JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It looks as though the Jacksonville Jaguars are trying to put together a Central Florida reunion.
Running back Latavius Murray, whose career at UCF overlapped with those of Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles and cornerback A.J. Bouye, is scheduled to be in town Monday, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported via a league source. If the Jaguars can convince Murray to sign, it would give them three front-line running backs who weigh more than 220 pounds, a pretty clear indication they're committed to playing smashmouth offense in 2017.
Murray ran for 2,278 yards and 20 touchdowns in three seasons in Oakland, including 1,066 yards and six touchdowns in his Pro Bowl 2015 campaign. He missed only three games over that span, and that consistency, and dependability, is something the Jaguars have had very little of at that position since Maurice Jones-Drew led the NFL in rushing in 2011.
Jones-Drew missed 10 games in 2012 but started 15 in 2013 and rushed for 803 yards. He signed with Oakland the following season, and the Jaguars used Denard Robinson (2013 fifth-round pick) and Toby Gerhart (free-agent signee) as their main backs in 2014. The job was supposed to be Gerhart's, but an ankle injury suffered in the season opener bothered him all season and Robinson ended up leading the Jaguars with 582 yards rushing in 2014.
The Jaguars drafted Alabama's T.J. Yeldon in the second round in 2015. Yeldon has rushed for 1,205 yards in two seasons, but he has averaged just 3.9 yards per carry and battled injuries each season.
The Jaguars signed Chris Ivory last March, but he missed five games with injuries and ran for 439 yards on a career-low 3.8 yards per carry.
The Jaguars could keep Ivory and Yeldon if they did sign Murray. Ivory's 2017 base salary of $4.5 million is guaranteed, he has up to $1.25 million in bonuses and performance incentives, and he'd count as $8.75 million in dead money if he were to be cut. Yeldon's salary is $972,616 and he's due no guaranteed money.
The Jaguars' pursuit of Murray also seems to indicate that the team might not view the offensive line as the main reason the run game has struggled the past several seasons. A possible reason: The Jaguars didn't commit to running the ball enough. The Jaguars averaged 19.1 attempts and 72.6 yards per game rushing in Weeks 1-8 under offensive coordinator Greg Olson. After the Jaguars fired Olson and promoted Nathaniel Hackett, those numbers increased to 28.7 attempts and 124.8 yards per game.
That approach should continue in 2017 under Hackett, who had success with the ground game as Buffalo’s offensive coordinator in 2013-14 under Doug Marrone, now the Jaguars’ head coach. The Bills were tops in the AFC in rushing (second in the NFL) in 2013 at 144.2 yards per game. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller combined to rush for 1,823 yards and 11 touchdowns as the Bills tried to make things easier for rookie quarterback EJ Manuel.
Buffalo dropped to 25th in rushing (92.6 yards per game) in 2014. Spiller missed seven games and Jackson missed two because of injuries, and neither was as productive as they were in 2013 when they were healthy. The Bills as a team rushed for only seven touchdowns. Still, Buffalo went 9-7, its best record over the past 11 seasons.
The Jaguars obviously feel that a very good defense -- helped by the additions of Bouye, defensive end Calais Campbell and strong safety Barry Church -- and a ball-control offense led by a physical run game will help offset Bortles' struggles. Bortles has thrown the fifth-most passes in the NFL (1,706) since he came into the league in 2014, an average of 37.1 per game. The Jaguars would prefer to have him attempt 20 to 25 passes per game.
Adding Murray to the backfield with Ivory and Yeldon could help.