Turn On The Jets Off-Season Roundtable – Running Back

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Welcome to our off-season review of the New York Jets roster at Turn On The Jets. Each week we are going to attack a different position. We will have a roundtable discussion on it, Steve Bateman will submit a film breakdown examining it and our draft staff will look at potential prospects the Jets could add. Last week, we started at quarterback, this week we move to running back - 

How should the New York Jets handle running back this off-season?

Joe CaporosoFor a team who is supposed to pride themselves on running the football, the Jets had an incredibly weak crop of running backs in 2012. Don’t be fooled by Shonn Greene’s 1,000 yard season, he barely cracked it at 1,063 yards and it took him 276 carries to get there (aka a pedestrian 3.9 yards per carry). Beyond that, take away his outlier explosion against the Colts and in the team’s other 15 games he had 244 carries for 902 yards at only 3.6 yards per carry. Greene lacks the explosiveness to be a lead back and simply cannot create big plays when they are there to be made at the second level. He also brings nothing to the passing game. Bilal Powell is nearly an identical player, except he brings a little more shiftiness and is more capable in the passing game. He is on the roster for pennies next season, so there is no reason to give Greene a new contract.

The free agent market is generally thin at running back. The Jets won’t be spending big money on Stephen Jackson or Reggie Bush and will be wise to pass on guys like Rashard Mendenhall, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis who will be overpaid somewhere. They’d be smart to look at the third tier and look to find a bargain like Rashad Jennings or Justin Forsett, Restricted Free Agent Chris Ivory is a name we have been talking up here and the Jets should inquire on what his price-tag will end up being. Outside of that, Ben Tate could be an intriguing name to make a call about.

The draft has a good amount of mid-round talent, although all eyes will be on Eddie Lacy if he starts to drift near the Jets second round pick.

Overall, the 2013 backfield will likely be Bilal Powell, a mid-level free agent or trade acquisition and a mid-round pick, along with Joe McKnight maybe chipping in if he can show any durability. It isn’t flashy but maybe the Jets strike gold in the draft or in the free agent/trade scrap heap.

Mike DonnellyAs the Jets finish up their searches for a new General Manager and offensive coordinator, one of the first orders of business will be to take a long, hard look at the running back position and decide where to go going forward. The only player we know will be in the mix for sure next season is Bilal Powell, who showed some ability down the stretch last season and who will still be on his cheap rookie contract, which is important for a team pressed up against the salary cap. He will fit in nicely to the 1B running back role, and likely handle third downs. Joe McKnight, the kick return extraordinaire will also almost certainly be back, but after three years in the league, it’s pretty clear we shouldn’t expect too much from him as an offensive contributor, no matter who is calling the plays.

So who will be handling the bulk of the touches for the Jets in 2013? There are many ways the team can go, some more interesting than others. Let’s take a look…

The Incumbent: Shonn Greeene – Shonn rushed for 1,086 yards and 8 TD’s last year and in an ideal world would be the 1B back who comes in to punish worn down defenses later in games like he did in 2009 and 2010. Unfortunately, he is a free agent, and with a pay raise coming his way, he probably won’t be back next year. Unlike many, I like Greene, and if he were to return on a cheap contract, I wouldn’t be opposed to having him back.

Free Agents: Rashard Mendenhall, Steven Jackson, Bernard Scott, Larod Stephens-Howling – Jackson is the clear best option on the free agent market, but he is likely going to cost a pretty penny to sign, and there are indications the Rams will bring him back. He’d be an excellent fit as a running back who can handle a full work load and also provide a receiving threat out of the backfield. Mendnehall is the other “big name” here, but after an awful season in Pittsburgh coming off an injury, he’s not someone you want to rely on as a starter. The others are role players, which is not quite what we’re looking for.

Trade Candidates: Chris Ivory, Ben Tate, Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden, DeAngelo Williams – Now we’re talking. Williams will likely be cut by Carolina due to his high salary, but he’s an intriguing name to keep an eye on as a potential signing. MJD and McFadden would be hard to pry from their current teams, but with both in rebuilding mode, they hi-res-hi-res-151989382_display_imagecould be had for the right price. I just don’t think that the big name (and big salaried) RB is the way the Jet are going to go. The option that has Jets fans everywhere giddy is Chris Ivory, the restricted free agent from the Saints who has shown in limited action to be a very impressive player. He has big play capability and runs hard. The only issues with him are that he’s been banged up from time to time and he hasn’t proven he can handle a full work load. Remember, in limited action, Shonn Greene looked like a superstar too in 2009, it’s a different ballgame when you’re the starter. Even still, he’d be a great acquisition.

Draft – There are many running backs going to be available in this draft, but the one who shot to the top of many lists lately is Alabama’s Eddie Lacy. Should someone like him be available at the top of round 2, he’d be an extremely enticing option. Mike Tannenbaum seemingly drafted a running back every single year, but with him gone and no GM in place, it’s hard to tell where the RB position will be valued in the draft.

Chris CellettiIf I were running the Jets, Shonn Greene would be nowhere near Florham Park in 2013. With such a weak crop of free agent running backs this upcoming offseason, maybe there’s a chance that some desperate team looks at his back-to-back (yet thoroughly unimpressive) 1,000-yard seasons and actually overpays him slightly. Let them, Jets. Don’t be the team to overpay someone that is a known commodity to you. Greene is an okay back at best and is best suited to be a No. 2, someone to come into games late when the defense is tired,. He should not be a feature back. He is also poor in blitz pickup and gives you next to nothing out of the passing game.

If you look at the NFL these days, there are just very few running backs who are THE unquestioned guy on their team. Outside of the Top-5 or so guys in the league, teams are using runners-by-committee. The Jets need to do the same in 2013 because unless they pull a trade out of the blue, they won’t have the slam-dunk, bellcow running back that they probably want. Bilal Powell showed this year that he’s a capable No. 2/1B back, and I’d certainly have no problem with him returning in that role in 2013. With holes all over the offense, the Jets will likely look to find a bargain to share the carries with Powell.

Chris Ivory is a guy to consider; he’s three years younger than Greene and has averaged 5.1 yards-per-carry in limited duty with New Orleans in his three seasons in the league. He’d be my top choice to split carries with Powell and maybe even Joe McKnight – that’s a decent enough running corps in today’s NFL if the offensive line play is improved. If not Ivory, other names to consider are Felix Jones, Rashad Jennings, or Issac Redman as long as the price is right, of course. Also, the Jets should certainly explore taking a running back in the mid-rounds of the Draft. I’ll leave whoever the best guys are in this draft to our draft experts, but you can certainly find good enough RBs in the middle rounds.

Chris Gross Outside of the quarterback position, the 2012 Jets most glaring offensive hole was undoubtedly the lack of playmakers at running back. Shonn Greene was relied on to be the “bell cow” as Rex Ryan refers to what he envisions as a lead back, in a relatively deep stable. Unfortunately, New York learned the hard way that Greene is, at best, a solid 1B option at running back. Greene had his most success when he was sharing the load with the likes of Thomas Jones and LaDanian Tomlinson during the first two seasons of his career. He is a very strong downhill runner, and is at his best late in games when the defense is worn down. He does not, however, have the elusiveness, top end speed, or vision to be a primary option at running back in this league. It is because of this that Greene will likely be playing his football elsewhere next season.

As for the Jets, there are a couple directions that they could go in at the position. Bilal Powell came on relatively strong at the end of 2012, but like Greene, he is at best a 1B option in a tandem of backs. Powell is still under contract, at a much cheaper cost than Greene, so there is no reason to believe he will not return with the opportunity to compete for that 1B role. So what can the Jets do at their primary running back spot? Here’s a quick look:

Free Agency - Free Agency is a very sticky subject for the Jets right now. While reports have surfaced that this team is in “cap hell,” the reality is that when they make the expected roster cuts, they will fall to about $15 – $20 million under the 2013 salary cap. So where will that money be spent? Running back, quarterback, tight end, offensive line, outside linebacker, and safety are all positions of need for the Jets, and with a tight budget this year, they need to get the best bang for their buck to be competitive in 2013. Similar to the quarterback position, the eventual hire of a new offensive coordinator will weigh heavily on what this team decides to do in terms of personnel at the position. A few names worth noting -

Reggie Bush - 2012 stats: 227 attempts, 986 yards, 4.3 YPC, 6 TD - Bush is a very intriguing name. He certainly has the talent, and has been relatively durable enough, to be a lead back in the right scheme. His yardage and touchdown totals took a bit of a dip this season due to a change in offensive approach in Miami, but 2011 saw Bush yield his first career 1,000 yard season, clipping off a fantastic 5.0 YPC. From a football standpoint, Bush would be a quality signing for New York, if he could be had on a 3 year, low cost deal. Unfortunately, however, Bush will like be seeking a contract looking something like 4 years at $5 million per. In all likelihood, this will be out of the Jets’ price range.

Rashard Mendenhall - 2012 stats: 51 attempts, 182 yards, 3.6 YPC, 0 TD - Mendenhall has been a key part of Pittsburgh’s offense over the past few years, however injury hampered his 2012 season, resulting in his worst statistical year as apro since he was a rookie back in 2008. Mendenhall also seemed to find himself in Mike Tomlin’s dog house later in the year, asNew+York+Jets+v+Pittsburgh+Steelers+GDfPUbhkcdBl he was suspended for a game as a result of conduct detrimental to the team. It seems as though Mendenhall’s days in Pittsburgh are all but done, and he will be seeking employment elsewhere next year. Enter the Jets. The Jets are looking for a quality veteran option, with good ability, but one who will come at low cost. After his poor 2012, could Mendenhall be that guy? Perhaps he could come on a one year deal, similar to how LaRon Landry was signed last year. New York could potentially add Mendenhall on a low cost deal, particularly if teams are skeptical to give him a big contract with recent injury and character concerns. Mendenhall may take a deal like this as a chance to prove himself to be healthy, as well as a solid teammate, similar to what Landry had to do last year.

LeGarrette Blount - 2012 stats: 41 attempts, 151 yards, 3.7 YPC, 2 TD - Like Mendenhall, Blount is coming off a down year, following two seasons of surprising productivity in Tampa Bay. While Blount is a bit similar to Shonn Greene in terms of running style, he is far more elusive than Greene, and has the vision to be a decent lead back, if complemented with a speedy, 3rd down back. Blount would not be a horrible signing, if used right and surrounded with a good stable of backs, and would likely come very cheap as well. There certainly is some boom or bust here, but if Blount can stay healthy, there is no reason to believe he cannot give the Jets 1,000 yards, with a solid 4.0 YPC average or better. If the Jets decide to take this route, they almost certainly need to add an elusive, speed back in the draft.

Restricted Free Agents

Chris Ivory - 2012 stats: 40 attempts, 217 yards, 5.4 YPC, 2 TD - A restricted free agent, Ivory was buried in a very deep stable of underutilized running backs in New Orleans. The Saints were reluctant to trade him this season, despite playing him in only 6 games this year. Obviously, they think very highly of Ivory, but it will be interesting to see the type of tender New Orleans places on him. Are they willing to pay him based on the 2013 first round tender, knowing it will be unlikely for another team to offer a first round pick as compensation? Or do they place a cheaper offer on him, so in the event that he does not sign an offer sheet elsewhere, they aren’t stuck with paying a large amount to a back that is hardly used? If New Orleans places a 2nd round tender or lower on Ivory, look for the Jets to look into him. He still would come at a relatively low cost, but has the potential to be a lead back in this league, and in the right system, could be a very, very effective one.

Jonathan Dwyer - 2012 stats: 156 attempts, 623 yards, 4.0 YPC, 2 TD - Like Ivory, Dwyer entered 2012 as an under the radar player, but was highly productive in Pittsburgh last season. Question is, how much do the Steelers value him? Would they be willing to match a high qualifying offer for Dwyer? If not, what type of tender will be placed on him, particularly with WR Mike Wallace set to hit Free Agency? Dwyer, like Ivory, would be worth a 2nd or lower round draft pick, if the Steelers decide to place that type of tender on the restricted free agent. At just 23, Dwyer certainly has his best years ahead of him, and landing him as a RFA could be a quality stamp for the new General Manager to begin his reign with.

Low Cost, Small Name Options

Javon Ringer - 2012 stats: 2 attempts, 14 yards, 7.0 YPC, 0 TD - Virtually non existent in 2012, Ringer was showed some promise early in his career with Tennessee. Unfortunately for him, he was drafted in the same season that Chris Johnson truly emerged as an excellent back in the NFL and has been somewhat buried on the depth chart ever since. Can Ringer be a lead back in this league? Highly doubtful. But, he certainly has some ability, and a known work ethic that is fantastic. He would be an extremely low cost move for the Jets, one that could end up paying dividends. If Ringer is given the carries, and complemented with a good offensive line and supporting RB cast, he can be an effective player. He will not produce at the level of the players aforementioned, but he would come at about a quarter of the price.

Ronnie Brown - 2012 stats: 46 attempts, 220 yards, 4.8 YPC, 0 TD - Brown has been very quiet since leaving Miami for Philadelphia two seasons ago, but bear in mind he has played behind some very poor offensive lines (Eagles 2011, Chargers 2012). Brown will be 31 for the majority of the season next year, so age is certainly a concern, but with a 2012 4.8 YPC average, he can still be productive. Can he be the “bell cow” for this team? It is unlikely at his age. However, Brown could be a solid “stop gap” running back to add the veteran presence to a stable of running backs occupied by Powell and an early round rookie. If it plays out as such, Brown would  likely sign a one year deal and enter the season as the starter, while slowly passing the baton to the hypothetically drafted rookie. By the end of the season, the Jets could make the transition to the rookie, if he’s playing well enough, while slowly phasing out Brown, who would be allowed to walk at the end of the year. From there, New York could decide which direction to go in at the position, but would have a solid foundation in place.

Potential Trades

Antonio Cromartie for Mark Ingram and a Mid Round Draft Pick - Ingram 2012 stats: 156 attempts, 602 yards, 3.9 YPC, 5 TD - Similar to Ivory, Ingram is underutilized in a New Orleans offense that does not run the ball very often. Conversely, the Saints ranked second to last in passing defense last year. Cromartie is coming off of his best year as a Jet, and potentially as a pro, and his value will never be higher. The Jets may be reluctant to part ways with Cromartie, but considering the salary cap situation, and overall lack of offensive playmakers, moving Cromartie for a player with the potential to be a top NFL back in the coming years would make a ton of sense. Ingram has been lauded by Saints Head Coach Sean Payton in the past for being an excellent player, who he has yet to use to his full potential. At the ripe age of 23 years old, the former Heisman trophy winner and New Jersey native would be an excellent fit in New York. Would the Saints be willing to part ways to bolster their putrid secondary? If I were the General Manager of the Jets, I would certainly make a phone call.

Outside of Free Agency and potential trades, the draft will be very important for the Jets at the running back position this year. Check back on Thursday as our draft team breaks down which backs to keep an eye on heading into April.

Rob CellettiOn August 4, 2011 (TOJ link: http://turnonthejets.com/2011/08/ground-and-pound-looking-at-the-jets-running-back-situation/) I questioned the viability of Shonn Greene as a number 1 NFL running back. I liked Greene as the punishing second option, used late in games to take advantage of the opponent’s worn-down defense. But Greene is clearly not on the level of Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew or Adrian Peterson, the type of true lead back that can quite literally carry a mediocre offense into the playoffs (provided he’s supported by a good enough defense). This formula worked well for the Jets in 2009 and 2010, but once the burden truly shifted to Greene, the Jets faltered.

One thing the Jets lack everywhere throughout their offense, and particularly at running back, is dynamic, big-play ability.  The Jets had that with Leon Washington. You could argue they even had it at times with LaDainian Tomlinson. But the bottom line right now is that the Jets don’t have a player that can catch a 3 yard swing pass and turn it into a 70 yard touchdown. These types of plays are crucial in today’s NFL. Consider how much better Mark Sanchez’s numbers might look if he had a couple of guys who could catch a simple dump-off and take it to the house. Do the Jets ever score “easy” touchdowns? No. They lack home run hitters. I like what Bilal Powell brings to the table as a second option, but that doesn’t solve the problem. I think Shonn Greene either takes a a massive paycut or he walks. Joe McKnight has been underutilized, but there might be reasons for that which fans don’t know about, i.e., he hasn’t shown the ability in practice to be a contributor on offense.