Stat check: First-down improvement a must

Each day this week I'll take a look at a stat that will play a key role for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2014. It could be something the team must improve or something the team did well that must continue. It will go beyond just the basic stats and provide a more in-depth look at the team.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars signed Toby Gerhart to replace Maurice Jones-Drew as the team's feature back and to jump-start a running game that was next-to-last in the NFL in 2013.

In order to do that, the first thing Gerhart has to do is make more headway on first down. The Jaguars were one of the worst teams in the NFL on first down last season and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said that kept the offense from generating much rhythm. Facing second-and-long took away some aggressiveness in play calling because Fisch wanted to find safe plays that gained positive yards so the offense wasn't consistently facing third-and-long.

The Jaguars ranked 30th in the NFL in average yards gained (4.79) and average yards rushing (3.40) on first down. Only Miami (4.73) and Tampa Bay (4.72) averaged fewer yards gained on first down and only Baltimore (3.27 yards) and Tampa Bay (3.22) average fewer yards rushing on first down than the Jaguars.

For comparison, Denver averaged a league-high 6.2 yards gained on first down and Philadelphia averaged a league-best 5.25 yards per rush on first down.

So why is Gerhart the solution to the Jags' first-down woes? Because there aren't many backs in the league better than Gerhart on first down. Since being drafted by Minnesota in 2010, Gerhart is sixth among players with at least 100 carries over that span in average yards gained on first down (5.01 yards per carry) -- which is tied with former teammate Adrian Peterson. Jones-Drew was 19th on the list (4.66).

The five players ranked ahead of Gerhart: Michael Vick (6.71 yards per carry), Jamaal Charles (5.99), Darren Sproles (5.41), LeGarrette Blount (5.29), and Brandon Jacobs (5.09).

Gerhart has gained 687 yards on 137 first-down carries in his career, and while that's significantly less than Peterson's totals (3,172 yards on 633 carries) it is a big enough sample size to show he can be effective in that role with the Jaguars.