Rookie mini-camps are underway. It’s our first chance to see the stars of tomorrow in their new jerseys. It introduces the fans to new, fun characters — like Ravens’ OL Ben Cleveland and his squirrel-eating tendencies. Rookie mini-camps also deliver some intriguing storylines to follow.
One of those came today from Jacksonville Jaguars’ HC Urban Meyer. In his press conference, the first-year NFL coach told reporters that first-round draft selection, former Clemson halfback Travis Etienne, would take “all of his minicamp reps at wide receiver.” That decision caused more head-scratching than any of his decisions yet — aside from signing Tim Tebow of course. Why would you select someone in the first round just to change their position entirely?
Well, Urban Meyer actually has a tendency of turning his most explosive players into WR-HB hybrids — Parris Warren at Utah, Percy Harvin at Florida, plus Curtis Samuel and Paris Campbell at Ohio State are just a few examples. Meyer wants his most dynamic players to touch the ball as often as possible.
Not to mention, Etienne was already a phenomenal receiver in college. Last year, Etienne led all of college football in receiving yards by halfbacks (588) as well as first down/touchdown receptions (29). PFF also awarded Etienne a receiving grade of 93.6 — third among college football RBs in 2020.
The NFL has also shifted away from the traditional running back. In 2020, there were only 10 running backs in the NFL with more than 200 rushing attempts. Just 10 years ago, that number was 20. Halfbacks who can catch out of the backfield tend to have much longer careers, so Meyer’s decision to fine-tune Etienne’s receiving skills before the start of the season could benefit the former Clemson Tiger in the long run. The ability to run routes from a receiver position is becoming a much hotter commodity in the league. As recently as 2019, running backs had an 11-percent defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) when lined up in the slot, compared to just 3 percent when lined up out wide, and -0.7 percent when running routes out of the backfield.
Backs like Christian McCaffrey (CAR), Alvin Kamara (NO), Austin Ekeler (LAC), and James White (NE) have changed the game. The ability to fit through holes the offensive line creates is no longer enough… unless you’re a 6-foot-3, 240-pound monster named Derrick Henry. You have to be able to push the ball upfield through the air, or at the very least, be able to slow down incoming pass-rushers.
The decision to draft Etienne with the 25th overall pick was questionable to say the least. Why draft a running back a year after your undrafted rookie, on an incredibly team-friendly contract, ran for over 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns? However, Meyer’s decision to work out Etienne at receiver would not only give the team depth in the backfield, but would also give Lawrence a much-needed weapon through the air on a team 29th in the league in yards per reception last season. It may seem questionable on the surface, but Meyer knows his stuff. And this move can only mean good things for Etienne in the future.