It would be accurate to call Ronald Jones' 2019 a mixed bag. It would also be accurate to call it a huge improvement. But the biggest improvement figures to happen in 2020. That's saying something, because after his rookie year you might have believed Jones was headed toward bustville. He looked clueless and downtrodden in the preseason, leading to a regular season where he failed to total even 100 yards from scrimmage for the Buccaneers.
Jones had to make changes to salvage his career or else it would have been over before it started. So his agent, Leigh Steinberg, linked him up with trainer Luke Neal in Arizona in hopes of turning things around.
"He didn't have it," Neal said of an unconfident, skinny Jones when the two met in March of 2019. "He was a great athlete, but no one taught him how to play the game of football. USC just gave him the ball. His high school just gave him the ball and said 'run.'
"When that confidence is shaken, it's gone. It's done. You're in the tank and you need to find yourself to get yourself out of that hole, and if you don't, you're going to sink further down and then you're done. ... The people who had been around him, whomever he had around him, he said he just couldn't trust anyone and he felt the most comfortable here with me."
With a lot to do physically and mentally, Neal didn't have the benefit of time last spring, so the first change he knew he could make that would positively affect Jones was alter his body.
"I looked at him when he was 206 pounds and said, 'You're a running back in the NFL? You're so skinny, man!" Neal recalled with a chuckle. "'You know what? Let's put some weight on you, man, let's put you at 215 or 218 this year and we'll see how your body handles it.'"
Sometimes the results aren't good when a running back puts on muscle, especially 12 pounds of muscle. Playing at a different weight can frequently lead to small injuries, and small injuries can lead to large or lingering injuries.
Neal's philosophy? Fuel the body properly, just as you would a fancy car, and the rest will take care of itself. Neal not only trains Jones but also is his personal chef when they're together.
How did Jones handle his 2019 weight gain? See for yourself.
This highlight reel is chock-full of evidence of a back with good explosiveness and lateral agility and a sneaky dose of physicality. He didn't get much goal-line work in 2019, but all six of his touchdowns came inside of 10 yards (and outside of three yards) with contact made before hitting pay dirt. In fact, he averaged 2.96 yards after contact per attempt on the year, which was above average, and also ranked well in elusiveness (16th out of 45 running backs with at least 100 carries). Only 14 running backs rated better than Jones in both statistics, and 10 of the 14 were top-21 Fantasy rushers in PPR last year and had at least 20 more touches than Jones.
Also, keep in mind that this is Jones before he put on seven more pounds this offseason to get to 225. If anything, 2019 was the proof of concept that Jones can be an effective player with more weight on his frame. Going up seven pounds this offseason after adding 12 pounds last offseason shouldn't result in a negative.
"Fortunately for us, when Ronald put on the weight last year, he got out there and ran a 4.4, the fastest he's ever ran at any weight," Neal explained. "If you can believe this, he's more explosive right now than he was last year."
That's a scary thought for NFC South defenses and a delightful thought for Fantasy managers. No one else in the Bucs' backfield checks in at more than 215 pounds, and Arians has gravitated toward larger running backs over his career (David Johnson and Rashard Mendenhall were north of 220 pounds).
It's enough to make you believe Jones has the stuff to remain the team's best option on rushing downs. But what about the passing downs?
Neal bristled at Bruce Arians' line from April when he said Jones was "more of just a runner and a check-down guy." Neal believes Jones has made big enough changes to make Arians think twice.
"No one taught Ronald how to really catch until I started with him last year," Neal said. "I remember watching the games and doing my own critiquing. 'Why did you run the flare route but look backward and jog to the sideline? Everyone knows you're not getting the ball.' That's the I.Q. part. I saw that in the 49ers game twice, the Giants game two times, the Panthers game three times, I could go on and on. Those are corrections that need to be made this year, and this year, his route-running and his hands have gotten so much better."
This is pretty easy to buy into. Jones is coming off a year where he caught 81.6% of his targets (31 of 40), averaged 10.0 yards per catch and ranked fifth in yards per route run (1.82) among 39 backs with at least 35 targets. He blew away last season's passing downs back, Dare Ogunbowale, in all three categories.
So why didn't he play more in passing situations? You might remember why. Because of plays like this.
Jones' pass blocking was nightmare fuel for Arians. He ranked 53rd of 60 in PFF's pass blocking efficiency measurable among rushers.
How much did Jones work on his pass protection heading into 2019?
"None," according to Neal. "We didn't have time."
And how often is he working on his pass protection heading into 2020?
"Every day. Twice a day on Friday and Saturday."
Neal and Jones watched lots of film this spring, going as far back to the days of Walter Payton to not only recognize great technique in pass protection but also see things to key in on that predict where a blitz is coming from.
"Ronald has to use his football I.Q. and identify who's coming pre-snap," Neal explained. "Look at his stance, look at his feet. Where's your quarterback going to be? Where would he prefer for a linebacker to be pushed so he has the window to throw the ball?"
Then Neal would take Jones to the field and changed everything. The linebacker who wasn't blitzing in the film they watched suddenly is blitzing. The defensive end who stunted off the snap is now bull rushing. The quarterback changed Jones' assignment pre-snap. Jones has to know his stuff for these dress rehearsals or else it's curtains for his chances to protect Tom Brady. That's kind of a big deal.
Neal believes that through simulations and repetition, along with the improved physique, Jones has improved as a pass blocker, and he's not the only one to notice.
"We focused a lot (on blocking)," Neal said. "He's been up there with Tom Brady a couple of times, so I think they've worked on that."
Everything Jones has worked on — the weight gain, the explosive speed, the receiving, the blocking and the football intelligence — should put him in position to lead the Bucs' backs in touches. Which is why it might be time to be confident in Jones' Fantasy value for 2020.
Sometimes it's what a team doesn't do that tells you how they feel about their roster. For all the hiccups Jones had last year, all general manager Jason Licht did to enhance the unit was add Ke'Shawn Vaughn with a third-round pick in the NFL Draft. That's it ... oh, besides letting bruising back Peyton Barber and his team-high seven rushing touchdowns walk via free agency. Barber finished second behind Jones in carries last year. It means there's more opportunities up for grabs this year.
And Jones is prepared for them without major competition. A rookie without an offseason program to develop and prove himself? A third-down specialist? These are the players who will battle Jones for those reps. They're nowhere near as well-rounded as Jones promises to be.
Which is why Jones should not only top 1,000 total yards for the second year in a row, but flirt with 1,300 total yards with seven-plus touchdowns.
And running backs with that kind of potential don't last very long on Draft Day. With the upside presented in a vaunted offense that will force defenses to respect the pass on every play, don't be nervous to take Jones as soon as Round 5 in PPR and maybe even as a late Round 4 scrape in non-PPR if running backs fly off the board.
"I don't take the credit for this. It's the Lord's credit," Neal said humbly. "We got some great work done last year, getting some great work done this year, and I think he's going to follow up better than he did last year. Last year he did what he did on a split job. He wasn't the main back. He just has to basically continue on the same path that he's on and the sky is very high for him."
His size is improved. His speed isn't compromised. He's more intelligent and confident than ever before. His game has been improved. The role is there for the taking without major competition. And the offense could be among the best in the league. Everything is in place for Jones to be one of the best Fantasy Football values on Draft Day.