After somewhat surprisingly not entering the NFL Draft after a stellar 2019, Travis Etienne ran it back for one more season with Trevor Lawrence as Clemson tried to chase down their second title in 3 years. Etienne’s 2020 season was by no means disappointing — he went for 125.1 scrimmage yards per game, 16 TDs, and averaged 7.1 yards per touch — but it was definitely a tick down from his junior campaign when he won ACC Player of the Year (136.4 scrimmage yards; 23 TDs; 8.4 YPT).
Etienne is an exciting, game-breaking back that has the ability to take any play to the house from any part of the field. So, did he excel in Yards Created?
|YC Statistic||The Numbers|
|Yards Created per attempt (YC/A)||4.22 (20th percentile)|
|YC/A - inside carries||3.47 (19th percentile)|
|YC/A - off-tackle carries||7.53 (80th percentile)|
|Clemson Yards Blocked per attempt||1.29 (50th percentile)|
|Missed tackles forced per attempt||0.355 (58th percentile)|
|Loaded Box (% of attempts)||46%|
|Receiving yards gained per route run||2.4 (95th percentile)|
|Missed tackles forced per reception||0.37 (76th percentile)|
|Pass protection execution rate||29%|
(For a primer on how I chart Yards Created, head here. Percentile scores are based on the Yards Created database that spans the 2015-2020 college seasons. 50th percentile is average. Loaded Box is the percentage of attempts where the runner faced at least one unaccounted for defender in the box, i.e. the offense uses 7 blockers and the defense stacks the box with 8 men. Pass protection execution rate is the percentage of snaps where the RB did not allow pressure.)
As you can tell, Etienne popped as one of the best off-tackle runners in my database. His elite speed allowed him to create 7.53 yards per attempt on his carries outside the tackles, which is tops in this class and in a similar conversation as Dalvin Cook (7.66), Ezekiel Elliott (7.63), and Ronald Jones (7.14) in my database. Etienne would undoubtedly be best-suited in an offense that heavily utilizes outside-zone concepts that allow him to either make one cut and go or bounce runs to the boundary.
On the other hand, Etienne is likely not a back you’re going to slam in between the tackles 15-20 times per game. While he certainly has the stop/start burst and great contact balance you want from an inside runner, Etienne lacks wiggle and is tight in the hips. Whereas Najee Harris maneuvers confined space with ease, Etienne is better when he’s presented with a clear runway.
I chart missed tackles three different ways — elusiveness, speed, and power — to give more context into how running backs make defenders miss. It should come as no surprise that Etienne wins most with his quickness, as a ridiculous 58% of his charted missed tackles came from speed. For comparison, 47% of Harris’ missed tackles came by elusiveness. While Etienne is unquestionably dominant in that area, he struggles to make tacklers miss with quick cuts and wiggle. Etienne forced just 0.04 missed tackles via elusiveness per carry, which is tied for the fourth-worst mark in my database ahead of only Jordan Howard, D’Onta Foreman, and Jeremy McNichols (0.03).
Now, this doesn’t mean Etienne is one-dimensional. He has underrated power, constantly fights through contact, and has fantastic balance. While elusiveness is not Etienne’s game, he can and will win in the NFL with his slashing speed.
While it remains to be seen whether or not Etienne is going to be a true workhorse back like his counterpart Harris already is, there is no question that he is absolutely lethal in the screen game. Clemson didn’t ask Etienne to run a variety of plays, but he was extremely effective because of his fantastic burst and long speed.
Etienne put up 2.4 receiving yards per route run (YPRR), which is second-best in this class and tied for the fourth-best figure in Yards Created history. Kenneth Gainwell (2.6 YPRR) leads the 2021 group, but he was used in an entirely different way and it honestly makes Etienne’s efficiency even more impressive. Whereas Gainwell was asked to run every route in the book and was used as a wide receiver, 74% of Etienne’s receptions came on just three routes: screens, flats, and check/releases.
Etienne will immediately be a highly effective player on screens with his combination of patience and speed, but my sense is that he’ll have to work on his agility to really master the quick-cutting “breaking” routes (like angles and outs). Still, on the whole, Etienne’s receiving stats point to him being a factor in the passing game early in his career. Over the last six years I’ve been doing Yards Created, Etienne is one of six backs to average at least 2.0 YPPR and see at least 10% of their team’s targets in their final season. The other five? Alvin Kamara, Joe Mixon, Jonathan Taylor, Saquon Barkley, and Gainwell. That’s not too bad of company to keep.
After finding gold in James Robinson last year, the Jaguars new brass still thought they needed to make a big investment at running back in the first round with Etienne. The Trevor Lawrence connection is obvious, but from a team-building standpoint, I can’t wrap my head around the pick with so many other positions of need on a rebuilding roster. GM Trent Baalke and HC Urban Meyer were in no position to make a luxury pick at 25 overall, but here we are.
Further complicating the process of the Etienne pick is that Meyer desperately wanted Florida WR Kadarius Toney, but was sniped by the Giants. After the draft, Meyer mentioned that losing out on Toney “broke our heart” — which is simultaneously a shot against Laviska Shenault (who essentially fills the same role as Toney) and Robinson (who is coming off one of the best seasons ever as an undrafted free agent). I’m with Scott Barrett that the Etienne fit is bizarre at best.
Looking forward to Etienne’s usage this year and coming seasons, I’m not at all surprised that he landed on a team with an already-established back that is a strong inside runner. Per Sports Info Solutions, James Robinson averaged a strong 5.0 yards per carry (9th-best) and forced 0.11 missed tackles per carry (5th-best) among 36 qualified backs on his inside carries last year. Robinson is damn good and isn’t going to just fade away in this offense.
While Robinson is already a fantastic interior runner, Etienne definitely needs improvement. His 3.47 Yards Created per attempt on inside carries was second-worst in this class (ahead of only Chuba Hubbard) and he forced nearly 50% fewer missed tackles per carry than Harris and Williams on totes between the tackles. Etienne has game-breaking speed, but he’s best-suited running outside zone where he can utilize his burst and athleticism. He is not a back you’re going to slam in between the tackles 18-20 times per game.
I’m also not surprised that the Jags’ are working with Etienne on diversifying his route tree and trying him out at receiver in rookie camp. According to my charting, 74% of Etienne’s receptions came on just three routes: screens, flats, and check/releases. While it’s impressive and a testament to his big-play ability that Etienne was second in this class in yards per route run (2.4), let’s not pretend that he was running Alvin Kamara or Christian McCaffrey-type routes in college.
For this year and beyond, I believe Urban Meyer when he said that Robinson and Etienne complement each other well as part of a committee. The thing is, Etienne will unquestionably be more involved in passing situations, which obviously evaporates Robinson’s ceiling in fantasy. Robinson was the RB7 in fantasy points per game last season due in large part to his role in the Jags’ passing game as he averaged 4.3 targets per game. That was 13th-most among RBs.
Even though I’m lower on Etienne than consensus, he’s going to be a high-end RB3 at worst for 2021 and he still has an RB1 ceiling in his range of outcomes long-term especially if he really develops as a receiver. Sure, he didn’t run a diverse route tree in college, but that doesn’t mean he can’t. Etienne will likely always be a part of a committee for work on the ground, but the Jaguars immediately identifying that they should get him as involved as possible as a receiver is a positive.
Honestly, I have Harris a cut above these two but I can’t fault anyone for having Etienne ahead of Williams. The gap between RB2 and RB3 is very close.
For rookie drafts, I’d rank the top of the class as Harris > Ja’Marr Chase > Kyle Pitts, then a tier break, followed by Williams > Etienne > DeVonta Smith > Jaylen Waddle.
In SuperFlex rookie drafts, it’s Trevor Lawrence > Trey Lance > Justin Fields > Harris > Chase > Pitts, then a tier break, followed by Zach Wilson > Williams > Etienne > Smith > Waddle > Mac Jones.
Unreal home run speed. He’ll erase angles in the NFL. Shades of a heavier Chris Johnson (5’11”, 205 pounds) are there. Etienne is 5’10”, 215 pounds.
Great contact balance and underrated power.
Consistently showed patience to run behind his linemen and allow his blocks to set up when Clemson ran some of their gap and power concepts. He plays fast but balances it with great patience.
Saw a ton of screens in the passing game, but I still felt like he was a little underutilized even though he caught 85 balls over his final two seasons. He can beat NFL corners with speed on deeper routes. One of his catches against Notre Dame (in the regular season) was on a seam route and it looked like he was shot out of a cannon.
Lacks elite change-of-direction ability. He takes quite a few extra steps to gather himself when he’s at full speed if he has to make a quick cut. While he’s very fast in a straight line, he might struggle to make all of the super athletic linebackers, corners, and safety’s miss with elusiveness in the NFL. I do not see the Alvin Kamara or Dalvin Cook comparisons that are often made because you would never describe either of those two as stiff. Etienne is. Now, I don’t think that is necessarily going to hold him back from being a high-volume receiver but it is a legitimate concern when he has to run routes that require quick cuts to shake LBs.
Pass protection is a very overrated skill because it happens so infrequently in the NFL, especially if you’re a great receiver — but Etienne struggled mightily in that department. He showed inconsistent technique and was often overpowered. His 29% pass protection execution rate is the worst figure I’ve ever charted out of 64 backs over the last six years.
- Clemson’s run game featured a lot of RPO / Zone Read / Options / Toss / Iso Draws that opened up gaping holes and easy reads by design. Trevor Lawrence's ability to make snap decisions on RPOs and his speed to the boundary on option runs often froze linebackers and that made Etienne’s reads very easy. Will he be able to create chunk plays often in the NFL where the margins are much more slim and things are not as clearly defined? Or does that make him a boom/bust runner? On that note, does the NFL view him as a workhorse or a “1A” type?
- After rewatching some games from his junior year, I thought Etienne looked quicker in 2019 compared to last year. If you go back and watch the first few weeks of the 2019 season, he was unstoppable and was moving at a different speed than everyone else on the field. It also seemed like he was getting in and out of his cuts more fluidly. While he still made defenders angles look bad in 2020, he looked just half a beat slower compared to his junior year. I’m not sure if something is there or if this is just anecdotal, but considering his game is built on speed — is that something to be concerned about?