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Evolution of Jaguars ground game follows familiar Super Bowl blueprint

Jacksonville’s improved depth at running back has similarities with Pederson’s 2017 Eagles team

NFL: JAN 14 AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Chargers at Jaguars Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Doug Pederson knows the value of a deep and versatile backfield.

Five years ago, the Jaguars head coach hoisted a Lombardi above his head, taking an Eagles team with Nick Foles under center to Super Bowl glory. The plaudits went to Philly’s defense, a mean unit led by veterans Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, Chris Long, and Malcolm Jenkins. An imposing offensive line also received praise. And Pederson himself was recognized for his creativity in the passing game, maximizing Foles’ abilities in the aftermath of Carson Wentz’s season-ending injury.

And yet, it can be argued that it was the Eagles’ run game that carried this team to the promised land.

As a unit, Philadelphia’s ground game in 2017 was as good as almost any in the league, finishing third in both total yards (2,115) and yards per carry (4.7). Only the Cowboys and (ironically) the Jags had better output toting the rock.

LeGarrette Blount, an offseason addition from New England, led the way with almost 800 yards. But this team had a host of options in the backfield to suit any occasion. Jay Ajayi came over in a midseason trade from Miami and averaged 5.8 yards a carry. Wendell Smallwood stepped in as the diverse weapon after Darren Sproles was lost for the year with a torn ACL. And as a rookie, Corey Clement made an immediate impact with 450 all-purpose yards - including 100 yards receiving and a touchdown in Super Bowl LII.

Is Doug trying to replicate a similar scenario in Jacksonville?

Cast your mind back to this time last year. In what was clearly going to be a crucial second season in Trevor Lawrence’s development, the backfield had more questions than answers. Both James Robinson and Travis Etienne were returning from season-ending injuries. Etienne hadn’t even had a competitive touch by that point. This presumed two-headed monster was complemented by rookie Snoop Conner and Ryquell Armstead, who was cut before the season began. JaMycal Hasty was hastily (excuse the pun) added to replace him.

Thanks to the emergence of Etienne as much, much more than just a ‘third down back’, the Jaguars’ run game last season more than pulled its weight. But the depth was not there. James Robinson was traded to the Jets in October having recorded 340 rushing yards. Hasty made a limited impact backing up Etienne, whilst Snoop Conner had just twelve carries the entire year. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but (another) injury to Etienne would have changed the entire trajectory of Jacksonville’s season.

It’s a risk this franchise doesn’t feel prepared to accept in 2023.

Adding Talent In The Offseason

This offseason’s attempts to remedy the situation may have been conducted by Trent Baalke, but they have Pederson’s fingerprints all over them.

D’Ernest Johnson’s arrival from Cleveland was the first clue as to the front office’s intentions. An under-the-radar move, Johnson was surprisingly productive in an RB3 role for the Browns, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. His absence of touches in 2022 should temper expectations, but the selection of Tank Bigsby in the third round of this year’s draft mitigates the need for Johnson to be a consistent, reliable backup.

Whether you are on board with Etienne as a three-down running back or not, the importance of the acquisition of Bigsby cannot be overstated. Can Tank truly challenge the incumbent for first-down carries? Or is his rookie role simply to act as a change of pace, or to come in on short-yardage situations?

At this stage, the answer isn’t actually that pressing. What matters is that Etienne doesn’t have to shoulder all the workload as he did in 2022.

According to ESPN, Etienne said of Jacksonville’s recent RB additions:

I feel like it keeps the wear and tear off my body. 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.

Bigsby notched up 3,500 all-purpose yards and 25 touchdowns in his three-year Auburn career. That production gives you confidence there won’t be a drop-off in output when he steps in. At times last year, JaMycal Hasty was the next man up behind Etienne. His descent to potentially RB4 on this depth chart tells you everything about the priority of the position - and his roster spot is anything but guaranteed. Conner’s grip on a roster spot also looks fragile, particularly considering the Jags drafted Derek Parish in the seventh round.

The addition of a fullback signals the intent to deliver a more robust ground game, and likely means the team carries one less running back if Parish survives training camp. And we haven’t even mentioned Brenton Strange, a tight end taken in the second round that was heavily used as an H-back at Penn State and looks set to assume the blocking duties vacated by the departed Chris Manhertz.

Whichever way you turn, this ground game has gotten bigger, stronger, and more diverse.

Front Office & Coaching Staff In Harmony

This shift in philosophy has been coming since the Jaguars’ playoff exit. Speaking in February this year, Doug Pederson was frank about his desire to build a robust backfield, one that mimicked the unit he had in Philadelphia:

I think in today’s game, you’ve got to have three to four guys. They’ve got to be able to carry the load. You’re talking about an 18-week, 17-game schedule, and the postseason. It’s wear and tear on guys. We haven’t seen enough of Snoop Conner yet either, but we like him. We know what JaMycal can do, we obviously know what Etienne can do. So yeah, you’re always looking to have two, three, four guys that can work the rotation.

Press Taylor, who worked under Pederson in Philly, echoed those sentiments last week as OTA’s got underway. Speaking from experience, the OC spoke of the importance of rotating ball carriers:

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 and you want to keep riding that wave. But now I think we have a pretty good stable of backs that complement each other and will all have a role in some way, shape or form.

In terms of the way we finished last year, I do think adding a guy like Tank, and then JaMycal Hasty gets a chance now to sit in there from day one of install as opposed to he was essentially learning game plans every week last year. He never really had a foundation of the offense. And then those guys that have been in there, Snoop and [Travis], adding D’Ernest to the mix, those guys are now sitting in there with an opportunity to, outside of D’Ernest, they know what we’re talking about. When we say a word now they have a picture in their mind and then we get into the details of it and get a chance to clean up some of the things. So there’s a lot of versatility in that room. There’s a lot of guys that complement each other.

One thing is obvious: this coaching staff has had significant input in Baalke’s roster building. The praise for Conner and Hasty is notable, but it should also be accepted that this roster won’t carry five running backs - and may not carry four considering the versatility of Jamal Agnew. The final decisions notwithstanding, it is undeniable this position group is now much healthier than this time last year. The ground game often gets forgotten due to the superstar allure of Trevor Lawrence and his weapons, and it’s fair - The Jaguars may have the best passing attack in the NFL. Yet Pederson’s history suggests the rushing attack will be a big factor in how this offense fares.

It’s one thing to have depth at the running back position, and another to be comfortable using it - something this coaching staff has a history doing, and effectively too. Here’s hoping this offensive philosophy leads to the Jaguars replicating their head coach’s previous success.