JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville Jaguars have had quite the offseason so far.
Receiver Calvin Ridley was reinstated from a gambling suspension, the team used the franchise tag on tight end Evan Engram, left tackle Cam Robinson is facing a suspension, and they drafted offensive tackle Anton Harrison in the first round.
Possibly overlooked is just how much better the team got at running back.
Signing D’Ernest Johnson in free agency and drafting Auburn’s Tank Bigsby in the third round to supplement Travis Etienne Jr. makes a position group that was one of the team’s weakest last season into one of the strongest in 2023.
“I feel really good about that room,” coach Doug Pederson said. “There's a lot of depth there. There's some great competition that's going to show up with training camp.
“... This is one of our stronger rooms on the team, and we're excited about that.”
The Jaguars relied heavily on Etienne in 2022, mainly because they didn’t have much choice. James Robinson started the first five games and got the bulk of the work, but a nagging knee issue limited him during practices and Etienne gradually took over as the Jaguars’ top back by mid-October.
He played so well the Jaguars felt comfortable enough trading Robinson to the New York Jets on Oct. 25, but that left rookie fifth-round pick Snoop Conner and JaMycal Hasty, whom the team signed after final cuts, as the two options behind Etienne for the rest of the season. Etienne accounted for 74% of the running back carries after that point, a workload that the Jaguars didn’t want to see continue.
Hence the signing of Johnson, who ran for 738 yards in four seasons with the Cleveland Browns – which included 534 yards in 2021 when he subbed for injured backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt – and the drafting of Bigsby, who ran for 2,903 yards and 25 touchdowns in three seasons at Auburn. With Hasty and Conner returning, the Jaguars no longer have to rely so heavily on Etienne.
And he’s completely fine with that.
“I feel like it keeps the wear and tear off my body,” said Etienne, who ran for 1,125 yards and accounted for 1,441 yards from scrimmage. “I don’t have to go and bang myself up each and every play. I’ve got somebody else to take a couple licks off of me and I love that.”
Etienne will still be the Jaguars’ main back, but the breakdown of snaps, carries and receptions is something that won’t be decided until the season begins, offensive coordinator Press Taylor said.
Taylor did admit it’s nice to have more options than last season, when Hasty and Conner combined for only 53 carries after the Robinson trade.
Johnson has already proven to be capable of handling the main role on a substitute basis, running for 245 yards and a touchdown in the two games he started with the Browns because of injuries to Chubb and Hunt in 2021. Johnson also ran for 123 yards and a touchdown in the Browns’ finale that season.
Hasty had one of the Jaguars’ longest plays of the season – a 61-yard touchdown run against the Indianapolis Colts – but he averaged just 3.0 yards per carry on the rest of his 45 carries in 2022. Conner had just 12 carries as a rookie, all of which came in Week 12 and beyond.
Bigsby excelled at running through contact during his career at Auburn. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Bigsby’s yards before contact per rush ranked 90th out of 111 players with at least 300 carries, but his yards after contact per rush ranked 13th. That should help the team’s short-yardage issues from last season: The Jaguars ranked 28th in third-down rush conversion percentage on third-and-1 and third-and-2.
“There's a lot of versatility in that room,” Taylor said. “... I think there's a possibility of keeping everybody fresh through the long run of the season. There are times obviously where Travis kind of gets the hot hand, you want to keep riding that wave, but now I think we've got a pretty good stable of backs that complement each other well, and they’ll all have a role in some way, shape or form.”