For the first time since 2016, the Jacksonville Jaguars are set to enter a season without Leonard Fournette set to be their workhorse power back. Gone are No. 27 and his 666 carries, 134 receptions and 19 regular season touchdowns, and in his place, the Jaguars are looking for answers.
The Jaguars have a few intriguing internal options to replace Fournette. In fact, the options they have in-house is the entire reason they waived Fournette just 13 days before the season opener, head coach Doug Marrone said on Monday.
“I just feel like [with] the skill set of the guys that we have being used the right way, [they] will be able to give us more production and give us a better opportunity to win games," Marrone said. "That’s exactly what I feel and exactly what I’ve seen on tape.”
The running backs the Jaguars will rely on are namely second-year backs Ryquell Armstead and Devine Ozigbo, veteran running back Chris Thompson, and potentially undrafted free agent James Robinson.
But will the Jaguars actually have a true lead back without Fournette? Could they instead look to use their entire platoon of backs, much like the San Francisco 49ers did last season? This is an option which needs to at least be considered until we see any evidence of the Jaguars leaning on a singular back.
“Committee is a word that people use out there. I think that we have guys that have really good skill sets, that have really had good camps," Marrone said. "I think now we’re able to hone in on that and really work on that. I think you see that was a big reason why. When people say, ‘Why now?’ I think that’s why so now we can hone that in, get that thing right for us going into this year.”
So, how do we see this backfield shaking out for at least Week 1 or until someone separates himself as the best option?
No. 1 RB: Ryquell Armstead
This is a tough call to make in part because Ryquell Armstead missed a decent chunk of training camp due to being on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, but there are reasons to believe he could still get the first carry against the Colts in Week 1. Armstead, selected in the fifth round (No. 140 overall) in the 2019 NFL Draft, was ahead of Devine Ozigbo on last year's depth chart, and he has the most experience of any of the true candidates to be the lead back. But there still needs to be some hesitation about locking him into this spot.
“I think we have a lot of options of, like when you say RB1, depending on who we’re playing and what we want to do, who we put out there. For Rock [RB Ryquell Armstead], Rock has been out, so I really don’t have a complete evaluation on him which is tough," Marrone said.
Armstead has impressed at times in camp this year, and there is always the hope he can build off of some flashes he showed as a rookie. He never got into a rhythm as a runner, carrying the ball 35 times for 108 yards (3.1 yards per rush, 6.8 yards per game), but there were some positives. He was an effective pass-catcher out of the backfield, catching 14 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns. We lean toward Armstead as the Week 1 starter since Marrone has seen him get carries in the role before (Week 17 last year), but it is far from a guarantee.
No. 2 RB: Devine Ozigbo
Watching Devine Ozigbo in last year's preseason, one would be surprised to see the Jaguars were even able to get him on waivers. Now after a year in which the Jaguars just gave him 12 touches as a rookie, he is in line to get more opportunities thrown his way thanks to an enticing skill set and a solid camp in August.
After recording nine carries for 27 yards and three receptions for 23 yards as a rookie, all of which came in Week 17, Ozigbo has been one of the standouts of Jacksonville's training camp in 2020. He has shown terrific explosion, patience, agility, has had soft hands and has consistently been the best pass blocker of the bunch. He may have to prove to the Jaguars he can be deserving of a high volume of touches, but he has maybe the most upside of any back on the roster.
Third-down RB: Chris Thompson
Chris Thompson was going to play a big role for the Jaguars no matter the decision on Fournette, and it is unclear if removing Fournette from the equation will actually impact the veteran back. Thompson has always projected as Jacksonville's third-down back thanks to his pass-catching ability, versatility, and capability of lining up in five-receiver formations. But what about from a standpoint of carries?
In seven years in Washington, Thompson carried the ball just 250 times, an average of 35 carries a season. If you only count the five years in which Thompson played a large role, it is an average of 50 carries a year. Thompson only carried the ball more than 40 times in three seasons, and his inability to stay healthy for a full season also means the Jaguars are unlikely to feed him a heavy dosage of carries since they have other backs who can take the punishment.
Thompson will be an important piece of Jacksonville's offense this year, but he shouldn't be expected to take the lion's share of the carries in Jay Gruden's offense because he simply has never been that guy.
No. 4 RB: James Robinson
It was hard to see undrafted rookie free agent back James Robinson make the roster when Fournette was still on it, but the former Illinois State star at least has a chance now. He is far from a lock for the roster, but he has had a productive training camp and is built in the mold of the types of running backs the Jaguars have preferred in past years under Marrone and general manager Dave Caldwell.
Robinson has plenty of size, burst and vision, and he has actually shown better agility than anticipated. He was an extremely productive college back and deserves at least some consideration from Jacksonville's staff as an option to experiment with carries. He isn't above any of the other backs for now, but he has been good enough in camp to warrant a look at one point or another.
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