Pre-Draft Jaguars Position Primers: RB Unit Has Its Leader but Speed Is Needed

With the draft now just 21 days away, we take a look at the current state of the running back room and why the Jaguars are set to add to the position.
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In a few short weeks, the wait will be over. The 2021 NFL Draft will be here and the Jacksonville Jaguars will kick off the spectacle for the first time in franchise history.

Following the worst season in franchise history and 15 consecutive losses, the Jaguars are looking to make a splash to turn around one of the NFL's more stagnant franchises. The Jaguars are equipped with 10 draft picks to fuel that turnaround, including the No. 1 overall pick.

But where do the Jaguars need to improve? Who needs to be replaced? To answer these questions and more, we are taking a look at what each Jaguars position group looks like entering the final month before the draft. Today, we look at the running back room.

Pre-Draft Jaguars Position Primers: QB Room Left Waiting for Trevor Lawrence

On the roster: James Robinson, Carlos Hyde, Devine Ozigbo, Dare Ogunbowale, Nathan Cottrell, Ryquell Armstead

The Jaguars' running back room currently looks much like it did last season. The Jaguars traded out one veteran running back for another in Carlos Hyde and otherwise are entering the 2021 NFL Draft with the same backfield unit they had in 2020.

Robinson is obviously the leader and star of the group. The star undrafted running back was a finalist for NFL Rookie of the Year last season after setting numerous undrafted rookie records. Robinson ranked second among rookies with 1,414 scrimmage yards (1,070 rushing, 344 receiving) – the most scrimmage yards by an undrafted rookie in the common-draft era – and became the fourth undrafted rookie with at least 1,000 rushing yards since 1967. He added 10 touchdowns (seven rushing, three receiving) and averaged 4.5 yards per carry, so his rookie year was a rousing success by every standard. 

Behind him, the Jaguars don't have much in the form of impact players. Hyde was signed as part of Jacksonville's large free agency class in March and has experience with both head Urban Meyer and passing game coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Hyde is the veteran of the unit at 30 and has appeared in 90 games in seven seasons, rushing for 4,726 yards (4.1 yards per carry) and 36 touchdowns. 

Dare Ogunbowale took the lion's share of the reps last season when Robinson was held out with an ankle injury for the final two weeks of the year. He rushed 32 times for 145 yards (4.5 yards per attempt) and caught 10 passes for 54 yards but ultimately played just 18% of the team's offensive snaps. 

Devine Ozigbo was one of the previous regime's favorite running backs entering 2020's training camp. He put on a show during camp thanks to his soft hands and stellar athleticism, but things never really came together for him due to injuries. The former New Orleans Saints preseason standout played in eight games last year and only played 27 offensive snaps, catching nine passes for 42 yards and rushing once for one carry during that span. 

Nathan Cottrell hung around on the Jaguars' roster toward the end of the year due to the need for more running back depth, with the former Georgia Tech star filling in mostly on special teams. He has the skill set that closest resembles a scat back on the roster, but he is an unproven player by every measure.

Ryquell Armstead was a fifth-round selection out of Temple in 2019 and rushed 35 times for 108 yards as a rookie, while also catching 14 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns. He didn't play in 2020 due to spending the season on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.

Offseason additions: Carlos Hyde

The only pre-draft addition the Jaguars have made to the running back unit has been veteran Carlos Hyde. Hyde signed a short, low-cost deal and isn't expected to push James Robinson for carries, but instead gives the Jaguars veteran depth who has familiarity with several of the top people in charge. Hyde is the most experienced player in Jacksonville's running back room by a considerable amount, which is a big part of the value he provides.

Hyde rushed for 356 yards (4.4 yards per carry) and four touchdowns with the Seahawks last season, one year after averaging 4.4 yards per carry and rushing for 1,070 yards and six touchdowns on a playoff Houston Texans team the year before. He has never been a big-play threat or an impactful receiver, but he is solid depth behind Robinson who can grind out the tough yards if Robinson is ever unavailable. 

Offseason subtractions: Chris Thompson and Craig Reynolds

The Jaguars aren't losing many touches from the running back room they trotted out in 2020. Veteran pass-catching back Chris Thompson was brought in on a one-year deal to reunite with Jay Gruden but his tenure was uneventful due to injuries. Thompson played in just eight games, rushing seven times for 20 yards (2.9 yards per carry) and catching 20 passes for 146 yards and one touchdown. Once Gruden wasn't retained, it was always unlikely Thompson would stick. With that said, he did have a true third-down back skill set, making him a rarity on the Jaguars' roster. That will have to be replaced. 

Reynolds is a depth player who appeared in two games for the Jaguars last season. He caught one pass for three yards and rushed one time for four yards but recorded just three snaps on offense during the entire season.

Biggest question facing position before the draft: Where will the Jaguars find their speed element?

The Jaguars haven't attempted to hide their desire to add more speed to the backfield -- and with Carlos Hyde as their only new member of the running back unit, the need for the missing speed element is still as great as it was before free agency. Robinson is a stellar back who can handle the workload, but there is no question that speed and home run ability are probably his biggest weaknesses.

"James [Robinson] obviously had a tremendous year, especially when you factor in how he entered the league as a college free agent, 1,000 plus yards, very consistent performer week in and week out, tough, has a great mindset, the type of player we’re looking for. But we have to add some explosiveness to that room as well and we have to be able to take some of the carries off of James," Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke said in March.

"You can only ride a horse so long. He’s done a great job, he will continue to do a great job for the organization, and we feel he’ll even take a step forward from where he was a year ago. But adding some competitiveness to that room, we feel we’ve got some guys in house that can compete for roles, but we’re certainly looking to add to that room as well.”

Robinson is going to be a major player in Jacksonville's backfield in 2021, but it certainly doesn't appear the Jaguars are done looking for athletic ball-carriers to add to their stable of backs. If the Jaguars were honest when they said they wanted to add more explosive ability to the running back room, then Hyde can not be their sole addition.

Draft prospects who fit: Travis Etienne, Michael Carter, Kenneth Gainwell, Chris Evans, Kylin Hill

We wrote an article on this earlier this week that we recommend checking out. Essentially, the type of running back prospects we think fit the Jaguars are explosive athletes (Urban Meyer loves speed and the Jaguars need much more of it) who have experience as pass-catchers or blockers. 

The five players who make the most sense, to me, are Travis Etienne, Michael Carter, Kenneth Gainwell, Chris Evans, Kylin Hill. All excel at catching out of the backfield and creating yards with the ball in their hands and all are above-average athletes. Najee Harris makes some sense for the Jaguars due to his route-running, hands, and catch-radius, but he does lack a home run ability of his own. 

The Jaguars certainly need to add to the running back position, but it will be fascinating to see how early they pull the trigger after Robinson's fantastic rookie season. The watch for a running back could start as early as at No. 33.