From the “Way Too Early” mock drafts to kickoff of Week 1, the Jacksonville Jaguars had to listen to people around the country already award them the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft for having the worst record in the upcoming season.
Head coach Doug Marrone was supposed to be a dead man walking, quarterback Gardner Minshew was a fun story but nothing more, the offensive cast was nothing to write home about, and the defense wasn’t even a shell of what it used to be—it was nearly unrecognizable to the glory days of 2017.
But when kickoff came on Sunday, it was a big, loud, and proud, “Not so fast, my friend!”
The Jaguars, as the only team in the NFL to have fans in their stadium for their game on Sunday, defeated the visiting Indianapolis Colts by a score of 27-20. They did so on the back of their offense, orchestrated by former Washington head coach Jay Gruden.
Gruden’s time as a head coach in Washington may have not been as successful as planned, but his work as an offensive mind is clearly still cooking. Under Gruden, Jaguars signal-caller Minshew finished with the third-highest quarterback rating in the league at 143.1. His total passing yards of 179 aren’t all that impressive, but his 19-of-20 passing efficiency with three touchdowns and zero interceptions told a better and more accurate story of how they won the day.
As for Gruden and Minshew’s weapons, top receiver D.J. Chark hauled in all three of his targets for 25 yards and a touchdown, veteran receiver Keelan Cole saw a team-high five targets for five catches, 47 receiving yards, and a touchdown, and rookie running back James Robinson rushed for 62 yards on 16 carries with an additional 28 yards receiving.
But the real story of the offense beyond Minshew—and maybe even more important than Minshew—came from the success, availability, trust, and versatility of a rookie receiver: Laviska Shenault.
Before kickoff, it was announced that receiver Dede Westbrook would not suit up against the Colts, to which I had just one response: “LAVISKA.” But even in my excitement, I didn’t think we’d see what unfolded throughout the game.
Shenault was drafted pick No. 42 this past April, but as one of the top playmakers in the class, why did he fall to the second round? The reason was injury concern.
As a sophomore at Colorado, Shenault caught 86 passes for more than 1,000 yards with six receiving touchdowns and five additional rushing touchdowns all within just nine games played. But outside of that great stretch of games, Shenault’s worst ability was his availability. He missed the final three games of the 2018 season with turf toe, then suffered a torn labrum months later in the offseason. After battling through injuries in his final year at Colorado, Shenault then had core muscle surgery following the NFL Scouting Combine.
The fact of the matter is, people liked what they saw on film from Shenault, they just didn’t know how often they’d get it.
Even with the reports of Shenault healthy and ready to go, and even with the promising training camp report of him throughout the month of August, I was skeptical of his usage early in the season. As a player who took snaps at wide receiver, running back, and even wildcat quarterback in college, there was plenty of versatility to Shenault, but versatility only becomes valuable if there’s trust involved. I wasn’t sure there would be enough trust early on in a rookie with injury concerns.
One game into his rookie season and we’ve already seen Shenault play wide receiver, running back, and wildcat quarterback under Gruden.
As a Pass-Catching Wide Receiver
Let’s first breakdown what Shenault will actually be doing for most of his time in Jacksonville (we think, I guess) and that is catching the football.
Shenault saw four targets on the day and hauled in three of them for 37 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown throw can be seen above. In it, Shenault was running a horizontal route over the middle, but he added a little flavor to it, and that was what made all the difference. That little hesitation, even though it wasn’t much, was enough to get the downhill defender to stop his momentum one way, and that created the separation for Shenault to haul in the pass and get the yards after the catch needed for the score.
The more the Jaguars use Shenault in the middle as a two-way go kind of player, the more he’ll be a threat to fool defenders like that.
As a Traditional Running Back
The Jaguars also weren’t afraid to give Shenault the ball just as a straight-up running back.
Usually when you see receivers get carries, it’s in the form of jet sweeps. But with no solidified RB1 on the roster, the Jaguars weren’t afraid to get creative with Shenault, who had 42 carries in his college career. He finished Sunday’s game with 10 rushing yards on two carries.
As A Motion Man
With the Jaguars showing they weren’t shying away from getting the ball in Shenault’s hands in any way possible, that made the play above even tougher to guard.
Gruden drew up a play that got one of his fastest players in motion before the ball was snapped, and allowed that motion to work straight into a wheel route. As Shenault was able to carry his momentum with no break in the route, he was able to find the soft spot in coverage, as well as deliver a nice little shoulder to the defender after the catch.
As a Decoy Screen
With Jacksonville showing they have so many potential ways to get Shenault the ball, defenses have to respect the threat of a catch regardless of where he was on the field. That all set up a beautiful touchdown design where Shenault played a key role, yet never touched the ball.
The Jaguars once again used Shenault in motion behind the line of scrimmage, but this time you can see he rounded his route like he was about to receive a bubble screen. That was the perfect decoy to free the defenders as Chark was running right by them so Minshew could make the touchdown throw in the corner.
The best ones make an impact without even touching the ball. Not saying Shenault is great yet, but his usage on Sunday sure was.
Finally, let’s examine how Gruden and the Jaguars went to the most tried and true approach to football: let your best players touch the ball first to dictate the play.
This play didn’t go for much, but it was the thought and the creativity that should be the takeaway. Shenault was used as a Wildcat quarterback constantly during his sophomore campaign at Colorado, and the bulk of that came from third-and-short situations or plays at the goal line. It proved to be so difficult to stop. I believe Shenault can still have that same kind of value in the NFL, and plays like the one above show Gruden isn’t afraid to figure that out.
In the end, like many things you’ll read this week, it was one game. But if that was just a taste of what Gruden is cooking up with Shenault this year, then I’m ready for the main course.
- May 17, 2022
- May 17, 2022