Jacksonville Jaguars vs. New York Jets (Jacksonville Jaguars running back Travis Etienne Jr. (1) tries to avoid a tackle by New York Jets linebacker Quincy Williams) [608x342]
Jacksonville Jaguars vs. New York Jets (Jacksonville Jaguars running back Travis Etienne Jr. (1) tries to avoid a tackle by New York Jets linebacker Quincy Williams) [608x342] (Credit: AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Everything you absolutely need to know about the 2024 NFL offseason

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars have the same plan for running back Travis Etienne Jr. heading into the upcoming season as they did in 2023: Ease the workload.

They're hoping to do a better job of making that happen in 2024, because it certainly didn't last season. Etienne actually had a significantly bigger workload in 2023 than he did in 2022, and coach Doug Pederson doesn't want a repeat. As durable as Etienne has been, overworking the 5-foot-10, 215-pound back could eventually result in injury.

"It's hard to put necessarily a rep count on it, but you do want to keep him as healthy as you can throughout the season," Pederson said earlier this week as the Jaguars began OTAs. "We talked about this as a staff and myself, making sure Tank [Bigsby] gets opportunities to get out there and take some of the pounding off of Travis."

The Jaguars relied heavily on Etienne in 2022, mainly because they didn't have much choice. James Robinson started the first five games and got the bulk of the work, but a nagging knee issue limited him during practices and Etienne took over as the Jaguars' top back by mid-October. He played so well the Jaguars felt comfortable enough trading Robinson to the New York Jets in late October, but that left rookie fifth-round pick Snoop Conner and JaMycal Hasty as the options behind Etienne for the rest of the season.

Etienne accounted for 74% of the running back carries after the Robinson trade and finished the 2022 season accounting for 61% of the running back carries and 60% of the running back touches. That wasn't ideal, which is why the Jaguars signed D'Ernest Johnson during the following free agency and drafted Bigsby in the third round in 2023.

And yet ... Etienne's workload increased last season. He had 75% of the running back carries and 76% of the running back touches.

Bigsby's role as the top backup never materialized. He had 50 total carries and just three games with more than three carries, including a season-high 10 in a Week 17 victory over Carolina. Johnson (41 carries) got even less work than Bigsby.

Bigsby, who had a pair of fumbles and at least one missed catch that led to an interception, never quite earned the trust of the coaching staff to have a bigger role -- and it's something GM Trent Baalke points to as a larger takeaway with how the team handled the 2023 draft class.

"We feel we have some pretty good football players [in the 2023 draft class]," Baalke said at his end-of-season news conference. "Sometimes, you have to execute the vision that you had for these players. Coach [Pederson] and I have talked a lot about this year's class in particular. The onboarding process of them, getting them up to speed, trusting them.

"... When you look at bringing in a player and the vision you have for them, at the end of the day, you got to ask yourself, 'Did we execute that vision or didn't we?' I think if you ask Coach and certainly you're asking me right now, we've got to do a better job of that vision and executing it. We feel really good about the young players we got. Have they all reached their potential? Not yet. There's still a lot of growth to be had, but we trust that we got a pretty good nucleus of young players on this football team."

That nucleus also includes Etienne, who missed his rookie season in 2021 because of a Lisfranc injury but has since established himself as one of the top all-around backs in the NFL. Etienne and San Francisco 49ers RB Christian McCaffrey are the only players to rush for more than 1,000 yards and total more than 1,400 scrimmage yards in each of the past two seasons.

Pederson believes Etienne can be even better than he was in 2023, when he rushed for 1,125 yards.

"Year 3 with us in the offense and just seeing his growth, I think there's more out there that he can get yard-wise," Pederson said. "It'd definitely be an emphasis utilizing him more so in the run game and making sure that those yards that are there, that we're doing the right things, we're hitting the right holes, we're anticipating defenders and blocking schemes and all that kind of stuff."

Etienne worked on improving his vision and patience as a runner last offseason. Learning patience was the most important thing as he transitioned to the NFL from four seasons at Clemson, where he rushed for an ACC-record 4,952 yards and 70 touchdowns.

"For me it's more about just being more disciplined, not trying to get a touchdown every time I touch the ball," Etienne said Monday. "I feel like college kind of ruined me with that, just being able to get the ball and score touchdowns every play. Understanding the flow of the game, the ebbs and flow and understanding the whole totality, understanding the bigger picture and understanding that it's second-and-1, no need for me to shoot for the stars. Just get that first down and a fresh set of downs. ... And I feel like that's going to continue to get me better."

One of the byproducts of that approach was eliminating turnovers that plagued him in 2022, when he fumbled five times and lost three. He didn't fumble at all last season.

"I had a year off [in 2021 and] I wanted touchdowns and the ball is [held] a little loose," Etienne said. "I was out there playing backyard football and I quickly understood that [in] the NFL everybody's professional and I just tightened my ball up a little. You've seen that last season; I had zero fumbles and I feel like it's only going to continue to get better. Improving and just having a conscious effort of just understanding the ball is the most important thing."

The entire Jaguars rushing game fell off in the second half of last season, mostly due to injuries on an unstable offensive line. Etienne went from averaging the NFL's fourth-most rushing yards per game (72.9) in Weeks 1-9 to averaging the 29th-most (47.2) in Weeks 10-18. With an improved and healthy offensive line, the Jaguars hope the running game blossoms with it.

In April, the Jaguars picked up Etienne's fifth-year option, which ensures he remains on the roster through the 2025 season. And it's important to Pederson that they do everything they can to limit the "wear and tear" to their primary back by utilizing Bigsby more.

Maybe it'll happen this season.