Bent, theJetsBlog.com Follow on Twitter
Heading into the 2017 season, it was thought that the Jets would need to lean on their running game to be competitive. However, the running game was ranked just 19th in the NFL. Moreover, they ranked near the bottom of the league in short yardage situations and in terms of their percentage of runs that got stuffed.
The Jets have three picks in the top 50 in the upcoming NFL Draft and plenty of cap space with which to build their 2018 roster. Could the addition of an elite back elevate the Jets' running game to greater heights or is this mainly just a function of the run-blocking up front?
The contributions the Jets got from their running backs in 2017 were pretty much as expected. Matt Forté showed the occasional flash but continues to look like a player who is past his prime. Bilal Powell will give you a game or two of excellent production as a lead back but continues not to be durable enough to sustain that over any extended period. Rookie Elijah McGuire showed some potential, but also ran hot and cold.
Powell and Forté are each entering the last year of their contract. The consensus seems to be that Powell will be back while Forté will be gone. Powell's $4 million salary is actually higher than Forté's $3 million, but both represent pretty reasonable value. However, a large portion of the Jets fanbase has lost patience with Forté and would like to see a more dynamic back there.
On the assumption the Jets will look to upgrade this unit, how much of a priority should it be? If the Jets also upgrade their offensive line, then wouldn't this elevate the performance of the existing players on the roster anyway? It's also worth asking if any backs they might target have inflated statistics due to the abilities of their own offensive line.
Looking at this season's playoffs we can see that the Jaguars are benefiting from spending a high pick on Leonard Fournette even though they already had Chris Ivory and TJ Yeldon on the roster. Also, the Eagles are benefiting from a midseason trade for former Dolphin Jay Ajayi.
However, while each of the top-five rushers in the NFL was on a team that made the postseason, none of those five teams made it to the championship game and three of them represent the bottom three teams in terms of rushing yards per game in the postseason. The Patriots are a good example of a team that has a good offense without having invested heavily in the running back position.
If the Jets can upgrade their quarterback and offensive line in free agency will they expect their existing backs to benefit or will running back be a position they move onto in the draft? This might change after the scouting combine but, right now, Saquon Barkley is the only name being talked about as a potential consideration with the sixth pick.
Last year, however, while Fournette had a solid year, the teams that found real value in the draft were those that picked a running back later on. Kareem Hunt led the NFL in rushing, while Alvin Kamara -- a player the Jets were rumored to have interest in -- also had a monster year. Both were selected in the third round -- so could there be similar difference-makers available later on in a similar spot this year?
With an extra day two pick still in hand following the Sheldon Richardon trade, that could be a spot where the Jets look to upgrade their running back corps - provided they won't be using the pick to move up in the draft.
Before we get to the Draft, could the Jets use some of their cap space to address the position instead? It seems unlikely that Le'Veon Bell will hit the open market, but if he remains at a contractual impasse with the Steelers, anything could happen. Could he be someone the Jets should target? If not, is any available free agent likely to offer significantly better value for money than the Jets were already getting from Powell and Forté?
Ultimately, the decision about how important it is to upgrade this particular spot depends on to what extent you consider running back to be a fungible position in the NFL. Securing a difference-maker like Bell -- who can make yardage even when plays are not well-blocked -- could transform an offense overnight. Then again, Bell himself wasn't even a first round pick, so perhaps the key is to identify such a player without having to pay through the nose.