When the Jacksonville Jaguars signed Toby Gerhart to replace Maurice Jones-Drew and become the team's true "bell-cow" back, we all thought he'd be a punishing, between-the-tackles running back. But in the span of less than a year, and with the transition to a new offensive coordinator in Greg Olson, Gerhart's role in 2015 could look very different.
The Jaguars have said they won't be carrying a true fullback on their 2015 roster. That likely means the team has found an H-back on their roster. From what he showed in 2014, I think that guy is Toby Gerhart.
As offensive coordinator with the Oakland Raiders last year, Olson put Marcel Reese, listed as a fullback, in the game primarily on passing downs. In fact, nearly two-thirds of Reese's snaps came on passing downs, and more than eight times out of ten, Reese ran a route out of the backfield.
That's the role for Gerhart. But how could it look?
What is an H-back?
In short, an H-back is an extra running back that lines up closer to the line of scrimmage, like a tight end. Joe Gibbs created the position in response to Lawrence Taylor, whom he had to play twice a year. He wanted someone with athleticism and versatility, who could play everything from lead blocker to pass protector to receiving tight end.
So, why the H? Because John Riggins was Gibbs' best running back, but he was also a fullback. The designated letters for plays were H, F, and Q -- halfback, fullback, and quarterback. The extra player that Gibbs had inserted into his newly innovated scheme didn't really fit the "halfback" title, but to keep the letters the same, he just called the extra player the H-back.
In short, an H-back is an athletic player lining up between where a running back and tight end would normally go who can run, catch, or block on any given play.
Ironically, this is the part of playing an H-back that I'm least confident in Gerhart's abilities, despite him playing as a running back his whole life. Fortunately, the traditional H-back doesn't run all that much. Most H-backs are converted receivers, but even Reece, a converted fullback, only had 21 carries last year.
But just because I'm less confident in Gerhart's success in this segment doesn't mean he's not capable. He flashed good vision and as a downhill runner can catch off-balance defenses napping for bruising gains up the middle.
Last year, Gerhart was asked to do too much sideline-to-sideline running. Too many stretch plays. Give him inside runs where he has a much better success rate and let him show off his strength.
Gerhart will probably find himself getting a few more carries, but not much.
Now that we're done with where I'm least confident in Gerhart's success, let's move on to where I'm most confident he'll succeed in 2015.
Gerhart's ability to catch cornerbacks and less-than-quick linebackers off-guard in the passing game was, honestly, a surprise to me last year. But if Olson transitions Gerhart into an H-back, you'd better believe he'll be given more opportunities to catch the ball than run it.
Part of an H-back's job is to provide a safety net for the quarterback out of the backfield. Here's one of several times Gerhart collected an easy 15 yards just by having good hands, turning up field, and following his blockers.
Another example of good hands, immediately turning up field, and following blockers. And another 15-20 yards.
More good vision and a little speed. Gerhart's downhill running style will be an asset, especially with an offensive line that has improved this offseason in both athleticism and strength. Yards after the catch will be something to watch for Gerhart in 2015.
Pass protection and run blocking are two key components of the H-back's role in an offense. Gerhart has the awareness, athleticism, and certainly the strength to block or pick up blitzing defenders, although he struggled a little bit in 2014. I think that's more due to his role in last year's offense being more about running than the balanced role he'll have next year.
Admittedly, Gerhart wasn't asked to do a lot of pass protection last year. That wasn't his intended role during the offseason. But I have to imagine he gets better at it this summer.
Here he shows decent instincts, where he switches quickly from his original assignment (No. 52 D'Qwell Jackson) to the blitzing defensive back (No. 29 Mike Adams).
I think even Gerhart would tell you he had a subpar season in 2014. But with Olson, a coordinator who has experience with an H-back, I think you'll see Gerhart contribute a lot more to this year's offense.