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Jaguars Training Camp Preview: Running Back

What does the Jaguars running back room look like before training camp?

The Jacksonville Jaguars are a few weeks away from kicking off Doug Pederson's first training camp at the helm, giving us plenty of time to take a look at each of the team's position groups before the 2022 season.

Jacksonville wasn't afraid to make a number of big moves on both sides of the ball this offseason, both via the free agency and the draft. Now, they have a new-look roster that contrasts in a big way from the roster we saw the team field in Week 1 in 2021.

Related: Jaguars Training Camp Preview: Quarterback

Next up: the running back position. What does it look like today, what changes did the Jaguars make and what needs to be addressed ahead of camp?

The depth chart

James Robinson 

Age/Experience: 23/second season

2021 stats: 

  • 164 carries for 767 yards (4.7 yards per carry)
  • Eight rushing scores
  • 41 first downs converted
  • 317 yards after contact
  • 1.9 yards after contact per attempt
  • 11 broken tackles
  • 31 catches for 222 yards on 46 targets

Last year, Robinson had rushed 164 times for 767 yards and eight touchdowns in 2021. The second-year running back has been injured since the Jaguars' Week 8 bout against the Seahawks but missed only one game before his season-ending injury, playing the rest of the games last season while fighting through his injuries and even some questionable game-time designations from Urban Meyer.

Robinson did sustain a torn Achilles in Week 16 against the New York Jets, though, suffering the non-contact injury early in what was a meaningless game for the Jaguars. Robinson was one of the NFL's most productive and efficient backs during the first two months of the season, but his mid- and late-season injuries combined with Meyer's misusage and mistreatment of him on Sundays led to a decrease in production from the talented back.

As a rookie, Robinson carried the ball 240 times for 1,070 yards (4.5 yards per carry) for seven touchdowns. He led rookie running backs in receptions (49) and touchdown receptions (three) while recording 344 yards. In 14 games, Robinson finished with 1,414 scrimmage yards (1,070 rushing, 344 receiving), the most scrimmage yards by an undrafted rookie in the common-draft era. He was also the only rookie in the NFL to average more than 100 scrimmage yards per game in 2020.

Robinson has been positive in his return to the field, returning to running this spring and even running on the sidelines during the Jaguars' final minicamp practices and OTAs of the spring. 

"Those things, of course, I don’t see them because they’re not out on the field. I hear about those things. I’m excited to see him do that," Doug Pederson said. "It just shows the progression of where he is health wise and really looking forward to down the road when we get him back. But all of that is exciting knowing that he’s heading in the right direction.”

Travis Etienne

Age/Experience: 23/second season.

2021 stats: N/A.

The Jaguars lost Etienne before the season ever began last year. Etienne was set to play a big part in the Jaguars' offense last year as both a rusher and pass-catcher due to the Jaguars' lack of explosiveness at other spots of the offense. Sadly, Etienne suffered a Lisfranc fracture in the second preseason game, leading to Etienne missing all of 2021 and making this year his de facto rookie season in many ways.

“Just the stuff away from the game, just being a pro. I feel like what I learned is that I don’t think I ever took the game serious. Well, I took it serious[ly], but I don’t feel like I really appreciated everything the game had to offer," Etienne said this offseason. 

"And I feel like being away from it, you appreciate how great the game is, the opportunity to play in the National Football League. Just growing up as a kid, going to school each and every day, my teacher always asked me what I wanted to be, and I would say an engineer or something just because I didn’t want them to talk down on my dreams. So, finally getting here and seeing that it’s possible for you to do that and play football for money, it’s crazy.”

Now, the Jaguars will finally have a chance to see Etienne on the field for a full scope of his skill-set. He looked healthy and explosive during this spring's practices, able to change directions and run routes with ease. He isn't expected to be a player who cross-trains at both running back and receiver this offseason like he did under Meyer, but he is set to have a big role.

Snoop Conner (R)

Age/Experience: 21/first season

2021 stats: N/A.

One player who stood out in on-air practices this spring, Snoop Conner is set to have a bigger role than many may think. Doug Pederson hasn't been shy to use three running backs on a weekly basis in his career, especially with the Eagles. 

Conner still needs to prove himself as a pass-protector to consistently put himself on the field, but he could see a healthy amount of snaps as a rookie as Robinson recovers early on in the season. 

Conner was touted by the Jaguars as more than just a downhill grinder after they traded up for him in the fifth round of April's draft, leaving the upside there for him to be a sneaky contributor on offense this season. Conner will have to shake off the rookie rust, but the opportunity will be there for him to make an impact.

Ryquell Armstead 

Age/Experience: 25/fourth season

2021 stats

  • 15 rushes for 80 yards (5.3 yards per carry)
  • 3 receptions for 17 yards on 4 targets.
  • Three rushing first downs recorded.
  • 37 yards after contact.
  • 3.5 yards after contact per carry.
  • 0 broken tackles.

Ryquell Armstead was once seen as the potential successor to Leonard Fournette at running back after a solid rookie season in which he showed some upside as a pass-catcher. Unfortunately for Armstead, he missed the entire 2020 season due to COVID-19 and was then released by the Jaguars in 2021. 

In his first season with the Jaguars, Armstead appeared in 16 games and rushed 35 times for 108 yards (3.1 yards per carry) and caught 14 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns. Afte this release in 2021, he spent time with the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants before being signed again by the Jaguars last December. 

Armstead has a chance to fight for the No. 3 role while Robinson recovers and his experience could play a part in his bid for snaps. When Robinson returns, Armstead could fight for snaps at No. 4, but Conner's draft status likely puts him just ahead of him.

Nathan Cottrell 

Age/Experience: 25/third season.

2021 stats: N/A.

A returner in past season when he has been on the Jaguars' practice squad, Nathan Cottrell is entering his third season with the Jaguars after signing with the team as an undrafted free agent in 2020. 

Cottrell has passing-game upside thanks to his hands and quickness, but the Jaguars have several options in front of him when it comes to the running back depth and order. He is preseason depth at this point.

Mekhi Sargent

Age/Experience: 24/second season.

2021 stats

  • One carry for two yards.

A power back who has quicker feet than most with his frame, Mekhi Sargent spent time with the Rams and Jaguars as a rookie last season. He is unlikely to see time unless the Jaguars suffer injuries at running back, but he has the talent to be a darkhorse contributor if there are enough chances.

How the room changed this offseason

The only real change to the Jaguars' running back room this offseason was the addition of Snoop Conner and the departure of Carlos Hyde. The Jaguars were always expected to have James Robinson and Travis Etienne as their top two backs this year, making the No. 3 role a coveted spot this offseason following the release of Hyde, who appeared in 12 games and touched the ball 84 times for the Jaguars last season. 

Jacksonville made the No. 3 role a priority in April's draft, trading up in the fifth-round to select Conner out of Ole Miss. Tampa offered the Jaguars picks for No. 157, which would result in the Jaguars swapping that pick and a seventh-round pick (No. 235) for a 2023 fourth-round pick. The Jaguars wanted Conner, though, and made sure they packaged a pair of sixth-round picks (No. 188 and No. 198) to move up to No. 154 to secure him. And with that, the Jaguars gave up No. 157, got Conner, gained a future pick, and dealt three late Day 3 picks.

"He’s got really good size and quickness. It’s not so much the long speed as it is the one cut guy. He is really good out of the backfield as well and has good hands," Pederson set following the draft on Saturday.

"He can be used first, second and third down because of his size. Again, just a back than give us that depth that we look for and give us that competition. Just his special teams value as well and at this point in the draft, special teams becomes a little bit more of a factor and he is capable of doing that.”

Conner played in a rotational role at Ole Miss, appearing in 35 games but starting two over the last three years. He rushed 304 times for 1,580 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and 26 touchdowns, along with 32 catches for 225 yards. According to Dane Brugler of The Athletic, 19 of his 26 career rushing touchdowns coming from five yards or less, including 14 one-yard runs. 

The biggest storyline surrounding the group following the offseason

The health of the Jaguars running back room is clearly the biggest storyline facing this unit entering training camp. No other group on the team faced the severity of injuries the Jaguars' running backs did last season, and soon it will be time to see just how impactful that is. 

The Jaguars know they have talent at running back; that is undeniable when you have players like James Robinson and Travis Etienne in the room and a young rookie with upside in Snoop Conner. Robinson is a proven three-down back in the NFL, while Etienne was the No. 25 overall pick in last year's draft for a reason after breaking ACC records at Clemson. 

But the Jaguars still simply don't know. Etienne is coming off a Lisfranc injury, the same injury that in the past has sapped running backs and other skill players of explosiveness. He has looked good in spring practices, still looking explosive and dynamic and cutting with ease off his injured foot, but he was injured before he ever took a real NFL snap. How he plays once the true speed of an NFL game takes place is still yet to be seen.

Then there is Robinson, who suffered a torn Achilles toward the end of the season in late December. Typically, such an injury would hold a player off the field into the season. Robinson himself has said he aims for training camp as his return date, but the Jaguars won't know they have Robinson back until he is actually back. 

With Etienne and Robinson both facing injury questions, the other backs on the Jaguars consist of a fifth-round rookie and three journeymen NFL backs. Ryquell Armstead has gotten the most playing time out of any of the four, but the depth of the running back room lives and dies with Etienne's and Robinson's health.