JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars clearly learned a lesson after what happened last season: They have to have a backup plan at running back in 2019.
As soon as the league year began, they signed veteran Thomas Rawls, and they picked up what they hope is the final piece when they drafted Temple’s RyQuell Armstead in the fifth round of the draft last month. Other moves, including the addition of a new running backs coach, have completely revamped the position group.
The only thing that stayed the same is the team’s decision to stick with Leonard Fournette as the No. 1 ball carrier.
“I feel really good about where we are right now,” head coach Doug Marrone said. “It’s a matter of those guys will have opportunities. It’s not going to change our goal with the workload that we kind of have planned for that position. So now, it’s just a matter of them going out there and competing and going, but I feel good about the depth there.”
The Jaguars seemingly had no choice but to make significant changes in the running backs room after a terrible 2018 campaign. Going into that season, they opted not to sign a running back in free agency or draft one, and they had plans to keep only three on the active roster: Fournette, T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant.
It was a gamble that Fournette -- who came into camp at 223 pounds, 17 pounds lighter than what he weighed in his rookie season -- would be able to stay healthy. He hadn’t played a full season since his sophomore year at LSU in 2015. The Jaguars lost that bet. Badly.
Fournette missed seven games because of injury and was suspended for another. Yeldon was limited by an ankle injury early in the season, which left Grant -- who is best used as a change-of-pace player -- as the only completely healthy running back. However, Grant suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 5, which meant the Jaguars were forced to use practice-squad player Brandon Wilds.
The Jaguars had to scramble to find help. They signed 31-year-old Jamaal Charles, who had been out of football since the end of the 2017 season, and David Williams, who was on the Denver Broncos' practice squad. They added Bo Scarbrough to the practice squad and gave up a fifth-round draft pick to the Cleveland Browns for Carlos Hyde.
The moves did barely more than nothing. Charles had six carries in two games before being cut. Williams had eight carries in six games. Scarbrough never left the practice squad, and the Seattle Seahawks signed him to their active roster in December. Hyde ran for 189 yards in eight games but was frustrated by his lack of work.
Yeldon did a solid job filling in for Fournette, rushing for 414 yards, but he ran afoul of management after he spent the final game acting disinterested on the bench along with Fournette.
The result: A Jaguars team that led the NFL in rushing in 2017 (141.7 yards per game) dropped to 19th (107.7) in 2018. Fournette, who had 1,040 yards and nine TDs rushing as a rookie, managed just 439 yards and five TDs and averaged 3.3 yards per carry. After the season ended, there was a meeting between Fournette and management in which he was told to get himself back in shape, commit to learning the offense inside and out, act more accountable to teammates and coaches, and start acting like a professional football player.
The Jaguars then went to work revamping the position by firing assistant coach Tyrone Wheatley, hiring longtime NFL assistant Terry Robiskie, signing Rawls, cutting Hyde and deciding not to re-sign Yeldon in the first six weeks of 2019. They also signed veteran free agents Alfred Blue (2,407 yards and eight TDs in five seasons) and Benny Cunningham (797 yards rushing and 1,001 yards receiving in six seasons) in March, then drafted Armstead in April.
Robiskie is an interesting hire because like Fournette, he is from New Orleans and starred at LSU, though Marrone said those things did not play a role in his hiring. Still, the team is hoping the 64-year-old Robiskie can reach Fournette in a way that can get him to achieve his potential and become the dominant running back the Jaguars envisioned when they drafted him fourth overall in 2017.
That’s imperative because Marrone and general manager Dave Caldwell made it clear after last month's draft that Fournette remains the top back, and they plan to make him the focal point of the run game. Blue, Cunningham, Armstead, Rawls and Williams will compete for playing time, though Cunningham might fit more as a third-down back and special-teamer.
Armstead (5-foot-11, 220 pounds) makes the most sense as Fournette’s top backup, especially because they have similar size and running styles. The offense wouldn’t need to change much if Fournette were to miss a significant number of games, which is something the Jaguars have to expect, given that he has missed 11 contests in his two seasons (nine because of injury and two due to suspensions).
“He’s a physical, downhill, one-cut runner,” Caldwell said of Armstead, who ran for 2,812 yards and 34 TDs in four seasons at Temple. “He runs a similar running style to Leonard, so it’s going to be a nice one-two punch with him and Alfred and Benny. I think we needed a young back in that stable, and being able to go in with a guy that’s 220 pounds that runs a 4.4 and then runs as aggressive as he does is a good thing.
"The priority is really just to have depth. You can never have enough depth at that position. Leonard’s in a good spot, and he looks great right now, and he’s in shape, so I think we feel good about that being our lead guy and going from there and seeing how pieces fall going into training camp.”