Last year was a rough one for Jacksonville, but among the few bright spots was a surprisingly strong rookie season from undrafted running back James Robinson. Previous starting running back Leonard Fournette was released weeks before the season as the Jags noticed Robinson’s ability to take on an every down role.
The fantasy community did not expect much from Robinson, but he proved the Jaguars right, posting a 1,000+ yard rushing season with 7 touchdowns, as well as catching 49 balls for over 300 receiving yards and 3 more touchdowns. As a result, Robinson was a popular waiver pickup and early in the 2021 offseason, he was being touted as a late 1st round to early 2nd round pick. Despite Robinson’s success, the Jaguars won just one game.
Now, they enter the 2021 season with a new head coach, long time college coach Urban Meyer, and a new quarterback. A new quarterback who just so happens to be one of the best quarterback prospects in a long time in Trevor Lawrence.
After taking Lawrence at #1 overall, the Jaguars had another first rounder, and they spent it in a way that not many people saw coming. Instead of pairing Lawrence with a young wide receiver or addressing the team’s need for defensive backs, the Jaguars decided to bring in Lawrence’s running back from Clemson, Travis Etienne.
Between the addition of Etienne and the signing of veteran running back Carlos Hyde, Robinson’s fantasy ADP has obviously taken a hit. However, he is still going at 5.01 as the RB25 in PPR leagues according to Fantasy Football Calculator.
Meanwhile, Etienne is going as the RB27 at 5.07. I’m not willing to invest that early of a pick in Robinson, while Etienne could be an amazing value at that spot. I’ll be diving into how I expect this backfield to break down and why it makes Etienne a much more valuable pick than Robinson in PPR leagues.
I am not among the people who see this as a Cleveland Browns-like backfield that has enough pure rushing volume for multiple running backs to shine. However, I am not among the people who expect Etienne to be the workhorse right away either. Etienne doesn’t really profile as a traditional between the tackles running back. He is an elusive, speedy back that excels as a receiver and change of pace guy.
I think he does have the potential to eventually develop between the tackles ability and become a workhorse, but early on, the Jaguars will utilize him in a way that helps him succeed. To begin the year, expect Robinson to take on the majority of the early down role, while Etienne takes on the third down role. I think Etienne will be more than just a traditional third down running back though.
According to Urban Meyer, Etienne was actually working mainly as a receiver during minicamp. Do I think this means he’ll play wide receiver during the season? No, but it could be a sign that Etienne will get targeted more than a traditional running back. It makes sense, as Urban Meyer has a history of using players in a versatile role where they both run the ball and catch the ball.
He used wide receiver Percy Harvin in that role at Florida and wide receiver Curtis Samuel in that role at Ohio State. It would make sense for a player like Laviska Shenault Jr. to take on this role, but Etienne’s usage in minicamp makes me think Meyer wants to use Etienne in this role, which would also explain why Meyer took Etienne over a wide receiver.
As a result, I think Etienne could be among the most targeted running backs in football. I personally have him projected for 100 targets, a feat that I only see a few other running backs accomplishing: Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, and Austin Ekeler. That would give Etienne some pretty elite company when it comes to pass catching backs.
I think he has the talent to be on level with those guys, and while his talent is raw as a rookie, he’s in a good situation to utilize his talent, with a coach who emphasizes versatility and a quarterback who’s more familiar with him than any of the team’s receivers due to their time together at Clemson.
Even if Robinson gets the bulk of the carries here, this kind of role would likely give Etienne a low RB2 floor in PPR. Remember, he’s being drafted in the 5th round as the RB27, which would be below this floor.
Assuming Etienne is in this role, he’s an unbelievable value in Round 5. I’ve seen him begin to rise to Round 4 in some drafts, and I’m willing to take him there, because we haven’t even discussed his high upside yet.
Etienne taking on a role like this is one thing. If he was able to maintain this role while also taking on the bulk of the carries in this backfield, that would put him in RB1 territory much like Ekeler.
Later in the season, I expect Robinson’s role to fade a bit as Etienne gets used to the playbook and shows off his abilities as a rusher. By the end of the season, Etienne could see the majority of carries in addition to an elite level of targets.
Yes, Robinson is capable of an every down role, but is Robinson, an un-drafted running back, really better than a running back that was drafted in the first round? I think early on, Robinson will be better equipped for the early down role due to familiarity with the system, but that could change as Etienne settles in here.
I have Etienne projected for 720 rush yards as well as 67 receptions for 663 receiving yards, with a total of 12 touchdowns and 16.3 fantasy points per game. That would place him as a high RB2, and would make him an excellent value in Round 4 or 5.
His draft stock may continue to rise as preseason hype sets in, but as of right now, he’s one of the best values at running back in all of fantasy football. This projection would also put James Robinson in an awkward spot.
Robinson is likely going to see some sort of role on early downs, but not anywhere near what he saw in 2020. There’s just not enough volume for Robinson to post another 1000 yard season while Etienne gets nearly 150 carries of his own.
I expect the Jaguars to remain somewhat pass-heavy. Last year this was because they were playing from behind, but this year even as the Jaguars improve they’ll want to utilize Lawrence’s arm talents.
Robinson could still see some receptions himself, but he was only so good in this pass-heavy scheme because he saw nearly all of the volume out of the Jaguars backfield last year. This year that is far from the case, as Etienne will slowly see more and more work and even Hyde could see a small role (not enough to make him relevant but enough to eat into Robinson’s production).
While he could end up putting up low RB2 numbers, especially early on, he’s not worth a 5th round pick. Unlike Etienne, that kind of production is likely close to his ceiling. Robinson and Etienne could start off with pretty similar numbers, but Etienne is only going to improve.
I think, more realistically, Robinson will total 8-9 points per game and end up a low RB3 to high RB4 option. I am not willing to draft him unless he slips to at least Round 7.
As a team, I expect the Jaguars to improve this year. Generally, that makes me more willing to invest in their offense for fantasy football. While there are some good value picks from this offense like Trevor Lawrence, Laviska Shenault Jr., Marvin Jones, and most of all Etienne, some players like Robinson will not be worth the price.