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Projected Starter: Matt Forte
Projected Backups: Bilal Powell, Elijah McGuire
On the bubble: Jordan Todman, Brandon Wilds, Romar Morris
Departures: Khiry Robinson, Brandon Burks, Chris Swain
Key stat: There was no single game last season when Forte and Powell had 10 carries each.
Forte got off to a promising start last year, rushing for 96 yards and catching five passes for 59 yards in the season opener against the Bengals. It looked like Forte's catching was going to be a big part of the offense, but those numbers would prove to be season highs. In fact, he totaled just 34 receiving yards over the next five games.
Forte rushed for 100 yards in the second game, but it took him 30 carries to get there, and there was speculation about potentially overusing him.
That proved to be the outcome, as Forte became more banged up and less effective as the season progressed. Eventually, Powell moved up into the starting role and was extremely effective at first, but he too wore down quickly.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that both backs would have been effective deeper into the season if the load had been shared between them a little more evenly. Powell has always had durability concerns when required to carry the load, but he's been productive when asked to do so. Both backs have implied that limiting Powell to a role in which he was employed primarily in passing situations wasn't the optimum way of utilizing either of them.
If both Powell and Forte are healthy and fresh, the running back position would appear to be one of the team's strengths. New running backs coach Stump Mitchell has praised both backs, describing Powell as a potential Pro Bowl-level talent. Although they are a year older, if they can split the load, it seems likely they'll produce more consistently than they did in 2016. That also leaves the option open that the Jets could ride the "hot hand" down the stretch on a game-by-game basis.
Beyond Forte and Powell, McGuire, a sixth-round pick, looks set to claim a role as the third running back. The Jets hope he can bring some dynamism to the position. McGuire also brings good pass catching abilities to the position, so he should be well equipped to fill in if Forte or Powell gets injured.
The Jets were hoping for a third back to step up last year, but suffered a series of injuries at the position. Robinson couldn't stay healthy, and while the Jets recently brought him in for a workout, there is no indication they'll sign him any time soon.
The only other back on the current roster to see action with the Jets last season is Wilds, who gained 47 yards on 12 touches last season and is considered a long-shot to make the team.
If the Jets opt to retain four backs, then they will probably expect the fourth guy to contribute as a return man. The recently-signed Todman has experience and has produced well in such a role, although he doesn't have much experience returning punts. It's an area where Morris could be in the mix too, although Wilds only returned one kick-off in his college career. If the Jets opt to keep a fourth back as a return man, then McGuire might find himself inactive on a regular basis. However, he's also a potential contender for a return role himself.
Outlook: Both Powell and Forte have talent and something left in the tank, but new offensive coordinator John Morton has to find a more effective way of using them to maximize their contributions than the coaching staff did last year. The Jets will be anticipating some contributions from McGuire and looking for him to provide some hope that he will one day be able to handle a bigger role. Their ultimate success is going to depend heavily on how effective the run blocking up front will be, though.