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Over the course of the offseason, I've been looking at some of the veterans on the Jets roster in an effort to investigate their potential contributions for the upcoming season. We close today with our final instalment, which is going to look at the potential contributions from running backs in the passing game.
We'll be taking a look at last year's receiving numbers for Matt Forte and Bilal Powell and how those compare with some of the most productive pass catching backs in the league. Then we'll consider what could happen to those numbers now that both players are on the same team. We'll also consider some alternative options and other factors.
The current roster outlook
The Jets entered the offseason with just one halfback on their roster, veteran back-up Zac Stacy. Stacy had spent the second half of the 2015 season on injured reserve with a broken ankle and wasn't expected to win a roster spot in 2016. He lasted until the day before camp, whereupon he failed his physical and was released.
In between times, the Jets had restocked the position, starting with a futures contract for Dominique Williams a few days after the end of the season. Once free agency got underway, they quickly re-signed Powell and added Forte as the presumptive lead back. They also added former New Orleans Saint Khiry Robinson, although Robinson remains on the PUP list as he is also recovering from a broken bone in his leg.
The group is rounded out by undrafted rookie Romar Morris, who signed after an impressive showing while on a try-out basis at rookie camp and veteran Bernard Pierce, who was signed last week to take Stacy's spot. The Jets also added rookie running back Terry Williams on Wednesday.
The basic numbers
In 2014, Forte set the NFL's all-time running back receptions record by catching 102 passes. However, in 2015, his production dropped back to a more sustainable level. In fact, the 44 receptions tied a career-low for Forte, who has averaged over 60 catches per season over the course of his eight-year career.
Powell, on the other hand, set career highs. His numbers were extremely similar to those of Forte as he had three more catches, one fewer yard and an identical catch rate. He also set a career high for yards per catch (9.3), despite the fact that his longest play was only 25 yards. Powell was more productive than Forte in terms of his per-snap output, but that's likely due to the fact that Forte played a full-time role whereas Powell was employed more situationally.
Each of them was in the top-15 for receiving yards by running backs in 2015, but just outside the top 10. Since no other NFL team has two top-15 players in that category, we should give consideration to how that might affect their combined and/or individual production.
Looking deeper into the numbers
Clearly, Forte and Powell were among the most productive receivers in the league, although they both fell well short of Danny Woodhead's league-leading 755 yards, only eclipsing that by 22 yards between them. Woodhead was among three NFL backs targeted more than 90 times, but there were no others with as many as 75 targets.
Forte and Powell each had between 55 and 60 targets. However, both missed games, which could have seen them higher up the rankings. Forte missed three games and Powell missed five (four of which the Jets lost). According to PFF, Powell would have been the fourth-most targeted back in the entire NFL if the Jets had used him at that rate for a full 16-game season.
In terms of how often their respective teams targeted their backs out of the backfield, both the Bears and Jets were pretty much in the middle of the pack with Forte/Powell responsible for just over half of their team's backfield targets. This means that, even if they both play all 16 games, it would be impossible for them both to get as many targets as they did last year unless the Jets increase the rate at which they target their backs.
With these two more versatile and productive targets taking up a much larger percentage of the targets, that's not impossible, though. However, even if there was a slight reduction in total targets for one or both of them, the hope would be that they are getting targets instead of other players who might not be as productive in those situations.
Is it a good thing to be targeting your backs a lot though? A quick review of the teams that targeted their backs most often reveals that the Broncos and Panthers - the two teams that contested the last Super Bowl - were the two teams that targeted their backs less than anyone.
Maybe that's just a reflection of how those teams play. Cam Newton, for example, would likely try to run the ball himself rather than dump it off if he couldn't find anyone open down the field. However, could this mean that those teams have the right idea about how to win?
If we look at the other end of the scale, the top teams are Detroit, Philadelphia, San Diego, Baltimore and New Orleans. Not exactly a murderer's row of dominant 2015 playoff teams. In each case, the teams have personnel that would seem to lend itself to such a strategy.
There could be other reasons why some teams might target their backs more often than others too. Maybe the receivers aren't getting separation down the field, pressure is getting to the quarterback too quickly or the coaching staff is playing conservatively because they lack faith in their passing game. All of these might be reasons why a struggling team might end up with high target numbers to their backs. It's arguably more of a negative side-effect resulting from the struggles than the reason for those struggles.
Is actively trying to use your backs out of the backfield more even a viable approach in the modern NFL though? There is one team out there that had consistent success in doing so and it's one which has schematic similarities to the current Jets team: New England.
The Patriots had the 7th-highest number of running back targets in the NFL and Dion Lewis and James White had over 90 targets between them. Since White didn't really play until Lewis was lost for the year, this essentially creates a two-headed monster that was targeted as much as all but three NFL backs over the course of the season. Clearly the Patriots had good success in doing so and perhaps that's the kind of blueprint the Jets are trying to follow offensively.
There's obviously a lot of overlap between Forte and Powell here and you wonder whether they will just split the load or whether the pair of them could combine to upgrade this aspect of the Jets offense. Even if this does nothing more than give the Jets two options capable of providing the kind of production they brought last year, it should have a better chance of meaning that they get 16 games-worth of production at that kind of level. Also, when both are healthy, it should keep each of them fresher.
The potential is greater though. As noted, they could increase the rate at which their backs are targeted, perhaps to a level on a par with New England last season, which would only require one extra target per game. Also, if they are doing this, it will likely mean that a much higher percentage of the targets are going to one or other of them, as opposed to a player like Chris Ivory, who was not as versatile or reliable as a pass-catching threat in the past.
Forte obviously had a much bigger passing game workload when he set the NFL record in 2014 and no doubt benefited from having Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery on the field. He can perhaps benefit in similar fashion from Marshall and Eric Decker this year. Perhaps, therefore, developing this part of the Jets' offense is a viable option.
Even with the production they had last year, Forte and Powell did almost all of their damage catching screen passes, underneath dump-offs and throws to the flat. Can Chan Gailey expand this element of his offense this year?
Forte is a player who has produced as a downfield receiver in the past, so that's perhaps something they could explore more often, even though it didn't happen much last year.
The Jets did show some different looks over the course of the season. Lining up backs in the slot on third and short and throwing short passes to them led to some important conversions over the course of the season for players like Powell, Ivory and Stacy. This marvellous play also came after Powell motioned into the slot:
That was a play where the Jets had one back in the game and then emptied the backfield though. Could the Jets start to introduce some looks with both Forte and Powell in the game together where one stays in the backfield and the other is an option in the slot, perhaps with a mismatch on a linebacker? Last season, the Jets ran 11 plays with Powell and Ivory in the game together, so they do have those kinds of looks within their playbook.
Blocking is obviously an important consideration when weighing up someone's contributions to the passing game. Fortunately, both Forte and Powell have plenty of experience of doing this and can hold their own picking up the blitz.
Should Forte or Powell, or even both, go down, the Jets still have backs who are capable of producing in the passing game albeit to a lesser extent. Pierce and Robinson are more limited than Powell or Forte would be, but certainly bring more to the table than Ivory did when he first became a Jet. Morris, Dominique Williams and Terry Williams, on the other hand, are the kind of scat-back type who would be best suited to a role where that was their primary function.
Let's not forget about the fullback position, because those numbers are included in the statistics quoted above. For the Jets, it's not a big source of offensive production though, as Tommy Bohanon was thrown to just five times last season. Kyle Juszczyk led the league with over 40 catches, contributing to the Ravens being in the top five for targets to their backs.
The Jets played their best football of 2015 down the stretch when they won five games in a row and got their backs involved in the passing game more, spearheaded by Powell. It proved to be a huge loss when he was unable to play in the finale against the Bills. Ultimately, the Jets went 9-2 with Powell in the line-up and 1-4 with him out.
Adding Forte hopefully makes it less likely that the Jets will have to take the field without a comparable receiving threat in their backfield. It also will hopefully serve to keep both backs fresh during the season and may even enable them to expand and develop that part of their offense, which is valuable in terms of getting the ball to playmakers in space, keeping the chains moving and stretching the field horizontally.
The main concern would be that the Jets will be less well-equipped to "ground and pound" with this group, but that's arguably a dying art anyway. Forte has still averaged over 1,000 yards rushing over the course of his career, so he's no slouch as a runner and if the Jets need to go with a power back, then Robinson potentially provides a nice change of pace.
If the Jets can guard against becoming too predictable, using their backs out of the backfield more often is likely to add variation to their offense and will hopefully make it easier for Ryan Fitzpatrick to emulate or improve upon his 2015 success. In theory, this could be a key feature of this year's offense, so I'm eager to see it put into practice.