Every team will harp on competition this fall as they have both new additions and old faces fight for roles on the depth chart and in the starting lineups. This is no different for the Jaguars, who brought a sea of change to their roster this offseason with over a dozen free-agent additions and nine draft picks.
But which battles will be the most important to watch in Jacksonville later this month and into August? Which will help determine how far the Jaguars can go in year one of a new era? We have picked five to evaluate and will do so individually over the course of the pre-training camp period.
Now we turn to the rest of the backfield and pose a question that will help shape the Jaguars' 2021 season: How will the running back room be implemented in terms of rushing priority? We have already opined on how we think the depth chart shakes out, but just exactly what kind of competition is set to take place during camp?
It is clear the Jaguars plan on utilizing all of their top three running backs to certain extents. James Robinson and Travis Etienne are set to receive the bulk of the work, but the Jaguars and Urban Meyer have mentioned free agent signee Carlos Hyde enough this offseason to imagine he will get snaps as the team's No. 3 running back.
Balancing that question of how much Robinson vs. how much Etienne, while also factoring in Hyde's presence, is exactly the puzzle the Jaguars will have to solve over training camp and throughout 2021.
The Jaguars' level of investment in each player is different as well, creating some slight ambiguity in terms of their pecking order. While Robinson is arguably the most talented of the three based on his 2020 performance and Etienne's lack of NFL experience, the Jaguars' current regime has more ties to the other backs on the team.
This current Jaguars regime didn't sign or coach Robinson as a rookie in 2020, while Etienne was Meyer and general manager Trent Baalke's second selection in this year's first round at No. 25 overall. Meanwhile, Meyer coached Hyde at Ohio State and Baalke was the San Francisco 49ers' general manager when the team drafted Hyde out of Ohio State.
With that said, Robinson's play last year suggests he will be the hammer of the offense, delivering physical blows between the tackles and when the Jaguars are attempting to churn out first downs and stay on the field for extended drives. Hyde will likely play a similar role, but Robinson's performance as a rookie is hard to envision being completely ignored,
Robinson was a revelation for the Jaguars as an undrafted free agent last year, rushing 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 last season.
"James Robinson is one of my favorite guys. I can’t name a harder worker right now on our team, and that started in January all the way through June now. So, I love that guy," Meyer said in June.
Meyer, for as much as he has praised Robinson, has already alluded to the role he may play in the offense compared to Etienne and Hyde. Etienne will be the team's primary pass-catcher at the position and has already spent some time cross-training as a wide receiver. Meanwhile, Hyde will compliment Robinson's ability to ram through defenses up the middle.
"And so, I see Carlos 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," Meyer said after the Jaguars drafted Etienne.
"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.”
Essentially, the Jaguars know exactly what roles each of their three running backs will play. The question is how much extra can each back add to those predetermined spots? That is what the Jaguars will have to answer as they watch the trio compete during training camp.
Can Robinson take on any of the pass-catching reps that Etienne will get? Can Etienne factor into Robinson's share of the carries? Can Hyde be enough of a factor as a pass-protector to force himself onto the field? These are the questions training camp will clear up as Robinson, Etienne and Hyde battle day in and day out to carve out their roles in the offense.
The Jaguars' offense will likely be built around the running game in 2021. Meyer has said consistently that the best way in his eyes to help a young quarter, like No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence, is by having a strong rushing attack. Add in Darrell Bevell's background as a coordinator who places an emphasis on establishing the run, and the Jaguars are a safe bet to rush the ball more next season.
As a result, all three of the Jaguars' running backs will play to some extent. But to what extents? That is what will be determined during training camp. Robinson is the favorite to be the team's thunder while Etienne is their lightning, but there are still snaps left to be divided up.