Why Jaguars took running back Travis Etienne in the first round

Lawrence ready to get to work with Jaguars (2:21)

Trevor Lawrence reflects on being drafted first overall by the Jaguars, and handling the expectations that come with that. (2:21)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- When coach Urban Meyer sat down to watch film of the 2020 Jacksonville Jaguars’ offense, he saw an inefficient, plodding and unexciting unit.

The biggest thing missing -- other than high-quality quarterback play -- was big plays. The Jaguars were last in the NFL in combined rushes of 20 or more yards and pass plays of 30 or more yards, per ESPN Stats & Info. They had 16, which was 33 fewer than the league-leading Baltimore Ravens.

That had to change quickly. Meyer knew adding quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the first pick was going to help immensely, but it wouldn’t be enough. That’s why Meyer and general manager Trent Baalke used their second first-round pick on former Clemson running back Travis Etienne. They’re figuring the big-play machine with the Tigers can do the same in Jacksonville.

“Someone said, 'Why would you take another running back?'" Meyer said. “He’s much more than a running back. He’s a slash. We did not [draft] him because he’s a running back. We probably wouldn’t have. He’s a guy that had a lot of production in the pass game at Clemson. He has excellent hands and he’ll be dual-trained. Those guys are hard to find, but if you find one, we know how to use them. With him, I expect an instant impact.”

The pick did seem a bit odd at first, since James Robinson ran for 1,070 yards and seven touchdowns as an undrafted rookie last season and the team signed Carlos Hyde, who played for Meyer at Ohio State, in free agency. But Meyer’s plan is to use Etienne similar to the way he used Percy Harvin at Florida.

Harvin lined up in the backfield, in the slot and at receiver and ran for 1,852 yards and 19 touchdowns and caught 133 passes for 1,929 yards and 13 touchdowns in three seasons for the Gators. Expect the Jaguars to move Etienne around, too.

“We have a good, young group of receivers that can run well and we have two good backs,” Meyer said. “This is a multi-dimensional back. …. I know Coach [Darrell] Bevell and Schotty [passing game coordinator Brian Schottenheimer] and I all feel that the idea of offense is to create matchup nightmares. And I’ve had some good fortune over the years to have a guy that can do both, flex out.

“He [Etienne] is as good outside as a receiver as he is as a running back.”

One of the reasons Etienne returned to Clemson for his senior season was to show he could be a reliable pass-catcher. In addition to rushing for an ACC-record 4,952 yards and 70 TDs in four seasons for the Tigers, Etienne also caught 102 passes for 1,155 yards and eight TDs -- including 48 receptions for 588 yards and two TDs in 2020. The Tigers also lined him up in the slot and out wide, too.

“I feel like it [being used in the passing game more as a senior] contributed a lot [to being a first-round pick],” Etienne said. “Especially with the way the game’s going in the modern-day era at the running back position. You’ve got to be a three-down back and those checkdown routes really go a long way.”

Especially since Etienne was one of the most explosive players in the country during the past four years. He led all players in the NCAA with 55 runs of 20 or more yards from 2017 to '20, rushing for 2,053 yards and 21 touchdowns -- an average of 37.3 yards per rush on these big plays. Etienne also had six receptions of 30 or more yards, giving him 61 explosive plays.

For comparison, the Jaguars had 97 explosive plays from 2017-20. The Kansas City Chiefs led the NFL with 173 and the only four teams that didn’t have 100 (Jacksonville, Cincinnati, Miami and the New York Jets) all had losing records during that span. The Jaguars also scored 19.5 points per game in those four seasons, fewer than all but five teams.

“It’s hard to have 14-, 15-, 16-play drives in the National Football League,” Baalke said. “You have to be able to flip the field. You have to be able to score from every level of the field and the only way you can do that is to add explosive players and we feel that Travis is one of those.

“Our job is to take the best football players available and when you have a chance to add an explosive, dynamic player to your team, I don’t think that’s a roll of the dice. I think that’s an educated decision that we were willing to make.”

They’re hoping it pays off big.