Ronald Jones Has A New Path in 2019 (Fantasy Football)
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Once fantasy players have gotten a glimpse of a player, some feel as if they know exactly who he is after a handful of touches. That’s precisely the case with Ronald Jones, who many fantasy owners are steering clear of after a disappointing rookie season. Should you be one of them?
It’s somewhat comical to decide a player’s fate after just 30 touches in the NFL, but that’s exactly what fantasy owners are doing. Fortunately, the Buccaneers have not closed the door on their high second-round pick from just one year ago.
For those who are turning their cheek away from Jones, let me ask you about players like Robert Woods and Devonta Freeman? Do you remember when Woods was in Buffalo and left for dead? Or how about Freeman’s rookie year when he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns on 103 combined carries/targets? Most forget about players like that because it’s not in recent memory, though Jones’ 1.9 yards per carry and one touchdown on 32 combined carries/targets is right at the forefront.
This is where the change comes in for Jones, and it’s a drastic one. The Bucs fired Dirk Koetter and brought in Bruce Arians, someone responsible for plenty of great fantasy running back performances. Oddly enough, it was Koetter who was Devonta Freeman‘s coach during his rookie season when he struggled. A season later, he was the fantasy MVP, without Koetter.
During his time in Arizona, Arians’ scheme supported David Johnson as the top running back in all of fantasy football, but all that changed when Johnson had to play under Steve Wilks last year. He barely finished inside the top-10 running backs and if you ask anyone who owned him if he was even that valuable, they’d likely disagree. Are we judging Johnson on his 2018 season? No, because we know what he’s capable of. Even going back before Johnson took over as the lead back, Arians made fantasy relevant running backs out of then 30-year-old Chris Johnson and even Andre Ellington during the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
During the 2013 season, Ellington was the RB26 in points per game. Then in the 2014 season, he ranked 12th in points per game. While sharing the workload with Chris Johnson, David Johnson finished 12th in points per game in 2015, then No. 1 overall in 2016. As you can see, Arians has produced RB1s and RB2s throughout his time in Arizona. As for Koetter in Tampa Bay, here’s his top performer from each season: 2016 Doug Martin (28th), 2017 Doug Martin (48th), and 2018 Peyton Barber (33rd). Can we not pretend that Doug Martin didn’t have two 1,400-yard seasons before Koetter showed up? Coaching matters arguably more than talent.
FIGHTING AN UPHILL BATTLE
There are plenty of film buffs out there who study the film on running backs and there was one I found very noteworthy. Thomas Bassinger of Football Outsiders noted that Jones was hit behind the line of scrimmage on 11 of his 23 carries in 2018. There were 108 running backs who totaled at least 10 carries during the 2018 season. Jones finished 105th in yards before contact, which is created by his scheme and offensive line. His average yards before contact in 2018 was -0.13 yards.
Just how bad is that? Well, the league average for yards after contact (this one is on the running backs themselves) is 2.89 yards per carry. So, even if Jones had been average, his yards per carry would have been 2.76 yards per attempt. Without anywhere to go and no momentum to create, it’s hard to see him breaking many tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Besides, that’s not the running back he was expected to be. The Bucs as a team averaged just 1.00 yards before contact, the third-lowest mark in the league.
We can all agree that the Cardinals offensive line hasn’t been good for quite some time, right? Looking back at the yards before contact for Arians’ running backs, they averaged a combined 1.61 yards before contact from 2013-2017. That number would’ve ranked No. 13 in 2018, so his scheme should create much more space for Jones to operate.
While Arians’ offense is battle-tested, we haven’t really seen Jones perform at a high level. Yes, everything was stacked against him last year, but we have still yet to see him flash potential. While the rushing totals will come in some form, the biggest question to you should be whether or not he can catch the ball out of the backfield. While at USC, Jones totaled just 32 receptions over his three years there and based on what we heard out of camp last year, it was that Jones was struggling to secure passes.
This is the biggest obstacle for him to overcome, as Arians’ starting running back was always involved in the passing game. He caught 7-of-9 passes in games last year, so while it may not be a strength of his, it also may not be as bad as some have suggested. When coming out of college, Leonard Fournette was considered a two-down back, though he’s managed to catch 58 passes in just 21 NFL games. The scheme will often dictate how much a running back is used in the passing game, but my guess would be that Arians shifts quite a few of those running back targets to O.J. Howard and the tight ends.
I’ve been saying Jones is a steal all offseason and I’m not backing off now. What some are missing, however, is that by no means am I saying he’s a “can’t miss” starter in fantasy. No, he’s a starting running back who’s going outside the top-35 at the position and top-100 overall. That’s why he’s a steal. You don’t find starters (without injury) that late in drafts at the running back position. At the time of writing this article, he’s going as No. 40 running back, behind Kareem Hunt, who won’t play until Week 10, as a backup.
The Bucs have a chance to take the leap into the top-10 offenses with Arians calling plays (they were actually No. 11 last year), and that would be a huge indicator of running back success, as 62 percent of RB1s come from top-12 scoring teams. During their OTA’s, Arians was quoted saying, “Some really young players stepped up, especially Ronald Jones… I really enjoy watching where he’s at right now.” The Bucs didn’t add a big name in free agency and didn’t draft a running back. They need to find out what they have in their high second-round pick and the only way to do that is to give him opportunity. In Arians’ offense, opportunity may be all that you need to succeed. Jones should make for a solid RB3/flex to start the fantasy season with upside to finish inside the top-15 at year’s end.