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What stands between Jaguars’ Travis Etienne and 1,600-1,700 yards?

Doug Pederson believes his lead back can make a massive leap in 2023

Jacksonville Jaguars Training Camp Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Lofty expectations weigh on every player heading into the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 2023 season. However, comments from head coach Doug Pederson last week raised the stakes even further for one of the team’s essential offensive talents.

Running back Travis Etienne finished ninth in the NFL last season in total rushing yards. A 1,125 yard outing is exceptional for a “rookie” campaign. Especially considering Etienne made his mark while averaging just 12.9 carries a game, only 20th best in the league.

Etienne did damage in bursts, making the most of his totes. He tied the NFL lead for carries of more than 40 yards with four and finished tied for ninth in carries of more than 20 yards with eight.

In his second year in Jacksonville, Pederson wants Etienne to improve in a simpler way; he’s pushing his primary back to trust his instincts when building a head of steam downfield. The ability to create speed before hitting the hole, not just through it, is the next step for Etienne to improve his game, Pederson said.

“Attack the line of scrimmage, finding that crease where a lot of times you’ll see him try to bounce,” Pederson said in a media availability on August 3. “We were able to show him and really emphasize shoulders-squared, anticipating where the hole could be, and just trusting that.”

Pederson caught everyone’s attention further when he speculated Etienne’s season totals could finish in the 1,600-1,700 yard range. Keep in mind, Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs led the league last season with 1,653 yards; all while receiving about seven more carries per game (20) than Etienne.

To match Jacobs’ NFL-best numbers on a workload similar to Etienne’s 2022 carries per game average (12.9), he would need to pick up a whopping 7.5 yards per attempt. That’s a 2.4-yard boost over the former Clemson Tiger’s average last season, and 2.6 yards per attempt more than Jacobs’ 2022 average.

Additionally, for historical sake, Maurice Jones-Drew is the only Jaguar to ever crack 1,600 yards in a season. MJD’s 2011 season earned him the NFL rushing title, a trip to the Pro Bowl and a First-Team All-Pro nod.

There’s a belief among Pederson and his staff that if Etienne can improve his ability to anticipate lanes, increase his downhill speed and avoid prematurely bouncing outside the tackles, he can make the yardage leap.

“He’s done an outstanding job. He’s bought into that. He sees it, we’ve been able to show it to him. He’s working on that in training camp right now.”

This all leads to one question: What stands in the way of Etienne and a season of this caliber?

An expected pass-heavy offense

It’s no secret that the passing game has been the story of the Jaguars’ offseason. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence is the face of the franchise and wide receiver Calvin Ridley draws reactions just from walking onto the practice field. That goes without even mentioning a slew of talented returning receivers and a newly re-signed tight end, Evan Engram.

After a breakout season, Jacksonville seems poised to improve upon its already stellar offensive production seen last season. In 2022, the Jaguars ranked ninth in points per game. Pederson also elected to pass the ball roughly 58% of the time in 2022, middle of the pack compared to other NFL offenses.

Considering the offseason moves, and the expected improvement of Lawrence in year three, it’s not wild to suspect a higher percentage of passing plays in 2023.

Depth in the backfield

Fellow running back Tank Bigsby, a third-round pick from Auburn, has also generated buzz during training camp. The more he impresses, the more solidified he will become in the backup role. Pederson and general manager Trent Baalke have spoken throughout the offseason about how important depth is in the running back room.

The free agency acquisition of D’Ernest Johnson also poses a threat to Etienne’s playing time. Additionally, JaMycal Hasty and Snoop Conner return to once again fulfill reserve roles. The Jaguars won’t enter the season with five backs. Four is a more reasonable expectation, and the prediction of ESPN’s Michael DiRocco, who thinks Conner is the man left off the final 53.

It won’t be apparent until Week 1 just how much of a timeshare the Jaguars backfield could be. Still, Etienne is the clean-cut top option. After James Robinson’s departure from Jacksonville prior to week eight last season, Etienne was on the field for roughly 71% of the Jaguars' offensive snaps each game (excluding Week 11 against Baltimore when he sustained a foot injury in the first half).

Tougher run defenses on the slate

In 2022, the Jaguars offense faced the 25th toughest strength of schedule in defensive rush efficiency, according to Warren Sharp. In 2023, they will take on a slate of more formidable run defenses, resulting in the 7th toughest strength of schedule in defensive rush efficiency, according to Sharp’s 2023 season preview.

Jacksonville faces both ends of the spectrum when it comes to NFL defenses and their run-stopping efficiency. Notably, the Jaguars face all four of the most stout run defenses (San Francisco, Tennessee, Buffalo & Pittsburgh) in the league, per Sharp’s preview, this season.

Only the Cincinnati Bengals, who have the toughest strength of schedule in defensive rush efficiency, must also face those four teams.

Etienne struggled against Tennessee last season. He averaged just 2.04 yards per carry on 49 totes in two games versus the Titans. Despite a handful of stifling opponents on the 2023 slate, Etienne will still have his fair share of opportunities for big games.

Matchups with the Houston Texans (Weeks 3 and 12), Atlanta Falcons (Week 4) and Cleveland Browns (Week 14) give Etienne the best opportunities to post big numbers.

Ultimately, his production in both “easy” and “difficult” games will rely heavily on game script and possible preservation to ensure health into an expected playoff berth.