suspected, Giovani Bernard is the third-down back

All offseason we heard that Bernard would be the “James White of the Buccaneers RBs.” Well, they’re right.

Outside of one third-down snap for Fournette, Bernard received the rest. In total, he played on 17 snaps (26.1%), with 10 of his reps coming in the game-winning drive. Bernard didn’t see the ball much, though, recording 2 receptions on 3 targets for 12 yards. 

The usage in clear passing downs is what fantasy managers should pay attention to coming out of this game. The hype out of camp this summer, even from Tom Brady, was clearly accurate. Even if he might not lead Bucs RBs in targets this season, Bernard will be in on high-leverage plays, serving as a safety valve for Brady. 

Ronald Jones or Leonard Fournette: Who will lead the backfield for Tampa Bay the rest of the way?

By the box score, Round 1 was a decisive fantasy win for Leonard Fournette as he looks to take a stranglehold on the lead role. We need to see who Arians trusts when they need to burn clock or are in a game where one of the best defenses in the NFL doesn’t allow 29 points and 451 total yards of offense.

While Fournette did dominate the snaps, he did not wow you with his play. There were a few decent power runs with a broken tackle or two as he fought for extra yards, but there is a distinct lack of explosiveness. That is something we know Jones can provide, as he demonstrated in Week 10 against the Carolina Panthers with a 98-yard touchdown run.

I do not want to overreact to a Week 1 game, and you should not either. Jones could very well have a solid performance next week against the Los Angeles Chargers, and we are back to square one. Still, if Fournette doesn’t give him a chance due to his usage, we need to rethink how we view Tampa Bay’s backfield moving forward.

For now, I still view them roughly the same. Both are RB3s with RB2 upside in fantasy, but Bernard’s passing work takes away some of the potential for each player.

Tommy Garrett is a Fantasy Analyst for Pro Football Network and is a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA). You can read all of Tommy’s work here, listen to him on PFN’s Fantasy Football podcast, and check out his contributions in PFN’s free fantasy newsletter. Give him a follow on Twitter: @TommyGarrettPFN.