Jacksonville Jaguars: Has Maurice Jones-Drew Faded in Crowded Backfield?

Jack HarverCorrespondent IIOctober 12, 2010

ORCHARD PARK, NY - OCTOBER 10: Brock Bolen #44, Maurice Jones-Drew #32 and Mike Sims-Walker #11  of the Jacksonville Jaguars celebrate Jones-Drew run for a touchdown that was called back for a penalty against the Buffalo Bills   at Ralph Wilson Stadium on October 10, 2010 in Orchard Park, New York.  (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Between the Jacksonville Jaguars' front office and Maurice Jones-Drew's fantasy football owners, there are two very different attitudes about the team's running backs through five games.

As far as Jacksonville GM Gene Smith and head coach Jack Del Rio are concerned, the Jaguars' rushing attack is in great shape.

They're averaging just under 147 yards per game on the ground, which ranks fourth in the NFL thus far in 2010.

But Jones-Drew's fantasy owners, most of whom spent a first-round draft pick or a big chunk of their auction dollars to acquire him, aren't as pleased. Their early return on that investment has been the 17th-best back in fantasy, behind such preseason nobodies as Peyton Hillis and Mike Tolbert.

That frustration may have come to its boiling point when Jones-Drew turned in an underwhelming statistical performance against the hapless Buffalo Bills last week. Where LaDainian Tomlinson of the New York Jets had racked up 133 yards the week before, Jones-Drew finished the day with just 84 yards on 19 carries.

Hell, even the unspectacular BenJarvus Green-Ellis had managed 98 and a score against the Bills in Week 3.

In seeking out a culprit for Jones-Drew's disappointing production, a fantasy player's first instinct is to look around the Jaguars' backfield for "vultures." On Jacksonville's depth chart, they're not hard to spot: Deji Karim and Rashad Jennings have gained 236 yards on their 42 combined touches.

Well, that's an open-and-shut case, right? Jones-Drew has 11 fewer receptions and three fewer touchdowns than he had at this time last year, so the Jaguars are obviously following the modern trend and splitting their backs' workload.

Except Jones-Drew also has four more yards and 26 more touches over that same stretch.

Last year, Karim was a Walter Payton Award finalist in his senior year at FCS Southern Illinois. Jennings, a greenhorn seventh-rounder out of FCS Liberty, had gained 66 yards on 15 touches in mop-up duty.

It's true that Jones-Drew isn't shouldering the same burden in Jacksonville's offense, percentage-wise, and his per-carry average is down half a yard. He's been nicked up by injuries to his knee and wrist, and Marcedes Lewis has emerged as a legitimate red zone threat at tight end with four touchdowns in five games.

Still, surprisingly, Jones-Drew isn't far behind the ghost of his 2009 start. The Jaguars run him early, they run him often, and they look for him in the passing game (he had a touchdown catch against Buffalo nullified by a penalty).

On the whole, he's in a better offense that's exploring other ways to score near the goal line. As hot-start sleeper darlings like Hillis and Tolbert fade with their teams' mediocre running games later this year, Jones-Drew and the fantasy football cream will rise to the top.

Those clamoring for a "return" to the Jones-Drew of yesteryear should realize that that's exactly what they're getting.