Is Ronald Jones Still a Mid-Round Fantasy Football Value?
When I was a little kid, I was certain that I wanted to be an astronaut. I loved Star Wars, and I was that kid who had his birthday at the planetarium. Then reality hit: there’s a lot more science and a lot less exploration.
When I was in middle school, I decided I was going to go to UCLA and study psychology – then reality hit because I couldn’t afford their tuition. I found acting, but then reality hit because I wasn’t the physical type directors wanted. I went into teaching, but then reality hit because the education system is underfunded. So, now I’m a letter carrier, something I never imagined I’d do and am even more surprised that I love.
Sometimes it takes a while to find the niche we’re meant to fill. Even then, we may still have flaws that never go away, but they can be managed and accounted for.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones came out of USC an electric runner with prolific production, but he has been pinched for playing time due to his limitations as a pass-catcher. With the Buccaneers spending an NFL Draft pick on rookie competition in Ke'Shawn Vaughn, will the third-year pro shoot the moon in 2020, or will Jones' launch sequence be stalled?
Living the Dream
Jones was selected with the 38th pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, joining the threadbare running back room of Tampa Bay – where he, in theory, would have an immediate chance to contribute. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein wrote this about Jones:
“Jones is a classic slasher with the wiggle and explosiveness to elude open-field tacklers and then burst to chunks of yardage…. Jones also has the ability to turn into a much more dangerous pass-catcher than we saw at USC…. He's a big play talent with a chance to thrive at a high level wherever he lands.”
These skills, along with his 1,550 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns in his junior year of college, made Jones a coveted fantasy option in his rookie 2018 season. It seemed like he was primed to explode out of the gates.
Then the bad news came. First, it was reports that Jones would solely split work with Peyton Barber and Charles Sims (which he ended up doing). Then, it was news that Jones was struggling both in pass catching and protection heading into preseason. Then Jones was a healthy scratch for Week 1, even with Sims sent to injured reserve well before that. Jones ended his rookie season with just 44 rushing yards and 1 touchdown on 23 attempts, as well as 33 receiving yards on 7 catches.
His second season saw an immense improvement in both his role and production, leading to an even timeshare with Barber, seeing 172 carries to Barber’s 154. While by no means a receiving monster, he also improved his receiving marks from 4.7 yards per reception to 10.0, while more than doubling his target load per game. Still, on crucial late-series downs Dare Ogunbowale was by far the preferred receiving back, and in goal-line situations Barber remained the preferred rusher.
The 2018 and 2019 seasons were an exercise in frustration for Ronald Jones on the field and in fantasy, where flashes of talent were not enough to win out over capped usage.
Even if Jones wasn’t able to force his way past these two undrafted backs, things were looking up for him when Tampa Bay allowed Barber to walk in free agency, then signed quarterback Tom Brady and traded for tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Brady, now well into his 40s and deeply into the shorter-yardage passing offense, has targeted running backs on average 10.4 times per game over the last three years, while the Buccaneers targeted the backfield about 7.1 times per game under head coach Bruce Arians in 2019. In neutral game scripts since 2017, Brady-led offenses rushed with a back on 38.3 percent of plays, while in 2019 the Arians-coached Bucs called a running back rush on 35.7 percent of their plays.
This isn’t to say that Brady’s presence will change the entirety of the Buccaneers’ offensive play-calling, but a player of his magnitude does shift an offense around him, and Arians is a smart coach who knows his players’ strengths and limitations. If the Buccaneers’ offense was able to take a large step forward in 2020 with these new presences and another year under a proven offensive mind, so the thinking went, Jones would have quite a few chances to plunge into the end zone at the end of a drive and kill clock late in the game with a lead.
Then reality hit, as the Bucs gave pre-draft signals that they weren’t satisfied with Jones toting a three-down load, and they ended up selecting Vanderbilt’s Vaughn with the 76th pick of the draft. Our own Neil Dutton wrote up glowing praise for Vaughn on draft night, indicating that the rookie could immediately step into receiving duties for Tampa Bay and eventually soak up the larger half of a committee backfield.
Vaughn poses a surprisingly immense hurdle for Jones moving forward, as a player who “does a little of everything well despite doing nothing great,” per numberFire Editor-in-Chief JJ Zachariason on The Late-Round Podcast.
Still, there’s a chance Jones can hold off Vaughn. Here’s how.
Living the Dream
There’s no doubt that Vaughn’s profile is more well-rounded than Jones’s, and by most measures Vaughn actually appears to be a better prospect, as well. Still, there’s cause for optimism with Jones as he heads into his third year in the league.
Over the last nine games of the season, when he became a starter, Jones sustained a solid 4.2 yards per carry despite slightly increasing his per-game workload. Also, despite increasing his target load by almost three times, his catch rate improved from 66.7 percent to 80.6 percent. In fact, although he remains maligned for his supposed lack of receiving ability, Jones’s yards per route run ranked fifth among the 46 backs with 27 or more targets last year, per Pro Football Focus, and he’s coming along even more in the passing game, per reports.
No, he’s not without warts, and he may not be the Buccaneers’ long-term bell-cow answer, but Jones should still be plenty involved in 2020 as both a runner and receiver, and he still has a place in the league going forward. With an ADP as the RB32 in the back half of the seventh round of PPR leagues, per FF Calculator, Jones still has some value – we project him as our 29th-best back for fantasy in 2020.
Vaughn is nipping at Jones's heels to fill the James White or Shane Vereen role in a Brady offense, but with a new set of circumstances around Jones and another year of experience, Jones can dream of at least becoming Brady’s next BenJarvus Green-Ellis or LeGarrette Blount – a solid early-down and goal-line back.