Travis Etienne healthy, motivated and all-in on becoming Jaguars’ Deebo-like weapon

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Jacksonville Jaguars spent all that money on Christian Kirk. They spent a nice chunk of change on Zay Jones in free agency, too. And the connection between Marvin Jones and quarterback Trevor Lawrence should only get better in Year 2.

But at OTAs on Tuesday, the wide receiver I couldn’t stop watching was running back Travis Etienne.

Back from a Lisfranc injury that robbed him of his rookie season, the 2021 first-round pick seemingly only caught passes during the two-hour practice. Afterward, I asked him if we may as well change his designation to WR now.

“Nah, nah just position flexibility,” Etienne says. “If I’m in those positions throughout the game and we get good matchups, we’ll be able to exploit them. So it’s just me being able to do more and being valuable.

“Football is all about matchups so I mean if I could be like Deebo Samuel, I would love that. Honestly the game is a game of productivity. If you can produce, the team is always going to have a need for you. It’s just trying to be the best player I can be so I can be on the field at all times.”

Etienne, the former 2018 and 2019 ACC Offensive Player of the Year at Clemson, wants to be used in a way like the discontent San Francisco star.

I tell him that it doesn’t seem like Deebo really enjoys being Deebo on the field right now, considering his rift with the 49ers and apparently reluctance to rejoin the organization.

“Well see it’s different for him because he’s the receiver going to the backfield. I’m the running back going to receiver,” Etienne explains.

“For me that’s taking less pounding on my body. For him that’s putting my pounding on his. You’ve got to see it from his perspective. For me, it’s totally fine because I get to get outside in space and just work against DBs, smaller guys and I don’t have to run between the tackles. Who wouldn’t love that?”

Fair enough. Etienne was more productive as a pass-catcher at Clemson in successive years, finishing with 102 receptions for 1,155 yards and eight touchdowns in his four years with the Tigers.

After the Jags selected him with the No. 25 overall pick, then-coach Urban Meyer raised eyebrows when he said he’d slot Etienne solely at receiver for minicamp. It was curious — and clunky — considering James Robinson was coming off a 1,000-yard rushing season and the Jags had signed Carlos Hyde to a two-year deal.

The experiment didn’t last long, though. Etienne suffered the Lisfranc injury during an exhibition and missed the entire season. “Missed” of course being the operative word for the failed Meyer era in 2021.

“Just seeing the results you definitely are like, if there was any year to miss, I missed a great one,” Etienne told reporters in April in what is the early leader for Quote of NFL Offseason.

Enter Doug Pederson, who appears to be fulfilling the Meyer Prophecy for Etienne.

Except … it’s early. From talking with people inside the organization, I get the impression Etienne’s heavy workload at receiver is less about Etienne himself and more about Lawrence as the captain of this offense and Pederson’s philosophy as a program builder as a whole.

This offense will go as Lawrence goes, and right now he needs every rep he can get in Pederson’s system with OC Press Taylor and QBs coach Mike McCoy. Getting Lawrence to grow in this passing offense should be Priority 1 for that group. Additionally, Pederson can’t truly evaluate the run game (or line play) without pads. Handing the ball off right now to Etienne — or anyone for that matter — is little more than just doing it for the sake of doing it.

Etienne wouldn’t agree that he’s back to 100 percent even though he looked like it on the field. He admits he still has to clear some mental hurdles with his foot before being able to say he’s back to true form.

He declined to share what his personal goals for this season are just yet. But if and when Etienne becomes that slash-type of player Samuel has been for the Niners, it’ll be because of the work he and Lawrence have been putting in together for years.

“Just knowing what we want to bring throughout the season, we have to work at it,” Etienne says. “It’s not just going to come to us. It’s about repetition, and we definitely do that.”

Other Jaguars observations

  • Devin Lloyd is already lining up everywhere on defense. You see him at the line of scrimmage and at the traditional linebacker role. He even batted a Lawrence pass during 7-on-7 drills.
  • Speaking of Lloyd, the Jags drafted him late in the first, signed Foye Oluokun to a $45 million contract in the offseason and drafted LB Chad Muma in the third round. That doesn’t seem to leave much room for 2020 first-round pick K’Lavon Chaisson, who’s had a disappointing first two seasons with the team. But I saw Chaisson stay stride for stride with Etienne on one sideline route that ultimately fell incomplete. I’m told Chaisson has come to OTAs with a fire under him.
  • I’ve said this before but after last season, the Jags are lucky to have a quarterback like Lawrence. That sort of year could ruin a rookie QB, or at least severely harm his development. Lawrence’s moxie and level-headedness was exactly what the Jags needed during the turmoil of 2021.