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Travis Etienne’s hybrid role increases value of Jaguars’ 1st-round pick — if it works

Can Travis Etienne really play wide receiver in the NFL? The Jacksonville Jaguars appear determined to find out if their first-round pick is up to the task.

The Jacksonville Jaguars selected tailback Travis Etienne 25th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, and while many decried the choice due to his position, his hybrid role in the pros may increase the perceived value of that pick.

New Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer said Etienne will line up exclusively at wide receiver during minicamp, as the plan is to make the Clemson star an all-around weapon in his rookie NFL campaign, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport:

That’s a lot to put on a first-year player’s plate. Even though Etienne was excellent throughout his college career, it’s a whole new ballgame in the NFL.

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Travis Etienne’s skill set suggests he can shine at receiver

Travis Etienne's skill set suggests he can shine at receiver
Jan 1, 2021; New Orleans, LA, USA; Clemson Tigers running back Travis Etienne (9) catches a pass against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Etienne isn’t a receiver by trade, but then again, he did rack up 85 receptions over the last two seasons, catching balls from No. 1 overall draft pick and new Jags teammate, Trevor Lawrence.

The innate chemistry between Lawrence and Etienne is definitely a plus. Having a “slash” player who can line up anywhere on the field to keep opposing defenses guessing is a serious advantage.

Someone with Etienne’s lateral quickness, demonstrated pass-catching prowess and change of direction skills can definitely pick things up. Asking him to run a full, nuanced route tree is a different matter, but at least to start in Jacksonville, the coaching staff is probably going to work in a lot of concepts that Lawrence and Etienne can execute at a high level.

Pro-style offenses incorporate increasing amounts of college concepts, particularly from spread schemes and in the form of run-pass options. That’s where Lawrence and Etienne devastated defenses at Clemson.

If opponents don’t know whether Etienne will truly align at receiver or running back until the ball is snapped, that can create all kinds of mismatches. Even in the event that he’s used as a decoy, Etienne’s all-around value will skyrocket if he can pull off this transition.

Are Jaguars pressing with Travis Etienne to justify draft status?

Are Jaguars pressing with Travis Etienne to justify draft status?
Former Clemson teammates Travis Etienne and Trevor Lawrence and now Jacksonville Jaguars teammates with their new jerseys during an introductory press conference Friday, April 30, 2021, in Jacksonville, Fla. (Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP)

Let’s look at the flip side of all this, though: Was Etienne a sentimental pick so that he could reunite with Lawrence? Or is this perhaps a sign that Meyer thinks his winning schematics at the NCAA level can directly translate to the NFL?

Meyer coached the likes of Percy Harvin, Curtis Samuel, Parris Campbell and others throughout his various stops in college in similar roles to what he’s grooming Etienne for.

It remains to be seen how Meyer’s offense will look in the NFL when he doesn’t have the fastest players on the field the vast majority of the time — and whether this X-factor position can even work in the professional game.

Plus, asking Etienne to earn significant snaps at the receiver position in 2021 when Jacksonville already has a capable trio at the position in D.J. Chark, Marvin Jones and Laviska Shenault Jr. seems like a stretch.

Although the Jags had an awful 2020 campaign, undrafted running back James Robinson was a bright spot. He had 49 catches and ran for over 1,000 yards, which only raised more questions as to why Etienne was drafted so high by Jacksonville in particular.

Don’t put it past Etienne to take this unique opportunity to begin his time with the Jaguars, run with it, and be a premier playmaker.

However, there should be concerns that the offense will be too simplistic for opponents not to catch on after having some weeks of film on it. Robinson and veteran Carlos Hyde are also fine ball-carriers who can get done what Jacksonville needs out of the backfield, there’s the risk that Etienne becomes a gimmicky gadget player.

That’s the beauty of this bold new era of Jaguars football under Meyer’s guidance. It has such a boom-or-bust feel to it all, and that absolutely applies to Etienne’s individual situation as well.