According to Jaguars.com, Jacksonville running back Toby Gerhart will miss the team's first preseason game due to a hip flexor injury that has dogged him throughout training camp. Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley seemed to imply it was only a short-term problem when he said "...it’s more for us, but I know that he said he felt better today than he did the other day."
It's always hard to suss out the meaning of injuries unless they are fully disclosed, so "tightness" in a hip flexor could mean any number of things. It seems fairly unlikely that Gerhart will miss much time, as Bradley was already implying that he could see carries in the rest of Jacksonville's preseason games. But let's assess what a potential long-term injury would mean for the rest of the Jacksonville backfield.
One thing to keep in mind before we begin is that any No. 1 back the Jaguars roll with is going to have at least a bit of fantasy value. Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus recently wrote a piece looking at run/pass percentages based on game situations and found that Bradley's Jaguars did have a tendency to run more often than scripts would dictate:
The Jaguars jump off the page because of a massive difference in actual and adjusted rank. In Gus Bradley’s first year as head coach, Jacksonville ran only 22 percent of its offensive plays with a lead – third lowest in the NFL. This led to the league’s No. 6 pass-heaviest offense (64 percent). Considering how often they trailed, however, the numbers suggest the Jaguars actually should’ve passed more. It was expected that Bradley would follow the Seahawks blueprint and it appears that is, in fact, his goal. Assuming they’re more competitive in Year 2, expect a lot more running from Jacksonville.
Jacksonville has some interesting options beyond Gerhart, but no sure things. Second on the depth chart is Jordan Todman, who showed some promise towards the end of the season. Per Football Outsiders' numbers, Todman had a -4.2% DVOA on 76 carries. Given the state of Jacksonville's interior offensive line last year -- all three were either released or retired during the offseason for a reason -- Todman's production starts to look fairly impressive in context. Maurice Jones-Drew, for reference, had a -13.6% DVOA in more carries behind the line.
|Jacksonville Running Back Performance, 2013|
|Player||Run DVOA||Receiving DVOA||Rushes|
|Toby Gerhart (w/ Vikings)||73.6%||10.7%||36|
Todman doesn't bring much to the table as a receiver, but has been a good kick returner and will have an NFL niche for a long time if he can combine that with effective running. The Jaguars got him as a waiver claim -- another example of how the team's asset accumulation strategy has been slowly building a talent base.
Behind Todman is 2013 fifth-round pick Denard Robinson, the converted quarterback. Robinson actually did throw a pass last year -- a dead-on spiral that Cecil Shorts dropped on a trick play. After the season, it came out that Robinson was playing through nerve damage in his hand. That explains the three fumbles in just 20 attempts.
Robinson has all sorts of athletic upside. Jaguars.com had him as one of the team's five "rising" players prior to training camp. Anyone who watched him play quarterback at Michigan knows that the physical tools are there for him to be an effective running back.
Sometimes as outside observers we come across players that seem to be a total crossroads in their career -- this is where I believe Robinson is right now. I wouldn't be totally surprised if he integrated the techniques necessary to have a career in the NFL. It also wouldn't surprise me if he became purely a gadget player. I do believe Robinson's ceiling as a running back is higher than his teammates on this depth chart, but I don't think there's much of a chance he hits it. He has a wider range of possible outcomes than most NFL players just due to how little time he's spent at the position.
Finally, bringing up the rear of the depth chart is 2014 seventh-round pick Storm Johnson. Johnson ran for 1139 yards in the AAC last year en route to Central Florida's BCS berth. His most NFL-ready trait is his receiving ability. He caught three touchdowns and had 260 yards on 30 receptions out of the backfield last season for the Knights. Johnson showed good patience and is an able back in most areas -- his agility on cuts was the big problem for him last season. He also doesn't break quite as many tackles as you'd expect from a player with feature-back size.
Ultimately, should Gerhart go down for an extended period of time, I think the best guess is we'll see Todman as the lead back in a committee, with Johnson playing on third downs. Robinson could be anything you believe he'll be next season. For now, I will play it conservative on his upside. But Robinson is one of the players I'm most anxious to watch this preseason.