Travis Etienne: The Next Pass-Catching Phenom

Travis Etienne: The Next Pass-Catching Phenom

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Travis Etienne was selected with the 25th pick in this year’s NFL Draft. The Jacksonville Jaguars made him the second running back off the board. It wasn’t the most ideal of landing spots. Not with an undrafted gem, James Robinson also on the roster. But Travis Etienne is a different type of player than James Robinson. He brings a different skill set. And his talents align more with the way the NFL is being played. 

Travis Etienne’s fantasy value is stuck in a place of uncertainty right now. We don’t exactly know what kind of role he’s going to have in Jacksonville. How much is James Robinson going to be involved? How is Urban Meyer, a first-time NFL head coach going to use both of these guys in the backfield? Anybody who tells you they know the answer to these questions, they’re lying. The Jaguars’ backfield is a big unknown. So is Meyer. And yet we’re forced to try to answer these questions as best we can because there’s value to be had in this backfield right now. Etienne’s draft value has been capped by Robinson’s presence and Robinson has seen his draft value plummet ever since Etienne was selected in the first round. Who will emerge as the better value? 


College History

 Travis Etienne was a special player the first time he set foot on the field at Clemson. Despite not starting a single game as a true freshman Etienne led the Tigers in rushing. It was no mystery right off the bat that this kid was a special player. He put a monster exclamation point on that statement with his sophomore campaign. He totaled 26 total touchdowns and over 1,725 scrimmage yards. But it wasn’t until his junior season that we began to see the kind of all-around player he truly was. 

During his freshman and sophomore seasons, Etienne had only 17 receptions combined for 135 yards. That all changed during his junior and senior seasons. While I believe Etienne always possessed the skills to be used as a pass-catcher, we didn’t get to see it until his third year. During his last two seasons in college, Etienne racked up 85 catches for 1,020 yards and six touchdowns. That’s a 12 yard per catch average. Those are some elite numbers and that kind of skill set translates to the NFL game. With all due respect to guys like Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb, who are in a class all their own when it comes to carrying the ball, running backs nowadays need to be able to catch the football and to be able to play in space. Travis Etienne can do both at an elite level. 

Coaches talk about being able to “hit the home run” all the time. They want guys that can score from anywhere, like Alvin Kamara. Anytime that guy touches the ball, you might be putting up six. Teams are constantly looking for the big play because it’s hard to manufacture 10 and 12-play scoring drives. NFL offenses are looking for guys who can get chunks of yardage and move the ball down the field quickly. 

This is another area where Etienne shines. First off, the dude has got a nose for the end zone. 78 total touchdowns in four years speaks for itself. But the number I’m absolutely taken by when it comes to his fantasy football value is 16. He had 16 touchdowns of 44-plus yards. Etienne touched the ball 788 times in college, across four seasons. That means for every 49 touches, he was breaking off a 44-plus yard touchdown. That’s roughly one every 3-4 games. When coaches talk about “hitting the home run” this is exactly what they’re talking about. Travis Etienne is a home run waiting to happen. 


James Robinson vs Travis Etienne

Travis Etienne’s fantasy value is ultimately going to depend on how much work he can siphon away from James Robinson. I don’t believe there is a bigger backfield competition in fantasy football this season. James Robinson had a historical season as an undrafted free agent. He totaled over 1,400 scrimmage yards and had 10 total touchdowns. And yet, despite that level of success from a guy making pennies, the Jaguars chose to select a running back in the first round. Think about what kind of statement you’re making with that move. What does that tell you? 

It’s no secret that NFL coaches like “their” guys. We see it all the time, every time a new regime comes to town. The roster gets purged and new guys are brought in. Urban Meyer and his coaching staff didn’t bring in James Robinson. The new general manager didn’t bring in James Robinson. They have absolutely no ties to him whatsoever. I’m not saying James Robinson is going to be thrown to the curve because he most certainly will not be. What I am saying, however, is we need to recognize that every coach has a plan they want to incorporate. And they have a vision of the players they need to make that plan go. When the Jacksonville Jaguars took Travis Etienne with the 25th overall pick in the first round despite having James Robinson on the roster that’s not something we can ignore. 

There was a lot of hoopla surrounding the news that Travis Etienne was going to be working exclusively with the wide receivers in mini-camps. Oddly Etienne working with the wide receivers was viewed mostly as a negative. With receptions solidifying a floor as fantasy football goes with regards to running backs, isn’t this the kind of news we want to hear? 

Every season there’s some coach talk going on about this running back getting snaps in the slot. We heard it this year with Jon Gruden and Kenyan Drake. That seldom happens. But man, we want it to happen because it sky-rockets their value. Look at Kamara in New Orleans and Ekeler in Los Angeles. These guys, they’re catching passes lined up everywhere. I want that for Travis Etienne’s fantasy value. You should want that for Travis Etienne’s fantasy value. That’s the running back’s gold mine right there. 

In James Robinson’s four-year college career at Illinois State, he racked up 58 catches total. Travis Etienne had 85 receptions his last two years alone. James Robinson totaled 428 yards receiving in four seasons. That was a number Travis Etienne bested in a single season, twice. We can look at their receiving numbers in college and see a vast difference in efficiency and effectiveness. When we combine that with Meyer calling Etienne a third-down back and having him work with the wide receivers, it could lead to Etienne taking over this backfield at some point this year. He profiles as more of a three-down running back than Robinson based on his receiving skills. At the very least, I expect Etienne to fully take over the receiving workload in the Jaguars’ backfield. 

PFF College on Twitter: “Travis Etienne receiving ranks among RBs …


Jacksonville Jaguars Outlook

Last season the Jaguars’ running backs totaled 281 carries and ran the ball the fewest times in the NFL. They were a very pass-heavy team last season compiling 616 attempts. There was a reason for that. They weren’t a competitive football team. The 2021 outlook for the Jaguars doesn’t look good either. But with the selection of Trevor Lawrence at quarterback, we can expect it to be better. And hopefully, this will create a situation where Urban Meyer can have a little more balance to his offense than what last year’s team had. 

I’m projecting the Jaguars’ running backs to a total of 345 carries in 2021. This might seem like a big increase, but there’s a 17th game being played this season that is being factored in as well. This would be an increase of roughly 2.5 carries per game. This still would leave them one of the most pass-heavy teams in the NFL. Based on that total, I expect James Robinson to be around 170 carries or about 50% of the work. That leaves Travis Etienne with around 125 carries or 36% and Carlos Hyde having 50 carries and 14%.

As far as the passing work, this is where Travis Etienne is going to be featured. James Robinson averaged 7.3 yards per catch in college. He averaged seven yards per catch last year as a rookie. Travis Etienne was at 11.3 yards per catch at Clemson. This is going to be Etienne’s area of expertise. Based on everything Urban Meyer has said, this is the primary reason they drafted him, and teams do not draft guys in the first round to ride the bench. 

James Robinson had 49 catches last year for 344 yards and three touchdowns. While I don’t expect Robinson to be completely phased out of this area, I do believe his role is going to drop significantly. I think we’re talking about James Robinson’s catch totals more in line with Derrick Henry. 1-2 a game. Tops. Based on last year’s totals, this would leave Travis Etienne having around 35 catches. But I expect Urban Meyer to find creative ways to get Travis Etienne the ball in space. This is where Etienne is at his best. And Urban Meyer has shown he has a good system for creating mismatches. 

I believe we’re going to see Travis Etienne catch 50 balls or so in his rookie year. This would give him roughly 175 total touches. James Robinson would be right around 190 total touches with him handling the majority of the rushing work. This falls in line with the kind of workload split Urban Meyer has talked about implementing. But it’s certainly within the realm of possibility we see Etienne carve out a much larger role. This kind of workload seems to be more his floor. The ceiling is much higher.   

James Robinson averaged 4.3 YPC last season and if we give Etienne the same average, he’d finish with roughly around 540 yards rushing. With his 50 catches, we can expect him to add on another 370-390 yards depending on his efficiency. In total, I expect Etienne to have around 910-930 total scrimmage yards. Although Robinson may operate as the goal line back due to his bigger size, Etienne’s home-run ability will surely lead to his fair share of touchdowns. I expect Etienne to score around 6 touchdowns. In half-PPR formats, this would have Etienne scoring around 155 points, which would be RB23. However, it would not surprise me in the least if Etienne finishes higher than that in 2021. 

Final Thoughts 

With James Robinson and Carlos Hyde, another player Urban Meyer has a history with, Travis Etienne might start the season slowly. If you’re drafting him, I would advise having another option you’re comfortable with starting in the beginning until Etienne gets his feet wet. But once he does, I expect his role to only grow because of the different skillset he has compared to Robinson and Hyde. Both guys profile more as in between the tackle runners or plodders. Etienne is electric. He’s a home run hitter with the size to handle a full workload. It’s hard for coaches to keep these guys off the field. 

Once we hit the back half of the season, I truly believe we’re going to be talking about Travis Etienne as a solid RB2 in any PPR leagues with upside for more. The guy I keep going back to when I think about Travis Etienne’s likely 2021 fantasy season is D’Andre Swift. Swift started slowly behind Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson, but by the second half of the season, he was the guy everyone wanted in their lineup. I expect a similar situation to play out in Jacksonville. As the season goes along, I expect Etienne’s role to grow.

Travis Etienne is currently ranked as the 24th best running back in re-draft formats by FantasyPros and the RB19 in dynasty formats. I love the value that can be had with Travis Etienne at both spots, especially in re-draft. The situation with James Robinson is not ideal, but it’s keeping his value in check and that’s a good thing. Don’t be afraid to buy into Travis Etienne despite the competition in the backfield. 

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