TAMPA, Fla. -- Two preseason games into the 2018 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers starting running back is Peyton Barber. That's despite the fact the Bucs used a second-round draft pick on Ronald Jones II.
"I'm the starter and I plan on keeping it that way," said Barber, an undrafted free agent out of Auburn in 2016. He started four games last season for the Bucs, and coach Dirk Koetter has praised him for his ability to finish runs.
"Peyton has done an excellent job. He's hungry," running backs coach Tim Spencer said. "I like his mindset this year. I've always liked his mindset, but I just think that this year -- he has a goal and his goal is to be the No. 1 cat -- and so far, I haven't seen anything different."
Barber is averaging 5.3 yards per carry this preseason and scored a touchdown against Miami in Week 1. He also entered camp at 222 pounds after dropping 10 pounds in the offseason. The lighter frame has made Barber quicker, yet he's still able to fight for tough yardage inside and isn't going down after contact, something he showed a knack for last season.
"It's important," Barber said. "That lets the defense know that I'm going to be coming all day. Setting the tone."
Barber will be the guy the Bucs turn to on first and second down and in short yardage. Though the Bucs have gotten away from using a bell-cow back, believing it results in too much wear-and-tear, they do feel Barber is capable of being on the field for every down if needed.
"That was one of the things he needed to improve on obviously," Spencer said. "He's at that point now where I feel comfortable and we all feel comfortable that he can get it done."
Immediate impact from Jones?
Like Barber, Jones also scored a touchdown in the first preseason game, but has produced 11 rushing yards on 12 carries this preseason. Aside from Barber simply outperforming him, Jones' biggest obstacle would be his hands. He's had several noticeable drops in practices and hasn't caught a pass in the preseason, either.
"In college, there was probably a reason why he was only thrown the ball 17 times," Spencer said. "But I think he's worked on his game, he's worked on his hands, his eyes. To me, [the thing] I see with him, is eye-hand coordination and following the ball, concentrating and believing you can get the job done.
"He's never going to be the best catching guy on the team, but he certainly can improve on catching the balls that we want to throw to him -- especially the routes that we have," said Spencer. "With his speed, we need him to be able to catch the balls down the field."
During joint practices with the Tennessee Titans, Jones did have multiple catches on go-routes, about 25 yards downfield, hauling them in over his shoulder -- a step in the right direction.
"Just reps and absorbing contact, just coming down with it. Like Coach [Spencer] was helping me with my hand placement. It's really more your eyes," Jones said, adding he's also growing more comfortable with the playbook. "It's becoming more natural, but not enough natural. I'm still working on it."
Veterans Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims are battling it out for the third-down role with Rodgers having the most versatility. Rodgers, despite standing at 5-foot-6, can line up on first and second down and contribute as a rock-solid pass protector.
"Be a guy they can plug in anywhere, and go out there when your number is called and make plays -- I live by that," said Rodgers, who can also line up most anywhere on special teams.
Though Rodgers is more of a chameleon, Sims, who suffered a knee injury against the Titans, is strictly a third-down back. Sims has in the past gotten looks as a starter. A converted wide receiver in college, he's a great route runner, has natural hands and works best in space.
From unknown to big first impression
It's tough to say how many running backs the Bucs will keep on their 53-man roster, especially with injuries at cornerback and defensive tackle. But rookie Shaun Wilson, an undrafted free agent out of Duke, has made a memorable impression.
"He's got great hands," Spencer said. "Shaun's a tough kid. Shaun's one of those guys where if you told him he can't do it, he's gonna do it. He's gonna get in there and he's gonna fight tooth and nail, arms and legs -- whatever it takes, he's gonna throw it in there."
Wilson, who at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds is not an in-between-the-tackles player on every play, runs with good leverage.
"He's small in height, but he's got really good quickness, really good vision. He can burst and he's smart," Koetter said. "He also makes guys miss. He's been an impressive guy in camp."
Wilson missed the first preseason game, but did see a lot of action on kickoff and punt returns in the second. He also rushed for 17 yards on five carries, including a 9-yard run.
It's unlikely the Bucs would carry five running backs (they had four last season). Barber and Jones should be 1-2. The No. 3 spot will come down to Rodgers or Sims. At this point, Rodgers looks to have the upper hand, and Sims' injury could make that decision easier.
If Wilson shows enough on special teams, he could earn a 53-man roster spot. The Bucs could sign him to the practice squad, assuming he cleared waivers and didn't sign elsewhere.