It was a disappointing rookie season in 2011 for New York Jets running back Bilal Powell. As a fourth round selection, there was a hope he could make some type of impact or impression when given the opportunity. In the pre-season he failed to impress with 28 carries for 62 yards, burying himself on the depth chart behind Shonn Greene, LaDainian Tomlinson and Joe McKnight. About halfway through the season he received an enormous chance when Tomlinson was inactive for the Jets/Broncos week 11 match-up and Greene left in the first quarter with an injury. Powell received 7 carries but only ended with 11 yards and fumbled the ball into the end-zone, where he was luckily bailed out by Matt Slauson.
Prior to camp many (including myself) thought Powell would be the odd man out on the running back depth chart. The Jets drafted Terrance Ganaway in the 6th round this year and his bruising style and familiarity with the option seemed to make him a more natural fit behind Shonn Greene, while Joe McKnight handled the third down duties. However, Powell has responded by turning heads early in camp with both his quickness and ability to catch the football. He has been impressive enough that running back coach Anthony Lynn has declared the third down back job wide open between Powell and McKnight.
Lynn prefaced this competition a few months ago by classifying Powell as a “B” back in the Jets system, same as McKnight. Greene and Ganaway are “A” backs. As you could surmise, “A” backs are power, inside runners while “B” backs provide more outside speed.
Powell isn’t going to keep McKnight off the roster because of McKnight’s special teams value. He was one of the league’s top returners last season but that doesn’t mean the Jets can’t keep both and either stash Ganaway on the practice squad or just carry five running backs (fullback John Conner being the fifth) and part ways with H-Back Josh Baker.
With a strong pre-season, Powell could upset McKnight and steal his third down role. Both players were fourth round picks. Both players are nearly identical in size (same weight and McKnight is an inch taller). McKnight is faster, or was at least a full tenth of a second faster in his forty coming out of college and is a good enough receiver to be split out. Powell did have 18 receptions his senior year of college and three receiving touchdowns. He will need to demonstrate his hands at the NFL level to give McKnight a true run for his money.
It is obviously too early to make any kind of judgement about Powell’s long term potential. He has strung together five good practices but has shown enough tenacity in blocking drills and enough speed to catch people’s attention. Powell should receive substantial work in the Jets first and second pre-season game and with strong outings could receive extended work with the first unit in the crucial third pre-season game.