When it comes to the Jaguars&39; running back position, Gene Smith said statistics, awards and reputation are fine.
And make no mistake:
The Jaguars&39; running back position? It has statistics. It has awards.
And it has a sterling reputation.
But Smith, in his third season as the Jaguars&39; general manager said while the presence of Maurice Jones-Drew – one of the NFL&39;s elite running backs – helps with a league-wide perception of the area as a position of strength, there is more to the spot than that.
The position is deep, and it is talented, but Smith said mostly the position is manned by special players who give the group a dynamic that is in a very real sense a bit linebacker-like.
"This might be the most competitive position group we have on our team," Smith said recently when discussing the running back position for this story, part of a position-by-position look at the Jaguars&39; roster scheduled to run this month and next on jaguars.com.
"When any one of these players perform on special teams, they perform at the same level they do as a running back. We have running backs who play like linebackers."
Not that they don&39;t play running back well, too.
That&39;s particularly true of Jones-Drew, who long has been one of the most productive running backs in the NFL and who in the last two seasons has developed into one of the league&39;s elite go-to backs.
Jones-Drew, a second-round selection in the 2006 NFL Draft, averaged 844 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing in his first three NFL seasons, then moved into the team&39;s full-time starter role in 2009. He rushed for 1,324 yards and five touchdowns on 299 carries this past season – that, a year after rushing for 1,399 yards and 15 touchdowns on 312 carries.
Jones-Drew, who caught at least 40 passes in each of his first four seasons, caught 34 passes for 317 yards and two touchdowns last season.
"The thing about Maurice is he&39;s complete," Smith said. "He&39;s a runner, a pass receiver and a blocker. He&39;s one of the better blocking halfbacks in the NFL."
Jones-Drew this past season during a six-game, mid-season stretch rushed for 100 or more yards in every game, the longest such streak of his career, and in the process led the Jaguars to first place in the AFC South.
He started the stretch with a 27-carry, 135-yard performance in a victory at Dallas, then followed that with 100 yards rushing in a home victory over Houston. He produced a career-high 220 yards offense against Cleveland, then after rushing for 113 yards in a loss to the New York Giants, rushed for a career-high 186 yards in a victory at Tennessee.
He finished the stretch with a 101-yard game against Oakland, with a 30-yard touchdown run in the final two minutes clinching the victory.
But Smith said Jones-Drew is only part of what makes the Jaguars strong at the position.
Smith called Jones-Drew "a feature back," and said the Jaguars have rare depth with Rashad Jennings being a legitimate "companion back" and (Deji) Karim playing a key role as "more of a specialty back."
Montell Owens and Brock Bolen each can play halfback and fullback, Smith said, as can fullback Greg Jones.
"We have some versatility in the fact that three of those guys can cross-train, and we do feel like we have a legitimate feature back in Maurice Jones-Drew," Smith said. "Most teams, if they have a legitimate feature back, don&39;t have a legitimate companion back. The good teams in the NFL, they do have two running backs – a guy who might get two thirds of the carries and a guy who gets a third of the carries. Rashad Jennings has shown he can do that."
Jennings, who played collegiately at Liberty, rushed for 202 yards and a touchdown as a rookie, then started three games last season, rushing for 459 yards and five touchdowns with a 5.5-yards-a-carry average. He also caught 26 passes for 223 yards last season.
Smith said there is significant value in Jennings out of the backfield, and said his presence could help the receiving corps and tight ends this season.
"He may have as good a hands as we have on the team," Smith said. "He has excellent hands, and he&39;s a bigger back who has learned how to drop his weight more in the hole. He just has continued to make strides toward becoming a better player. I think his best football is on front of him."
But while the position is about more than Jones-Drew, Smith said he is unquestionably critical to a critical position.
The Jaguars this past season finished third in the NFL in rushing, with Jones-Drew making the Pro Bowl for a second consecutive season despite missing the final three games. They were the first games missed because of injury in Jones-Drew&39;s five seasons, and Smith said it&39;s that sort of perseverance, dedication and desire that has helped Jones-Drew define the Jaguars at the position in recent seasons.
"I think he has tremendous pride in how he performs," Smith said. "He sets an example for others to follow out on the field. He has a warrior-type mentality. He&39;s a fearless competitor. I think that&39;s what separates him from other players.
"People said, &39;Well, why would you take a back so small that high in the draft?&39; I never saw Maurice Jones-Drew as being small. I don&39;t think a lot of people who scouted him saw him as small. He may have been short, but he never played small