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Jaguars’ Urban Meyer and Trent Baalke Explain Decision To Draft Travis Etienne in 1st Round

The Jacksonville Jaguars selected running back Travis Etienne in the first round, at No. 25 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. It's an uncommon move with running backs in the common era so Head Coach Urban Meyer and General Manager Trent Baalke—as well as Travis Etienne—explain the decision.

There was little intrigue or mystery concerning the Jacksonville Jaguars' first overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Every fan, casual observer, and passing guests knew it would be Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence. 

For the Jaguars, the draft really started with their second pick in the first round, at No. 25 overall. There was some debate as to who the club would grab with the pick they received in return for the 2019 Jalen Ramsey trade with the Los Angeles Chargers. But with the needs on defense, there wasn’t much thought as to the pick going to an offensive player.

Furthermore, considering the stronghold second-year back James Robinson seemed to have on the running back unit and the risk that often seems to be incurred with taking a running back in the first round, there wasn’t much thought given to the possibility of a rusher being drafted the Jaguars in that spot.

Yet the Jaguars shocked everyone by doing exactly that. The club drafted Clemson Tigers quarterback Travis Etienne, reuniting him with his college teammate, Lawrence. And according to General Manager Trent Baalke, there was always a chance Etienne would be their guy at No. 25.

“Travis is someone we had penciled in at 25 and were hoping he would get to us,” Baalke told local media after the conclusion of round one of the 2021 NFL Draft. “We had several others as well, but, you know, you always have a plan A, plan B, plan C, 1, 2, 3, however you want to read it. We feel very good about how we ended up the day today.”

The philosophy on taking backs in the first round varies from GM to GM and causes veracious debate amongst fans and television talking heads. For Baalke though, the debate was never about whether or not to take a running back that early, but simply taking the best player of need.

“I don’t know who questions it I guess, if there’s other GMs that feel the same way, take a back, don’t take a back. Our job is to take the best football players available and when you have a chance to add an explosive, dynamic player to your team, I don’t think that’s a roll of the dice. I think that’s an educated decision that we were willing to make.”

Etienne feels he’s worth the risk, because of what he can bring to the table not just as a running back but as an offensive playmaker.

“Just my ability to make plays on the field,” Etienne told local media, as to why he was worth the first-round pick.

“I feel like I was successful and very consistent throughout my years here at Clemson. My work speaks for itself but my ceiling, I feel like I haven't reached where I'm able to get in my career so I feel like I'm only getting better at this point and I feel like it was the best pick they could have made, honestly.”

Due to 2020 being a shortened college season, Etienne’s numbers were slightly down, meaning he only rushed for 914 yards and 14 touchdowns, while adding 588 yards and two touchdowns through the air. But it was Etienne’s sophomore and junior seasons that really exhibited how special the back can be, with Etienne going well over the century mark both years (1,658 yards, 24 touchdowns in 2018; 1,614 yards, 19 touchdowns in 2019).

Etienne’s ability to flex out as a pass catcher as well is what Meyer focused on the most when explaining the value the front office put on Etienne at pick No. 25. Meyer’s history as the head coach with the Ohio State Buckeyes, and having to gamelan for Etienne during College Football Playoff matchups also helped.

"I know Travis, just from my time at Ohio State and even the last two years, the fact that the Buckeyes have played them—hours upon hours upon hours,” recalled Meyer when recapping the draft with local media.

Meyer credits hours of game planning for Etienne (9) as the Ohio State coach for his familiarity with the back. Mandatory Credit: Russell Costanza-USA TODAY Sports

Meyer credits hours of game planning for Etienne (9) as the Ohio State coach for his familiarity with the back. Mandatory Credit: Russell Costanza-USA TODAY Sports

“And the way we’ve always looked at offensive football is that, just over the years, any time you can find that dual-threat guy that can carry the ball and catch the ball, obviously the name that comes up is Percy [Harvin] so often. I’m not saying he’s a Percy, we’ll find out. But he’s a guy that’s a piece of the puzzle that is kind of hard to cover, hard to defend.”

Despite this, Meyer admitted he sees Etienne’s role being more specific for the time being. The Jaguars returned the best rookie story of the 2020 season, with former undrafted free agent running back James Robinson. A finalist for Rookie of the Year, Robinson finished with 1,414 total yards on the season. No matter how good a story, typically a first-rounder would take snaps from a UDFA, which still may happen. Meyer isn’t ready to commit to that scenario just yet, however.

“I see [veteran free agent signing] Carlos [Hyde] and James the 1-2, downhill, powerful running backs. And I see Travis—there’s times where we could be in two-backs and Travis is a guy that goes out. Or we’re still playing with it, but he’s certainly a third-down back and he’s a guy that’s a match-up issue for the defense.”

A first-round pick on a third-down back can be hard to stomach, meaning Etienne’s ability to line up outside will likely be a decent part of the game plan in order to justify the high pick.

Continued Meyer, “I’ve just always had a very strong belief in speed and we’ve tried to address that with free agency with Phillip Dorsett and Marvin Jones. We have a good, young group of receivers that can run well, and we have two good backs. This is a multi-dimensional back that we’ve kind of, from day one, I know Coach [Darrell] Bevell and [Coach] Schotty [Brian Schottenheimer] and I all feel that the idea of offense is to create match-up nightmares.

"And I’ve had some good fortune over the years to have a guy that can do both, flex out. He’s as good outside as a receiver as he is as a running back. So, [he’s a] high-end character guy that has elite speed—really, really excited.”