CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Let’s just get one thing out of the way. Chris Ivory is the starting running back. He’s the 1A and 1B. The Jets traded for him to be their bell-cow back and that’s precisely how they’ll use him – assuming Ivory stays healthy.
Behind Ivory, Bilal Powell has probably sewn up the third-down job. He has good hands, the ability to flare out of the backfield and he’s a strong pass blocker, which is just about the most important skill a running back needs in today’s NFL.
However, the battle for the space – or spaces – behind Ivory and Powell is far more intriguing than I expected in the days and weeks leading up to training camp. Of course, I assumed Mike Goodson would be in Cortland not out on an unannounced walkabout. With Goodson out of the picture for an unknown period, it becomes a three-way battle for probably one spot.
Is that spot Joe McKnight’s to lose? Or is it John Griffin/Chad Spann’s to win? The answer is likely the former, with McKnight possessing special teams skills that not many other players on the roster have. McKnight, for all his knocks and inconsistencies, is a return ace and he does have the ability to make people miss in space. While Griffin is more dangerous in space than either McKnight or Spann, he suffers from consistency issues that may limit his chances to make the 53-man roster. Spann has some of those return abilities and I like the way he runs (particularly his pad level). There’s a chance he could challenge McKnight and unseat Griffin as the dark horse contender if Rex and co. value that over Griffin’s big-play ability.
I’m not going to B.S. you; I’m in the tank for Griffin. I think he has ability and speed like no other running back on the roster. He cuts on a dime, breaks ankles (to quote Brian) and has good enough hands to make a difference in the passing game down the line. Is he a starting- or even rotation-caliber running back right now? No. He’s too inconsistent and he needs to prove he can stay healthy and improve his pass blocking before he gets anything close to a meaningful snap.
That said, I very much believe the Jets want to keep Griffin in some capacity this season, either on the 53 or the practice squad. The problem with the latter is Griffin could easily be this summer’s Terrance Ganaway. NFL teams will do almost anything to accumulate talent and Griffin has talent. So do the Jets believe in cultivating talent for down the line or will John Idzik prefer to field the 53-man roster that gives them the best chance to win this season? It’s a dangerous line to dance. Perhaps Idzik will pull a Tannenbaum, creating a mysterious Chansi Stuckey-like “injury” for Griffin, just to retain his rights. Or he could make him this year’s Jeff Cumberland, keeping Griffin on the 53-man roster with absolutely no intention of playing him.
In my opinion, the Jets should find a way to keep both McKnight and Griffin on the roster. As much as I love the idea of what Ivory brings to this team, he could end up being limited on third down and in the passing game. There’s also the injury concern and the worry that he will struggle against a defense that won’t respect the Jets’ passing game. Powell is a solid complimentary back, a guy that can do a little bit of everything, but unlikely to become a franchise runner at any point.
The Jets may have to sacrifice elsewhere to do that. They may have to try to sneak an offensive lineman onto the practice squad or go with one less linebacker or wide receiver. But the Jets need playmakers. They need them on defense, offense and special teams. McKnight can create an advantage for them on specials, but I still don’t believe he can impact the game on the first three downs. Griffin, on the other hand, could end up being a weapon for this team with just a little more tutoring – and isn’t that worth taking a chance on?