Fantasy Football: Is Travis Etienne a Trap or a Treasure Chest at His Current ADP?
There's a lot of time in the NFL's offseason. It gives opinions a lot of time to marinate and change without any real new information.
Every offseason, there is a mythical figure that emerges in fantasy football. It's not actually a guy that produced last season; that would be too easy. It's a "yeah but" or "with these boosts" player where the situation is unquestionably improving, but their average draft position (ADP) is changing rapidly based on the perceived improvement.
Etienne was a dynamic playmaker at Clemson before entering the 2021 NFL Draft. To everyone's surprise, the Jaguars -- and the disastrous regime Urban Meyer brought to them -- drafted Etienne in the first round alongside top pick and college teammate Trevor Lawrence.
Pegged for a starting role, Etienne suffered a season-ending foot injury before even making the field for preseason. Entering his sophomore year, Etienne will once again be pegged for a top role in Jacksonville with that injury now behind him.
I wanted to put my "fact or cap" hat on and try to decipher whether the hype train behind the Jags' starting running back was legitimate or fool's gold.
The Hype Train Has Left the Station
The sole reason Etienne is worth investigating is the current cost to acquire him in an average fantasy football draft. He's no late-round flier.
He's currently going as the RB17 on FanDuel ahead of backs that have been productive difference makers in very similar roles, including Los Angeles' Cam Akers, Chicago's David Montgomery, and Las Vegas' Josh Jacobs.
Those guys likely won a few of you readers a fantasy football championship in recent years, and their depth charts or offensive expectations haven't substantially changed.
Etienne's upside now comes with a significant price, and he's far from a sure commodity because of his situation.
How Will the New-Look Jags' Offense Stack Up?
The sole reason for this skyrocketing cost? The steam gathering around this season's Jacksonville squad.
Jacksonville cleaned house after Urban Meyer's tumultuous run at head coach, hiring Doug Pederson earlier this season. Pederson -- a Super Bowl-winning coach with Philadelphia -- should absolutely be an improvement. At the very least, he's unlikely to kick his special teams players.
Pederson's reputation as an offensive genius stems from his advanced use of the run-pass option (RPO) when he was with the Eagles. However, In terms of numberFire's Offensive Net Expected Points (NEP) per play, his offense's performance was far from linear:
Pederson mustered a top-10 offense in Philadelphia once -- the 2017 season in which the Birds won the Super Bowl.
Just like Wentz, T-Law was a top pick due to his athleticism and college career, but he struggled during his rookie season. Only five quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts in 2021 had a lower Passing NEP per drop back than Lawrence.
While it's easy to chalk that up to Meyer's dysfunction, it shouldn't be written off entirely. Davis Mills (0.00 Passing NEP per drop back) outperformed Lawrence (-0.04) in their respective rookie seasons within the same division, and it's not like Houston is short on dysfunction.
Pro Football Focus also ranks the Jacksonville offensive line as the 26th-best unit in the league, so it's still not a strength of this squad, either.
To tie this discourse back to Etienne, I'm going to lean on a couple of my colleagues.
Jim Sannes had the Jaguars slotted 23rd in projected offensive efficiency before the NFL Draft, and they went defense with their top -- and really only meaningful -- pick. Brandon Gdula also shared a few months ago the importance of offensive efficiency to a running back.
Last year, the Jags were 29th in the NFL in Offensive NEP per play. Will Pederson, Lawrence, and a pair of semi-productive receiver additions be enough to transform this offense into one that's going to be a point-scoring circus? Probably not -- and that's an obstacle for Etienne at his ADP.
What About James Robinson?
We can't really have a Travis Etienne discussion without a James Robinson one.
Robinson has been the starting back in Jacksonville for the past two seasons under two different coaches. He was a fantasy football star in 2020, sitting as the RB7 in the entire league in half-PPR formats. Though he stepped back as the RB25 in 2021, he was still fantasy-relevant before a late-season Achilles injury.
Robinson is a talking point around Etienne for many reasons. First, he was still productive on a Jags' offense that was undoubtedly worse than the 2022 version will be. That's a boost in Etienne's direction now that he'll be the lead back with Robinson entering the year rehabilitating the injury.
However, the second reason we have to discuss Robinson is he is still there. He's back practicing with the starters in training camp, and that's a huge deal. While Cam Akers' playoff run might show the downside of rushing back from an Achilles injury, if Robinson is ready to go, we know he's a productive NFL back.
If Etienne -- for whatever reason -- struggles early, there's an increased risk his role is reduced with a productive, capable veteran back to spell him.
The last thing you'd want to draft the RB17 for is a full-blown committee on a bad offense. Robinson's presence makes that possibility a very real one.
Can Etienne's Ability Cancel Out These Concerns?
Of course, I haven't said or discovered anything particularly revolutionary at this point.
James Robinson is there, and if he's healthy, he's good and a threat to Etienne. Plus, Jacksonville's offense -- like the better part of the last two decades -- won't be special. Etienne drafters and supporters know this.
Why are they still drafting him? His ability. He's got that dog in him.
Etienne holds some special qualities as a running back prospect. He led all of FBS at Clemson in broken tackles in 2019 (91), and he caught 85 passes and 6 touchdowns in his final two years for the Tigers. That type of ability is a three-down NFL back waiting to happen.
The pass-catching ability is particularly interesting. It's never been Robinson's strength, evidenced by just 46 targets in 2021 from the quarterback that led the NFL in checkdown rate.
It's entirely possible Etienne is the dynamic receiving force that propels this offense into a different place, and especially in PPR or half-PPR formats, he'll have a decent floor with that role locked in for Jacksonville.
Travis Etienne's 2022 Outlook and Projection
numberFire's model is less optimistic on Etienne than the average FanDuel user, and I concur with it.
It's projecting Etienne as the RB24 in 2022 with 791.0 yards rushing and 425.0 yards receiving. He's currently slotted around New England's committee (Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris) and Green Bay's A.J. Dillon. To me, that's a more fair spot than the potential role of Akers or Jacobs in an offense we know will be dynamic.
Notably, those guys share the same concerns as Etienne; they're definitely looking at a split workload for an offense that lacks dynamic playmakers on the outside.
Per Gdula's study, offensive efficiency is more important to running backs in fantasy football than any other position. At this point, it's wildly optimistic to project Pederson, Lawrence, and the new wideouts for a leap into the top-20 spots.
To pay off his draft capital in a way that translates to winning leagues, Etienne would have to be an RB1 (at least the RB12 overall). An RB1 comes from a bottom-eight offense just 10.8% of the time, per the same study.
In this same range, Akers, Jacobs, Ezekiel Elliott, or Elijah Mitchell would be a far better bet to have a significant workload on an offense that ranks in the top half of the league in efficiency. In fact, all four of those offenses did just that last year.
Etienne's rise seems directly correlated to his potential talent and perceived path to a workload popularized by the "Zero RB" strategy, and that's just not as optimal of a strategy as you might have been told.