The calendar in the National Football League has, at last, turned to the long-awaited training camp process. With that comes the suitable moment to take a look at the battles within the rosters of the 32 teams involved in the preseason preparations. Furthermore, it has been an open secret that the AFC South was to be amongst the most intriguing division in football.
That applies to the training camp as much as it does to the actual 18-week regular season. Therefore, this division is currently the focus of this mini-series. Part 1 witnessed a breakdown of the top storylines within the Houston Texans and the Indianapolis Colts. The second part will dissect the priorities of the remaining two teams – Jacksonville and Tennessee.
Tennessee Titans: Shifting the Workload?
During the last two NFL seasons, the Titans have been strongly committed to the running game offensively, and rightfully so. Derrick Henry‘s dominance has cemented his place as the league’s most productive ground-game weapon. In 2020, Tennessee’s offense had 521 running plays and 485 passing attempts – a ratio of 52:48. This is as one-sided as it can be in favor of the run in the National Football League. Across the previous campaign, the split was nearly equal, though that is also usually indicative of substantial confidence in the run on the NFL level.
Going back in time, the running game was a blessing in disguise for a lacking Titans attack. Tennessee began the 2019 season with the subpar Marcus Mariota under center. Moreover, the pass-catching unit consisted of a struggling Corey Davis, a less-active Adam Humphries, and a still-inexperienced A.J. Brown. Eventually, the run would go on to be amongst the most prolific in the league and lift the Titans offense to the front-running positions statistically. Over the last two campaigns, the Henry-led group has finished third and second respectively, in both total rushing yards and yards per attempt.
However, this period has also seen the 2020 AFC South champions’ pennant ambitions strengthen. Consequently, the Titans have started to invest more aggressively, particularly in their weaknesses and/or openings. Such moves have recently seen the club recover from the departure of Corey Davis. Davis was one of the best intermediate-distance targets in the NFL last year. However, he has little to nothing on the accolades of his replacement, former Falcon Julio Jones.
Tennessee acquired Jones in a trade with Atlanta in early June for future second and fourth-round picks. Later that month, Titans GM Jon Robinson brought in another useful pass-catcher. This time, the team signed Josh Reynolds, who had spent four years with the Rams, to a one-year, $1.75-million contract.
As a result, the receiving core looks dramatically better than during the last two campaigns that saw Derrick Henry carry a heavy portion of the workload. That has spread speculations about whether Mike Vrabel could consider shifting some of the duties over to Ryan Tannehill and the air raid. On the one hand, this could make Henry even more efficient and positively impact the offense. That is if the air attack indeed becomes more adequate over a larger sample. On the other hand, Vrabel himself has claimed that he is not worried about Henry’s turnout slowing down due to his heavy workload.
However, it seems like the better group of pass-catchers could automatically mean a reduction of Henry’s carries to one extent or another. It is just a matter of how much the air raid will be relied on, though it seems like the run will hold a majority once again in 2021.
Jacksonville Jaguars: A Backfield Addition
Throughout 2020, the Jacksonville Jaguars suffered an embarrassing 1-15 record. After an offseason that saw them quite busy, the north Florida-based team seems ready to bounce back significantly. The Jags’ position in the 2021 NFL Draft also helped, with the team holding the first overall pick, in addition to nine selections in total, which is amongst the most in the NFL for the event.
Furthermore, the first team within Jacksonville’s roster seems nearly complete, both offensively and defensively. The receiving corps is much more stable after the acquisition of Marvin Jones Jr. at the forefront, and Collin Johnson and Phillip Dorsett as depth pieces. Meanwhile, the front part of the defense is about set, except for the front line, which is going to be a subject of a three-player, two-spot battle. Moreover, no changes are expected in neither the secondary nor the linebacker unit. The same goes for the all-returning offensive line.
Alongside the uncertainties at the defensive end, there is another burning question awaiting its answer at training camp. The Jaguars’ offense was very unbalanced for the better part of the past campaign amidst quarterback struggles and depth woes at WR. Subsequently, the unit ranked 26th in collective passer rating, 28th in pass accuracy, and 28th in yards per attempt.
Yet, there was a silver lining to that tough campaign. Jacksonville’s ground game was the 12th-best in the NFL in terms of yards per rush. The group was the least-used in the league and it might not have been as efficient with a heavier workload. Despite that, it is in stark contrast with both the air raid and the defense’s performance. More importantly, what seems like collective success at first is, in fact, an individual piece of brilliance. In turn, a more detailed look shows that James Robinson‘s performance from the 2020 season is sustainable. That applies especially to the unit he is about to be a regular member of.
Robinson averaged the same figure as his team’s running faction across his fourteen regular-season matchups – 4.5 yards per attempt. However, Robinson, unlike JAX’s running group, was amongst the NFL’s most relied-on backfield weapons. His 240 carries were the sixth-most in the league. The even better news is that his effectiveness is very satisfying for a running back of his caliber. In 2020, James Robinson ranked sixth out of ten players with at least 200 rushes in terms of yards per run. However, three players in front of him had fewer carries, with the leader Aaron Jones having almost 40 rushing attempts fewer than the undrafted free agent. Even if none of the three were to decline over a bigger sample, Robinson is at least average-to-good for his amount of time with the ball.
However, there is even better news for his team heading into the 2021 campaign. There are reinforcements on the way in the 25th pick of this year’s draft, Clemson RB Travis Etienne. This not only means that Robinson can be more productive on a per-attempt basis in a smaller role. It also provides the opportunity for Etienne to do the same and get his pro career off to a fast start. Furthermore, this combination, if as successful as projected, could establish consistent ground-game weaponry for the offense to run through. This is much-needed considering the Jags are likely to begin the year with a rookie passer, even if it is the No.1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence.
During his last three years with the Tigers, Etienne had around 200 carries each year and did not disappoint. The Louisiana native averaged 8.1, 7.8, and 5.4 yards per run for 2018-2020, respectively. Moreover, he made up for the drop that ensued when he was a senior by successfully being more useful to Dabo Sweeney through the air. Etienne recorded 37 and 48 receptions across his last two years, respectively, in an intermediate role.
It is a guarantee that both will participate in the Jaguars’ new-look faction. It is also a sure bet that Etienne will be fairly active through the air, although Robinson himself will contend for a portion of the pie as well. That is proven by his usage last year when he had 49 catches from 60 targets. The biggest question, however, concerns the recipient of the majority of the rushing attempts. Despite James Robinson’s success, this issue is expected to be resolved through the training camp. So far, neither has stood out as a favorite for the job. However, that could change as the preseason progresses.
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