May 18, 2021

Here's How Travis Etienne Fits in the Jaguars' Offense

The Jaguars predictably wanted to add playmakers in the 2021 NFL Draft. They accomplished this by selecting quarterback Trevor Lawrence first overall and running back Travis Etienne with the No. 25 selection. The Clemson teammates starred in their time as Tigers and now hope to replicate their individual and team success in Jacksonville.

Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer will be one of the most-scrutinized first-year coaches in recent memory. There's concern the soon-to-be 57-year-old won't be flexible enough to adjust for what won't translate from college to the NFL. The controversial but highly successful collegiate coach gave some ammunition to skeptics with the Etienne pick.

Etienne joins a backfield already set with James Robinson, an undrafted free agent who produced 1,351 total yards in 2020. Immediately the pick was questionable as far as value but Meyer has made it clear he wants his version of Percy Harvin again. Getting a versatile, movable and explosive open-field athlete excited him.

Meyer admittedly wanted Kadarius Toney in the first round, settling for the Clemson back after the Giants nabbed the Florida product at No. 20. Meyer then had Etienne play wide receiver during the Jaguars' rookie minicamp. Meyer broke down his line of thinking in an expected way.

At the worst-case scenario, you have a running back with the skill set of a wide receiver. Best-case scenario, you'll have a hybrid player who does both, and that's what we're hoping to develop out of Travis.
Jaguars coach Urban Meyer via ESPN's Michael DiRocco

Critics flocked to voice their concerns about this decision. Why take a running back if you wanted a wide receiver? It's a fair point when Ole Miss' Elijah Moore was still on the board. But Meyer was clear in saying he wanted someone to tote the rock as well as catch it.

Etienne ran for nearly 5,000 yards and produced another 1,155 as a receiver in college. He's a well-rounded player who thrives on swing catches, screens, and any quick-breaking route that'll accentuate his acceleration. He also had just two drops in 2020.

The decision to move Etienne into a hybrid slasher role says multiple things we can translate into fantasy projections. The first is he doesn't have terrific RB1 value if he'll lineup at receiver more than a rare occurrence. The Jaguars will feed their backfield of Etienne, Robinson and Carlos Hyde, and flexing out Etienne on run plays is one way to create touches for others.

Because he's not a great downfield threat at his speed, size, or experience, Etienne will function more as a slot receiver. Unfortunately, mediocre volume and low efficiency as a receiver won't significantly help him in PPR leagues.

Fantasy players can also glean the projected role of Laviska Shenault now. Shenault will be moved to a more traditional receiver role with Etienne taking his hybrid job. This is likely due to the differences in build and durability. Shenault can absolutely thrive as strictly an outside receiver, but he'll be a low-end play unless Lawrence identifies Shenault as his security blanket. 

Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has experience in factoring in a Harvin-like presence already. In fact, he coached Harvin twice, from 2010-2011, and again for nine games between 2013 and 2014. The results were great early on, but Harvin was a shell of himself in Seattle. 

Etienne will be Meyer's latest version of Harvin but not a clear parallel due to the differences in their natural skills and roles. Etienne will likely end his rookie campaign with more rushing attempts than Harvin had in his career (146). But all of the gadget-type plays and schemed chunk plays should go to Etienne in addition to his rotational back role. 

There's obvious risk in this type of approach for fantasy owners. Etienne's chemistry with Lawrence will help production and the combination of Meyer and Bevell will lead to forced touches. However, it's also predictable that because the Jags have D.J. Chark, Shenault, and Marvin Jones already as clear-cut receivers, Etienne will settle into a role in the backfield before long.

The best-case scenario comparison is for this backfield to mirror Cleveland's success with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Both were top-11 players in 2020 despite coexisting. Neither Etienne nor Robinson are as talented as those two backs, though, and the Browns' offensive line is superior to the Jaguars.

This serves as a warning for those more optimistic on Etienne's chances of outperforming his current ADP of 112 overall. He's a flex option for a healthy roster in 2021 unless the Jaguars trade Robinson. 

Photo: Ben Liebenberg / Jacksonville Jaguars