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On to '19: Running backs

Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette (27) runs the ball during a NFL football game against the Washington Redskins, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018, in Jacksonville,Fla. (Logan Bowles via AP)
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette (27) runs the ball during a NFL football game against the Washington Redskins, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018, in Jacksonville,Fla. (Logan Bowles via AP)

JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton examine the Jaguars' running back position in this look at the '19 offseason

Position: Running back.

2018 starters: Leonard Fournette (8), T.J. Yeldon (5), Carlos Hyde (2) Corey Grant (1).

Others: Dave Williams, Thomas Rawls, Dimitri Flowers, Tommy Bohanon (fullback).

2018 at a glance: Injuries hit this position early in the season, with Fournette rushing for 439 yards and five touchdowns on 133 carries while missing seven games with injuries and one while under suspension. Grant, projected to be a key contributor in run-pass-option looks, missed the final 11 games with a foot injury and rushed for just 40 yards on 17 carries. Yeldon rushed for 414 yards and a touchdown on 104 carries and caught 55 passes for 487 yards and four touchdowns. Hyde, acquired from Cleveland on October 19 for a fifth-round selection in the 2019 NFL Draft, rushed for 189 yards and no touchdowns on 58 carries.

Offseason storyline: This position will change in the offseason, but how much? Season-ending speculation that the team could move on from Fournette has waned after news that team officials met with Fournette – with positive results – in early January. Still, with both Yeldon and Grant free agents – and both considered unlikely to return – the position likely will be addressed to some degree in the offseason.

Free agents as of March 13: Yeldon, Grant, Bohanon.

Oehser analysis: The Jaguars slipped from first in the NFL in rushing in 2017 to 19th in 2018, and that's only one reason this position could be second only to quarterback in terms of positions of intrigue for the Jaguars next season. With the Jaguars now appearing likely to move forward with Fournette, it's critical for him and for the team that he improved dramatically from a 2018 season that was as turbulent off the field as it was unproductive on it. The Jaguars have so much uncertainty at quarterback, offensive line and tight end that they likely will depend on Fournette at running back next season – perhaps as much by necessity as anything. Can he justify his No. 4 overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft? Can he consistently be the back he has been at times in two NFL seasons? If so, perhaps he can be the focal point of this offense. A critical question then becomes the rest of the running backs. With Fournette having missed 11 of 32 regular-season games, having productive and reliable backup running backs is paramount. And with Grant possibly elsewhere next season – and with Yeldon and Hyde both very likely elsewhere, too -- it's quite likely an early-to-mid-round rookie running back will play a key role in the Jaguars' offense next season. Whoever lines up at running back, the Jaguars need far more production from this position in 2018 than they received during 2017.

Sexton analysis: This spot a year ago seemed settled for the long-term; this year, it's more than a little uncertain. Fournette's second NFL season was a disaster on the field and a nightmare off it. He came off as selfish and unconcerned at times, which was troubling since the Jaguars built their entire offensive scheme around his prodigious talents. A meeting in January with Head Coach Doug Marrone reportedly has them both on the same page. That needs to be the case, because the Jaguars can't afford to lose one of their two explosive offensive weapons – and Fournette is very, very talented. Beyond the uncertainty at the starting spot, everything else about the running back room is an unknown. They traded a 2019 fifth-round selection for Hyde, but he was unspectacular – and his $4.75 million salary might be better spent elsewhere. Yeldon hits free agency and the Jaguars won't try to bring him back. Grant, who was going to be a featured performer in the offense last season, is also a free agent and has a long road back to football after breaking his foot in Kansas City in October. I assume Williams returns after a few flashes in December, and I think running back absolutely must be addressed in the draft. A team that puts so much of its personality into the running game must add young talent every offseason.

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