Can Jaguars RB T.J. Yeldon break through in a contract year?

Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon was mainly a third-down back last season, totaling 49 carries and 30 receptions. Photo by David Berding/Icon Sportswire

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It has been an interesting three years for Jacksonville Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon.

He went from being the Jaguars' lead back as a rookie to sharing carries with Chris Ivory in 2016 to being inactive for the first six games of 2017 (five as a healthy scratch) after the arrival of Leonard Fournette.

He's not going to be the Jaguars' main back in 2018 -- not unless Fournette gets injured, anyway -- but after an impressive training camp the former Alabama standout appears headed for a significant role in the offense in 2018.

"I think he is more explosive," coach Doug Marrone said. "He's stronger. He's elusive. I think he can carry a load of carries. I just think he has done a nice job."

Yeldon was mainly a third-down back last season, though he was used more heavily when Fournette missed three games (two because of injury). Yeldon had rushed for 190 of his 253 yards in those three games while sharing the workload with Ivory, but had only 22 carries in the other seven games in which he played.

Ivory is gone now -- he was cut and signed with Buffalo -- and the Jaguars didn't draft a back, so Yeldon is clearly the No. 2 behind Fournette. Ivory had 112 carries last season, and though the bulk of that workload is expected to go to Fournette, Yeldon will get his share.

He says he prepared all offseason for it. His main goal was dropping weight. He said he played at 225 pounds last season but is now 218, and those seven pounds are significant.

"I feel better, lighter, quicker, faster, more explosive," Yeldon said. "I feel like it makes a big difference. I can cut better. I'm doing a lot of things better, like when I first came to college. I feel more comfortable this way."

People have noticed. Marrone said this is the best Yeldon has looked in the offseason and in training camp since they both joined the franchise in 2015 (Marrone was the offensive line coach/assistant head coach in 2015-16). Quarterback Blake Bortles said it looks like Yeldon is rejuvenated.

"He's been very impressive all camp, all preseason," Bortles said. "We used him a lot last year on third downs and kind of knew that was something that he was really good at, and he's only continued to get better at that. [The Jaguars are] also giving him touches on base downs.

"I think he's doing a really good job of being an every-down back and rotating in there with Leonard and doing a good job."

Yeldon said he's eager to see just how much his role will change this season. It's likely this is his final year in Jacksonville -- it would be hard to justify paying him when there are higher priorities on defense like Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue, and the team is already over the cap in 2019 -- so this season is essentially a job interview.

"I'm comfortable with the role they're having me play," said Yeldon, who has rushed for 54 yards and caught five passes for 73 yards in the Jaguars' two preseason games, including a 29-yarder against Minnesota last Saturday. "We'll see when the season comes what more my role will be.

"I'm not too much worried about that [this being the final year of his rookie contract]. It'll play itself out. I'm just focused on getting to the Super Bowl this year [and] helping the team win."