The Jaguars knew that they had a problem on their hands when their top rusher, T.J. Yeldon, mustered just 465 yards on the ground. No team had a leading rusher with fewer yards except for Green Bay, which experienced such a position catastrophe that a wide receiver was forced to play running back.
Doug Marrone, Jacksonville’s new head coach, and Tom Coughlin, Jacksonville’s top personnel man—both guys who understand and emphasize the importance of the run game—proved that they’re out to remedy the problem, when they spent their first two draft picks on RB Leonard Fournette and OT Cam Robinson.
Fournette, Chris Ivory and Yeldon will enter the preseason in that order on the depth chart. Fournette, the top running back in spring’s draft and the No. 4 overall selection, will be tasked with helping turn around a franchise that hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2011. Ivory overtook Yeldon as the 2016 season dragged on, and Marrone will have to find ways to integrate both backs with Fournette as the bellcow.
“When we were good we ran the ball,” said Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jaguars’ last 1,000-yard rusher and the franchise’s second all-time rusher. “We had three or four guys who could run the ball really well and play-action passed to make it simple for the quarterbacks. And we had David Garrard who could run.
“Personally I think that’s what they’re going to go toward more—running the ball, play-action pass and trying to slow down the game and help their young quarterback out.”
Without question the success of the Jaguars will rely on fourth-year QB Blake Bortles and how little he turns the ball over. Bortles’ 51 interceptions through his first three years are the most of any quarterback in 16 years—though we can’t ignore the fact that his protection has also been historically bad. Bortles has been sacked 140 times through his first three seasons, which is second-most on a quarterback in that span since the 1970 merger (tied with David Carr and the expansion Texans).
That’s where Jacksonville’s seemingly crowded backfield should help the former No. 3 overall pick. “When you talk about the running back situation, that can help the quarterback a ton,” Jones-Drew said. “But at the same time he has to help himself as well.”
Along with their first two draft picks, the Jaguars traded for left tackle Brendan Albert in March, signed fullback Tommy Bohanon in April and took Miami fullback Marquez Williams in the seventh round with an eye on strengthening the run game even futher.
The idea is to take pressure off Bortles, so that, in turn, he’ll put an end to his charitable ways on-field. While the NFL saw an average of 60% of plays run out of 11 personnel last season, the Jaguars were in 11 personnel 76% of the time in 2016, which was tied for second-most in the league and behind only the Giants.
That’s sure to change based solely on their personnel this season, but also because who’s calling the shots. With Coughlin in charge and Marrone directing the team, the Jaguars should be better at establishing a ground game in 2017. Asked how many times in a game the quarterback should throw the ball, Marrone joked “zero” that he’d like to run the ball every play and “go back to the old way.”
“I’m standing here today, I’m coaching in the NFL, but if you said, ‘Hey what’s your favorite offense?’ I would tell you it’s a pro-style attack with a veer,” said Marrone, who coached under Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen for three years in the late ‘90s, to reporters last week. “…I think if you look at the NFL, it’s probably a lower number (passing) than what people think and a higher number running. When you have that, you’re usually in control of the game and you’re going to win the game—in general.”
Fournette is a three-down back, but surely he won’t be the only player lined up behind Bortles three-quarters of the time. Ivory, who signed a $32 million deal with Jacksonville in 2016, is just two seasons removed from a 1,000-yard year. Some have speculated Yeldon has become dispensable in Jacksonville after sliding to No. 3, but the 2015 second-round pick is cheap (less than a $3.5 million cap hit over the next two seasons combined), can pass-block and probably has the best hands of all the running backs. He ranked 10th among all running backs last season with 50 receptions for 312 yards.
“When you break Fournette down, he didn’t catch the ball out of the backfield as much as you would have hoped,” Jones-Drew said. “I think that’s where you’re going to see Yeldon more. To be honest, his best is when he’s in the open field. He’s tough to tackle and real slippery. I think that’s going to be his role.”
The Jaguars finally have a stable of running backs, a responsibility to the run game and a plan that would seemingly take some of the load off their maligned quarterback. Maybe this is the year they finally make that jump, but we’ve all been fooled before.