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Making the Leap, No. 8: Jaguars' Toby Gerhart

Around The League will profile the top 25 players we see Making the Leap in 2014. No. 8 on the list: Jacksonville Jaguars running back Toby Gerhart.

Why Gerhart is on the list


We pegged running back Toby Gerhart as a "Making the Leap" candidate the minute he signed his three-year deal with the Jaguars.

After draping the former Minnesota Vikings backup with $4.5 million in guarantees, coach Gus Bradley told Around the League in March that Gerhart was ready to fill Maurice Jones-Drew's shoes and play Jacksonville's bell-cow role come September. It's a message the team has clung to ever since.

"He's a horse," Jaguars running backs coach Terry Richardson said in May. "He's a big guy, and I talked to one of his former (position) coaches, and he was saying Toby had the strongest legs he's been around in terms of his leg drive and leg power."

That quality is evident in his game film. The 231-pound Gerhart gives Jacksonville's young offense a ruggedly built runner who repeatedly impressed me with his sneaky wheels and ability to shed the first tackler. Pro Football Focus ranked him fourth in the NFL last season in yards after contact per rushing attempt (3.8). He's especially potent when teams line up to defend the pass, chalking up 5.6 yards per carry against nickel, dime and quarter coverage compared to an impressive 4.4 figure against base defenses over his four-year career.

He's a physical runner, but Jacksonville also inherited a player with fresh legs. Couched behind the All-World Adrian Peterson, the 27-year-old Gerhart has just 86 carries over the past two seasons. He hasn't seen more than 109 totes in a campaign during his pro career, but Gerhart averaged 19 touches and 99.4 yards from scrimmage in eight contests as Peterson's replacement.

Besides, the former Stanford Cardinal has played the workhorse role before: He led the NCAA's FBS in carries (343), yardage (1,871) and touchdowns (28) as a senior in 2009.

Gerhart's position coach at Stanford, Willie Taggart, told The Florida Times-Union that the back was "was huge in what (Jim) Harbaugh was trying to accomplish there," adding that "Toby's junior year set the tone for the Stanford program you see today."

Gerhart is often lazily compared to other white runners, but Jaguars general manager David Caldwell "scouted him a lot coming out of college" and sees the closest NFL parallel to Michael Turner in both playing style and situation. Turner was hidden away behind LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego for four seasons before signing with the Falcons at age 26 and galloping for 6,081 yards over the next five years in Atlanta.

The pressing question about Gerhart is whether or not he can follow Turner's path and make good on his starting opportunity. His promising game film and college pedigree suggest that Jacksonville's new lead man is up to the task.

Obstacles


Jacksonville's unproven offensive line might be his biggest obstacle to a monster year.

The failed pursuit of All-Pro center Alex Mack would have helped a front five that garnered Pro Football Focus' worst run-blocking grade over the past six seasons. Gerhart's flashes of brilliance as a Viking came behind a road-grading unit that ranked as one of the league's best during his tenure in Minnesota. We fully expect the Jaguars to pound opponents with the run, but Gerhart will be challenged to match his gaudy career average of 4.7 yards per carry.

With teams expecting Gerhart to be used the way Seattle leans on Marshawn Lynch, the fifth-year back will be the focus of game plans from Day 1. The massive uptick in snaps is something that many from-the-wilderness backs don't adjust to. For every Michael Turner, there's a legion of supposed bell-cows who fizzle out quick.

The pressing question is whether Gerhart can handle 20 touches per game at this level.

2014 expectations


NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah cited Gerhart as a name that "keeps coming up in my talks with personnel guys" heading into the season.

He's a candidate to lead the league in carries, and I can't help but look at his career totals as a guide. In four seasons with the Vikings, his 276 rushes led to 1,305 yards and five scores. He won't achieve 4.7 yards per tote, but projecting him for 285 attempts and 1,150 yards makes plenty of sense.

"Gus comes from the Seattle Seahawks' model of playing good defense, relying on the run game where Marshawn Lynch was their 'Beast Mode' out there," Gerhart said in June. "Hopefully, I'll be the 'Beast Mode' down here for the Jaguars."

If he can stay healthy, adjust to the pumped-up workload and produce as a pass protector, Gerhart has a chance to be Jacksonville's centerpiece beyond his current three-year deal.

The latest "Around The League Podcast" debates Jay Cutler's ceiling and looks back at the NFL in the '90s.

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