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Over the next few weeks, we're going to look back at last year's rookies in an effort to assess what their role will be in 2018 and where we can expect them to make improvements on what they brought to the table last year.
Elijah McGuire had what looked like being a breakout performance against the Jaguars in Week 4, when he racked up 131 yards on 12 touches, including a spectacular 69-yard touchdown run. However, that breakout never fully materialized as he struggled to produce much over the rest of the year, other than the occasional flash. Will he be able to earn a more significant role in 2018?
Preseason stats: Four games, one start; 18-86 rushing, 3-30 receiving
Regular-season stats: 16 games, two starts; 88-315-TD rushing, 17-177-TD receiving, 4-83 kickoff returns, 1-10 punt returns, two fumbles lost
Projected role: Backup halfback
It's difficult to be too critical of any of the Jets' running backs last year because the offensive line did a poor job in the running game and there was often nowhere for them to go. Even so, the Jets hope for more consistent production from McGuire, who flashed his big-play potential on that big run in the Jacksonville game but only averaged 2.8 yards on his other 87 carries.
With Spencer Long expected to produce an upgrade over Wesley Johnson at center and Brian Winters healthy again after having been banged-up all year, the hope is that each of the running backs will be able to improve upon their yards per carry average. If this means McGuire can break out to the second level more often, then he'll have opportunities to break tackles in space to create even more big plays.
New running game coordinator Rick Dennison's new blocking scheme could have a positive impact too. If Dennison runs a scheme similar to those in which he ran in the past, it will be ideally suited to a back with McGuire's skill set. His vision, burst and direct style should be ideal for those plays that require a one-cut runner, and once he's in space, he can showcase his elusiveness and breakaway speed.
For McGuire, the key to being able to receive a consistent workload as a ball carrier will be to stay healthy and to focus on ball security, given he lost two fumbles in 2017.
Easily the most exciting aspect of McGuire's collegiate film was his ability to be a weapon in the passing game. The most productive pass-catching backs coming out of college often just catch screen passes and dump-offs, but McGuire has legitimate route-running skills, possesses excellent hands and can also be a downfield threat.
The Jets kept those abilities under wraps for most of last season, although he was featured more and more in the passing game as the season progressed. He had just five catches in the first half of the season, but 12 in the second half, including his first receiving touchdown against the Saints. The Jets also started to show some confidence in him by looking for him on some clutch third down plays.
It's anticipated that the Jets will unleash McGuire as more of a pass-catching threat in 2018. For example, expect the Jets to isolate him against a linebacker and then try to get a big play on a wheel route. This is something at which McGuire is capable of succeeding, but the Jets seem to have been holding back, perhaps with a view to surprising an opponent with it in a big game.
Finally, as with any young back, the Jets will hope McGuire will be more comfortable if required to pass protect in his second year. Rookie backs who are hesitant in picking up the blitz or lack the strength to anchor themselves against pass rushers often struggle to get much playing time. That extra year of experience should give McGuire an edge over this year's rookie, Trenton Cannon, in such situations.
Outlook: With Isaiah Crowell replacing Matt Forte, McGuire will once again enter camp as the third running back on the depth chart. However, Bilal Powell isn't under contract beyond this year and the team would probably prefer to transition to the younger McGuire if they can. While Crowell is better suited to handling a bigger workload, McGuire's big play potential as a runner and in the passing game could add a dynamic dimension to the Jets offense if he plays well enough to warrant a significant role.