2022 Buccaneers Backfield Breakdown: Poppin’ Tags

by Noah Hills · Best Ball Plays & Strategy

The 2022 Buccaneers Backfield Breakdown is part of an offseason series in which I take a deep dive into one NFL team’s backfield and examine the respective rushing performances of the players in it. In doing so, I hope to gain insights into key players from a talent evaluation standpoint, and using that evaluation as a baseline, from a dynasty valuation standpoint. The first installments in the series can be found here.

I’ll start by taking a quick overview of each team’s raw rushing volume and propensity to run the ball. Then, I’ll dive into the player evaluation portion. Before we start, let’s define the metrics I’ll use as part of those evaluations:

Key Metrics

Yards per Carry+ (or YPC+)

The degree to which a player’s raw yard per carry average exceeds or falls short of the collective yard per carry average of all other running backs on his team. Meant to be an overview of a player’s team-relative efficiency.

Box Count+

The degree to which the average amount of defenders in the box that a player faces on his runs exceeds or falls short of the collective average faced by the other running backs on his team. Considering that the outcome of any given rushing attempt is largely dependent on the amount of defenders in the box pre-snap, Box Count+ describes the relative degree of difficulty of a running back’s carries.

Breakaway Conversion Rate (BCR)

Quantifies performance in the open field by measuring how often a player turns his chunk runs of at least 10 yards into breakaway gains of at least 20 yards.

Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating (BAE Rating)

Improves upon YPC+ by accounting for the box counts that a player carried the ball against. Looks at team-relative yards per carry against each individual box count, then uses a weighted average (based on total carries against each box count) to generate an overall score. A score of 100-percent indicates that a player is producing exactly the per carry output of his teammates, a score above 100-percent indicates that he is outdoing their per carry output to whatever degree, and vice versa for a score below 100-percent.

Relative Success Rate (RSR)

Measures player consistency using Success Rate, but relative to his teammates and adjusted for the box counts that he faced in the same way that BAE Rating is. “Success” on a given carry is defined by gaining 40-percent of yards needed on first down, 70-percent of yards needed on second down, and 100-percent of yards needed on third or fourth down. A score of 0.0-percent indicates that a player is succeeding on exactly the same percentage of his carries as are the other backs on his team, a positive score indicates that he is succeeding more often than his teammates are, and vice versa for a negative score.

Volatility Rating

Measures the disparity between a running back’s percentile ranks in BAE Rating and RSR in order to indicate how volatile a player’s per-carry performance is. High overall efficiency paired with low rate of success indicates boom/bust output, while low overall efficiency paired with high rate of success indicates steady, low-ceiling output. Measures degree of volatility, not quality of performance.

Composite Efficiency Score (CES)

Presents a single-metric overview of the quality of team-relative performance a player produced on his carries in a single season. Calculated using the average of a player’s percentile ranks in Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating and Relative Success Rate, represents player performance on a 0-100 scale.

Team Rushing Volume

Only the New York Jets ran the ball fewer times than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did last season. Tampa finished almost 70 rushing attempts below league-average. The year prior, they had the fourth-fewest attempts in the league. They smartly took advantage of the arm of Tom Brady in his two seasons with the team.

It should come as no surprise that, according to rbsdm.com, the Bucs have executed a pass-heavy gameplan regardless of the in-game situations they’ve found themselves in. In 2021, they had the third-lowest early-down run rate in neutral game script situations (when win probability for either team did not exceed 80-percent), and had the No. 6 lowest rate in the same metric in 2020. They’ve also opted to throw the ball more often than expected (given league-wide play-by-play data) in nearly every down-and-distance situation, as well as 8-percent more often than expected overall. The only situations in which they ran the ball more often than league average in 2021 were in short yardage on second and third down.

With Brady and the gang back together going into 2022, we should expect more of the same in Tampa Bay. They will be one of the best and most pass-happy offenses in the NFL once again.

Efficiency Numbers

Leonard Fournette was the clear lead runner in this backfield in 2021. Ronald Jones served as more of a sidekick than as a 1B or pure handcuff. The main man behind them was Ke’Shawn Vaughn, with the sallowed husks of Giovani Bernard, Le’Veon Bell, and Kenjon Barner. These running backs got to play about as much as my little sister did when I’d hand her an unplugged Nintendo 64 controller back in 2001. Here are the full rushing efficiency profiles for each of those players:

Fournette was a quality number one back last season. He offered more per carry than other Bucs runners while also providing more consistent output than they did.  His Composite Efficiency Score of 60.4 ranked No. 14 in the NFL among backs who led their teams in carries. This was the second-best mark of his career (behind the 86.8 he notched with the Jaguars in 2019).

Jones was a positive in that he consistently produced positive outcomes relative to what other Bucs backs were able to produce. However, he wasn’t otherwise efficient in the context of the offense. I’ll touch on Jones more when I break down the Chiefs backfield. For Jones, 2021 was the first time since his rookie season that he didn’t produce a Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating above the 80th-percentile.

Vaughn was the opposite of Jones, providing per-carry juice without down-to-down consistency. Among runners with at least 20 carries, Vaughn had the No. 5-highest Volatility Rating in the league.

The ancillary backs didn’t touch the ball enough to evaluate effectively. Bernard was dynamic in limited work while Bell and Barner were very bad.

So Now What?

Jones and Bell are now gone, having been replaced in this backfield by third-round rookie Rachaad White. White was a dynamic but volatile runner during his two seasons at Arizona State. He will add pass-catching acumen and young, athletic legs to this rotation. Crazier things have happened than a guy like him ascending past an aging back like Fournette. Fournette could hypothetically fall off the age cliff in a 2022 season that he’ll play at 27-years old. White is currently being selected in the early second round and as the RB4 in dynasty rookie drafts. He’s a fine pick there at the precipice of a stomach-turning tier break.

I like White, but I wouldn’t count on him completely beating out Fournette this season. The LSU legend was both a quality runner and a quality pass-catcher in 2021. While White should step into more of a three-down version of the sidekick role that Jones played a year ago, Fournette is still a good player who should retain the lead spot in the pecking order. He’s an underpriced win-now asset who can be had outside the top-20 backs in dynasty startups despite finishing as the RB4 in PPR points per game a season ago. Some risk exists that the wheels simply fall off given his age. However, that risk equally exists for similarly aged guys like Austin Ekeler, Dalvin Cook, and Alvin Kamara. All of these running backs are being taken far earlier than Fournette in dynasty.

The addition of White likely means that Vaughn will never be a thing, at least in Tampa Bay. Through two seasons in the league, he has only 62 carries and has never posted a positive Relative Success Rate.

Bernard and Barner shouldn’t be on your radar.

Final Word

The Buccaneers backfield occupies a very appealing spot of convergence in the triple-Venn Diagram of talent, proven productivity, and low cost of acquisition.  Fournette is good. White is exciting. Vaughn has some hypothetically untapped juice, and we’ve seen elite RB1-level production from the lead runner on this team. None of them are that expensive, so take shots and let the chips fall where they may.