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Why is Urban Meyer Trying to Turn Travis Etienne Into a Receiver?

Liam McKeone
May 15, 2021, 3:13 PM EDT
Travis Etienne
Travis Etienne / Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images
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The Jacksonville Jaguars decided to give first overall pick Trevor Lawrence a familiar face in his new home by selecting Clemson running back Travis Etienne with their second pick in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. It was a bit of a confusing decision considering they already had 2020's standout rookie, James Robinson, on the roster at the position. Robinson went undrafted and still rushed for over 1,000 yards on the worst team in football.

It is justifiable, though. Robinson is good but not the dual-threat back Etienne could be in the NFL, and Etienne was a legit gamebreaker for the Tigers in college. Paired with the fact that he's accustomed to Lawrence and vice versa, you can see the vision. Worse picks have been made by this organization.

Head coach Urban Meyer, trying his hand at professional football for the first time ever, has a bit of a different idea for what Etienne can do for the team. Frankly, it's bizarre. After the draft, Meyer called Etienne a "third-down back" and said he'd use Carlos Hyde (yes, he is still in the league) and Robinson as the "downhill" runners while Etienne can be the change-of-pace back. Via CBS:

"I see Carlos and James the 1-2, downhill, powerful running backs," Meyer said. "And I see Travis -- there's times where we could be in two-backs and Travis is a guy that goes out. Or we're still playing with it, but he's certainly a third-down back and he's a guy that's a matchup issue for the defense."

I mean... that's fine, I guess, but the Jags just burned a first-round pick on the guy. You don't use a first-rounder on a third-down back. Running backs drafted that high are expected to be game-changers and workhorses for the duration. Calling Etienne a third-down back seems to indicate Meyer does not agree. Then came the news today that Etienne would be taking all of his snaps... at wide receiver during rookie camp in Jacksonville.

Again, that's certainly one way to go about it. But Etienne was a beast at Clemson and forcing him into a receiving back-type role not only is misusing his talents, but also does not justify the capital used to acquire him.

Etienne was a four-year starter at Clemson and broke the 1,000-yard rushing mark twice in that timespan. Last year, he ran for 914 yards at a 5.4 yard-per-carry clip and 14 touchdowns. The fact that 5.4 yards per carry was by far his lowest average of the four seasons at Clemson should be indicative of his big-play ability. Last year also doubled as Etienne's best as a receiver in college; he recorded 48 catches for 588 yards and two touchdowns. A pass to Etienne, whether it was a screen or out of the backfield, was as good as a first down by those numbers.

It feels like Meyer is trying to shoehorn Etienne into becoming a receiving back who can also carry it sometimes, rather than a back who can do both at a high level every game, as Le'Veon Bell truly was in his prime. And it doesn't make sense. The Jaguars could have found an actual receiving back with a similar skillset to Etienne in any of the seven rounds of the draft. Maybe they wouldn't be quite as dangerous as Etienne, but it's very likely a back could have been found who produces nearly as much as Etienne at a fraction of the cost.

It is still the offseason, of course. By Week 4 everything could change. Etienne could end up being used as the primary back regardless of what down it is if he shows out in camp. But to spend a first-round pick on a running back, then to call him a third-down back and have him take receiving reps during minicamp... I don't know. It sounds like the Jags of old, the perennial bottom-feeders blowing high pick after high pick.

Lawrence's selection is supposed to signify a new era of Jacksonville football. He's one of the best QB prospects of all time. Meyer is a historically successful coach, albeit at a different level. As acknowledged above, it's only May. But this doesn't feel like a great start for that new era.

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