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On to '21: Running Backs


JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and Jaguars analyst Bucky Brooks examine the Jaguars' running backs in this position-by-position look at the '21 offseason

Position: Running back.

Position coach: Bernie Parmalee.

2020 starters: James Robinson (14), Dare Ogunbowale (2).

Others: Nathan Cottrell, Devine Ozigbo, Chris Thompson, Craig Reynolds, Ryquell Armstead, Bruce Miller (fullback, five starts).

2020 at a glance: Robinson became one of the NFL's feel-good stories early in the season, and continued to be just that throughout a remarkable rookie year. An undrafted free agent from Illinois State, Robinson rushed for 1,070 yards and seven touchdowns on 240 carries – becoming the third undrafted rookie in NFL history to rush for more than 1,000 yards. He was on pace to set a rookie rushing record for undrafted free agents before missing the final two games of the season with a knee injury. Robinson was easily the Jaguars' most productive player offensively, emerging as not only a smart runner who was capable in pass protection but also a reliable receiver out of the backfield; he caught 49 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns. Ogunbowale started the final two games of the regular season in Robinson's absence, rushing for 145 yards and no touchdowns on 32 carries. Thompson rushed seven times for 20 yards in his role as a third-down back before a back injury ended his season after eight games. Armstead missed the season on COVID-19/Reserve.

Offseason storyline: The storyline will depend largely on how the Jaguars' decision-makers view the position. Robinson – who took over as the starter entering the 2020 season after the Jaguars released running back Leonard Fournette – is under contract for two more seasons; as a collegiate free agent, he may not renegotiate until after his second season. With Thompson and Ogunbowale scheduled to become unrestricted free agents, Robinson is the only Jaguars running back under contract with extensive NFL carries/production. A storyline to watch is Armstead, who missed last season after rushing for 144 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries as a rookie.

Free agents as of March 17: Thompson, Ogunbowale.

Bucky Brooks' top three free-agent running backs: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers; Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals; Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks.

Bucky Brooks' top three running back prospects: Najee Harris, Alabama; Javonte Williams, North Carolina; Travis Etienne, Clemson.

Oehser analysis: This is an intriguing position for the Jaguars entering the offseason; how they handle it will reveal much about the offense moving forward. Robinson as a rookie emerged as perhaps the team's best offensive player, showing he can be an every-down back – and showing he is capable as a receiver and blocker as well as a runner. But the questions about the position revolve around the rest of the backfield. While Robinson's vision and ability to maximize every carry – and to not take negative-yardage caries – makes him a bona fide NFL starter, he's not a breakaway back and the team could seek a speed/third-down back to complement him. And the Jaguars could be looking for more game-breaking ability around Robinson to add versatility, depth and explosiveness in what could be a run-pass-option-oriented scheme under Head Coach Urban Meyer. The good news for the Jaguars' new decision-makers is they have a capable, productive runner on a phenomenally affordable rookie contract. The other good news is quality running backs often can be found after the early rounds of the draft, meaning rounding out this position is doable relatively quickly.

Brooks analysis: The emergence of Robinson as an unlikely starting running back was a pleasant surprise, but that shouldn't discourage the Jaguars from searching for a high-end runner to build the offense around. That's not a knock on Robinson and his remarkable 2020 campaign, but the Jaguars need a stable of premier players in the backfield to fulfill Meyer's vision of playing power football. Pairing Robinson with another three-down back would ensure the Jaguars could play their brand of football every week utilizing a rotational plan or a feature back and change-of-pace player to fortify the backfield. To pummel opponents with a power-based running game, the Jaguars will pay close attention to valued-priced veterans and intriguing prospects to find the right piece to add to the offensive puzzle.