Jaguars choosing committee approach over featured role at running back

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Less than an hour after the Jacksonville Jaguars waived Leonard Fournette, coach Doug Marrone said he had no idea who his starting running back was going to be in next Sunday’s season opener.

He’s probably going to feel that way a lot in 2020.

Marrone says the Jaguars are going to go with the back-by-committee approach, and the committee chairman could change week to week, depending on the matchup. One of the backs -- whether it’s eight-year veteran Chris Thompson, undrafted rookie James Robinson or second-year players Devine Ozigbo or Ryquell Armstead -- could assert themselves enough to grab the top spot.

“When you say RB1 [the top running back], depending on who we’re playing and what we want to do [will determine] who we put out there. ... Situation- and matchup-based [is how] I see it," Marrone said.

“Committee is a word that people use out there. I think that we have guys that have really good skill sets [and] that have really had good camps. I think now we’re able to home in on that and really work on that.”

Marrone said he saw enough from the young backs to convince him that the Jaguars would be fine without Fournette, who had 1,674 yards in total offense and led the team with 76 catches in 2019. Even if Marrone is confident, he’s taking a bit of a gamble. The group has a combined 294 career carries, 250 of those by Thompson. Armstead has 35, and Ozigbo has nine.

Armstead isn’t likely to be available for the opener against the Colts because he was just placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list for the second time. He also dealt with another illness and a groin injury during training camp.

Thompson was signed to be a change-of-pace back or a third-down back, but the Jaguars could turn to him to be the lead back. He did that in spot duty in his seven seasons in Washington, though he has also battled injuries throughout his career. He has played in more than 11 games just twice since he was drafted in 2013 and has played in all 16 games once. The most carries he has had in a season was 68 in 2016, the only year he played a full season.

It’s more likely that the Jaguars will go with a rotation of Ozigbo and Robinson. Ozigbo got all of his nine career carries in the 2019 season finale, when he ran for 27 yards and caught three passes for 23 yards. Robinson is an undrafted rookie who ranks second all time at Illinois State in rushing yards (4,444), rushing TDs (44) and all-purpose yards (5,218).

"I think they [the other three backs] can do a little bit of everything,” Thompson said. “They’re good pass-catchers. They can run routes pretty good, and their vision is amazing, especially James [Robinson]. I think he’s one of those guys to me, in my opinion, [that] probably has the best vision out of all of us, and it’s been great to see a young guy like that be able to come in and be able to make the plays and hit the holes that he’s been able to hit.

“Ryquell and Zig [Ozigbo], they’re both guys that were here last year, and now with Leonard not being here, they’re going to be able to get a lot more opportunities. From what I saw, from what Rock [Armstead] did last year and Zig, especially in that last game against the Colts, I think they have a lot of potential we’re going to see here moving forward.”

None of the backs on the roster was a high draft pick -- Armstead and Thompson were fifth-rounders, and the other two were undrafted -- but running back is a position in which late-round picks and undrafted players can make an impact. Among the 16 players who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season were Chris Carson (seventh round), Aaron Jones (fifth round) and Phillip Lindsay (undrafted).

The current Jaguars regime has had success in finding undrafted players who turn into starters, including receivers Keelan Cole and Allen Hurns and defensive backs Jarrod Wilson and Tre Herndon. The team hopes Ozigbo and Robinson can be next.

“Devine had a really good preseason last year, when you go back to watch him with the Saints, which is why we claimed him,” Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell said. “James has really been a pleasant surprise. We liked him at the East-West game, and we were fortunate to kind of luck into him at the end of the draft.”