Bucs added LeSean McCoy, but Ronald Jones will 'carry the load' at running back

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians reaffirmed his belief in third-year running back Ronald Jones last week, proclaiming, “RoJo is the main guy. He’ll carry the load.”

Jones will be the Bucs’ primary ball carrier on first and second downs, with LeSean McCoy, Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Dare Ogunbowale and Raymond Calais competing for the change-of-pace and third-down roles.

But even if Jones gets touches only on first and second downs, expect him to be targeted significantly in the passing game with Tom Brady at quarterback. Brady completed a pass to a running back on first and second down 414 times in the past five seasons, which is the third most in the NFL since 2015 -- hitting his RBs on flare routes, arrow routes, wheel routes and screen passes. Brady also threw a touchdown pass to a running back 24 times in the past five years -- more than any other quarterback in the league since 2015.

“For me, it’s exciting because you get more touches that way,” said Jones, the Bucs’ second-round draft pick in 2018. “I look forward to the challenge being more of a receiver this year and getting the ball in space too. As a running back, you can’t ask for much more, so that element, that part of it, is definitely more exciting and is something I worked on all offseason.”

Jones seldom caught passes in college at Southern California, and he has had to work very hard at it as a pro. But Arians has seen enough improvement to not only give Jones another opportunity to start this year but to expand his role.

“He improved dramatically from last April to December. He has shown that he’s the guy,” Arians said. “He is a guy with a lot of talent. He is excellent in the screen game. His run-after-catch is good. Just for him -- how much can he expand it? But I have all the confidence in the world [in him]. He put a lot of time in working out and catching balls to improve his hands in the offseason, and it’s showing up already.”

Where does this leave McCoy, the Bucs’ newest acquisition? For one, he is a smart veteran who can help Jones with blitz pickup. And McCoy can bolster the Bucs’ screen game too, which is all about throwing the ball outside fast.

Even in the twilight of his career, McCoy’s 79.1% receptions per target rate in the past two years is just below Christian McCaffrey’s 80.8% and about the same as that of Ezekiel Elliott (78.5%), Leonard Fournette (78.4%) and James White (75.4%).

“He’s a heck of a receiver,” Arians said of McCoy. “That’s the one thing that gets me excited, having played against him all these years, is that he’s a hell of a receiver and he’s still got a very explosive first step.”

McCoy caught 28 passes for 181 yards on 34 targets last season; Jones caught 31 passes for 309 yards on 40 targets. Jones had better production than what the Bucs got out of Ogunbowale, their third-down back, who finished with 210 receiving yards after the catch last year, averaging 6.0 yards after the catch per reception. Jones contributed 299 yards after the catch last year, averaging 9.65 yards after the catch per reception.

But Jones believed he needed to build on that. He spent much of last year trying to improve the angles of his hands and hand placement, and this offseason, it was about refining it.

“A lot of times they said I wasn’t absorbing the ball -- I was letting the ball hit my body,” Jones said. “So just working in the summer with Coach [Luke] Neal on the extension of the hands, finding that diamond and being able to control the ball. [You can’t be] slapping it or trying to look up field; you’ve got to just secure it.”

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays this offseason, Jones would catch 300 balls at Neal’s facility in Phoenix. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, it was 150 to 300, but thrown from different types of athletes, including non-football players so Jones could learn to make different types of adjustments. Usually it was a smaller, pee wee-sized football, as Neal believes those are more difficult to catch.

“His hands were sore,” said Neal, who began working with Jones last offseason. “There were times when I’d have to physically rub his hands out, rub his thumbs out, rub his fingertips out. Because I’m trying to teach him how to catch the ball with his fingertips, rather than just his hand. Because if you catch the ball with the palm of your hands, a couple bad things may happen. One, it can bounce up in the air, someone picks it off. Or two, it hits your palm, bounces on the ground and it’s an incomplete pass.”

“So if he’s running an out route, for instance, to the right side of the sideline, or hashmark, he’s gonna put his pinkies together, so when he motions back upfield, he’s going to stay in the field of play. If he does the same route and catches the ball with his thumbs together, his momentum is carrying him out of bounds. So it’s the difference between him being a possession receiver on third down and just getting a first down or being a big-play receiver threat on third down that he can still take it and get a touchdown out of it.”

Blitz pickup also was an area in which Jones needed to improve. He was benched in the second half of the Bucs’ Week 13 28-11 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars last season for missing a blitz pickup of cornerback D.J. Hayden on first down.

“It’s definitely motivating,” Jones said of the benching, which only lasted a game and led to a significant increase in film study. “Obviously, no player wants to come out of the game. I kind of just took it as a coaching moment -- learn from it. You can’t keep making the same mistake, so try to correct the old mistake and not make a new one. You’re never going to be perfect on the field, but obviously practice makes perfect, so that’s the goal there.”

What does Brady see in Jones so far?

“[Brady] always tells me to get low in my routes and run my routes like I already have the ball,” Jones said. “A lot of times, I was trying to get a feel for the defense, if it was zone or man. I’m working on getting that pre-snap read and then just exploding through my routes, just finishing. I think that’s been what we’ve been working on now just in the shorts and stuff.”