The Jacksonville Jaguars’ selection of Clemson running back Travis Etienne was controversial to say the least. Football nerds everywhere groaned in unison when commissioner Roger Goodell announced the words “running back” on the first night of the NFL Draft, and the majority of film grinders agreed that the pick was a bit bizarre considering the presence of James Robinson on the roster.
Indeed, it is highly questionable for an organization which boasts one (1) winning season in over a decade to bolster one of its few above-average position groups so early in the draft, especially at one that has painstakingly (albeit mostly fairly) been identified as relatively overvalued in recent years by the football analytics community.
It’s not that NFL running backs aren’t good - it’s actually the opposite, as there is just a much shallower drop in talent level at that position than nearly any other - but front offices are continuing to devote significant resources into a position which often fails to yield positive return on investment.
But Urban Meyer lives by several football philosophies- some of which he blatantly told media earlier this offseason when he preached that running the ball and strong defense are two necessities to any great football team. Though perhaps more than anything else, he believes in playmakers, and Etienne is most certainly that.
Yes, the Jaguars have Robinson, who miraculously managed to accumulate the sixth-most rushing yards on the worst team in the league last year. But as Meyer made abundantly clear immediately following the draft, Jacksonville didn’t just acquire Etienne to run the ball.
“Someone said why would you take another running back? He’s much more than a running back,” Meyer explained. “He’s a slash- We did not recruit him just because he’s a running back.”
According to Meyer, he has a vision of what the offense is going to look like, but he won’t be calling plays. That duty will be left to offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who most recently coached the Detroit Lions offense.
Though Meyer will have major influence over Jacksonville’s playbook, he’s been out of coaching for three years and never at the NFL level, so it’s difficult to project what the Jaguars offense will actually look like in the fall- but Bevell’s experience may provide some clues, especially when it comes to Etienne’s utilization, considering that the Lions made a similar investment a year ago when it selected running back D’Andre Swift with the 35th overall pick of the 2019 NFL draft (coincidentally, Swift is Etienne’s best player comparison per playerprofiler.com).
For Etienne to provide adequate value relative to his draft slot, he’ll have to be a key component of the passing game. Meyer told Etienne the day after the draft that he would be working out at wide receiver for all of rookie minicamp. He explained, “Worst case scenario is you have a running back that’s elite with receiver skills and best case scenario he’s a legitimate dual threat guy.”
Perhaps the most critical way to exploit an offensive weapon is simply to get him the ball in space. Bevell drew up plenty of screens for Swift, but also had nice play designs on pick plays, swing routes and underneath crossers.
Bevell also made sure that Swift had ample opportunity in the flat, so that defenders were put in a bind and forced not to ignore him in favor of other receiver’s routes. Examples of this included shoot routes from out of the backfield....
...Stick concepts lined up as a receiver...
...and best of all, whip routes following motion out of the backfield.
That last play is fun because it can clearly work against both zone and man coverage. Here’s Etienne running that exact same route in the first day of rookie minicamp.
Bevell did more tinkering to get Swift favorable matchups, like this slot alignment versus a linebacker.
The New England Patriots are among the best teams in the league at deploying its running backs as receiving threats, in large part due to the coaching staff’s ability to dictate matchups. New England is a great example of how simply putting players in positions to succeed can be the difference in games.
Etienne told media this week, “Football is a game of matchups. I feel like I create a problem outside for a linebacker, so I feel like football is a game of matchups. We’re just trying to get the best matchups for us to go out there and make plays and do what’s best for the team.”
Bevell did a nice job of creating mismatches for Swift, and especially on choice (or option) routes. Etienne’s most popular player comparison throughout the draft process was New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara, who feasts on these routes every single game for the Saints.
Swift showed the ability to sit on option routes against zone or break outside if need be, but he did most of his damage coming back inside against slower linebackers.
Lastly, Swift was a quality checkdown target who could make defenders pay if given too much space. The ability to bail out to someone out of the backfield and still rack up first downs when other options are covered makes the quarterback’s life much easier, and that should be Jacksonville’s endgame when all’s said and done.
The only question is, will all this work for Etienne in Jacksonville? While he was electric as a Clemson Tiger, he was rarely asked to display acute route-running chops for that offense. But if Etienne is able to create the same type of separation that players like Swift and Kamara display in the passing game as true receiving threats - which he’s confident that he can, saying, “Once I get that [technique] down, I feel like I can be as good of a route runner as anyone” - and his speed and contact balance do translate to the next level... dare I say it? The Jacksonville Jaguars offense will be very fun to watch.