When the Jets selected Joe McKnight out of USC in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft, I applauded the pick. A player formerly regarded as “the next Reggie Bush” when he arrived at USC, McKnight brought explosive play making ability whenever he stepped on the field. After early struggles and a few typical USC recruiting controversies, McKnight entered the draft foregoing his senior season. Although he had only one real productive college season at halfback, Joe’s speed and raw talent made him a lock to be drafted.
As most Jet fans are aware, McKnight struggled with conditioning and turnovers as a rookie, limiting his role with the offense. In his second year he showed improvement but remained stuck behind LaDainian Tomlinson on the depth chart. Last year, in what many expected to be McKnight’s breakout season, he barely touched the field outside of special teams. Each week Jets fans searched for answers as to why he wasn’t receiving touches on offense, only to find out recently Tony Sparano barely said a word to him all season.
Although the Sparano situation is a mystery, that’s a topic for another day. While one could make the argument that McKnight wasn’t impressing in practice, it seems Sparano wasn’t on the same page with even Rex Ryan, let alone his own players, so we’ll give McKnight the benefit of the doubt here. More importantly, new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is in town and has quite the track record when developing arial attacks. Ironically, what is Joe McKnight’s biggest strength? That would be catching the ball.
One of the more popular debates I’ve seen recently is which halfbacks will make the roster. Chris Ivory is a virtual lock. Mike Goodson’s legal troubles seem to be dwindling by the day (Thanks for taking the spotlight, Aaron Hernandez!). A common feel around the media and the team seems to be that Goodson will remain on the team, as he most likely would have been cut by now. That leaves us with a two man competition (barring an unexpected surprise) between Joe McKnight and Bilal Powell, two completely different players.
Powell is a decent between the tackles runner who seems to excel in pass protection more so than McKnight. McKnight on the other hand is an outside runner who has the speed and elusiveness to take it to the house on any play. I find McKnight more preferable due to his untapped potential, while I find Powell comparable to many below average backs that could be had off the scrap heap at any time. Let’s say the Jets hit a stalemate with this two man competition and want to keep both guys, what do they do? Boy, does that wide receiver competition look quite bleak.
What’s that, wide receiver? You know, the position where our “star” in Santonio Holmes will most likely not be 100% by week 1 of the season. Our number two is not only also struggling with injuries, but catching the ball (that’s kind of important). That leaves us with Jeremy Kerley, a superb slot talent but not a guy you should expect to draw double coverages. Next you have Clyde Gates and Ben Obomanu, two guys who have had enough years in the NFL of showing you absolutely nothing. After these five, it’s a competition between undrafted free agents. It’s an understatement how disastrous this wide receiving corps can be depending on health. While I’d love to be optimistic and say Santonio will be back full strength right away, it’s most likely not happening. Can we guarantee Stephen Hill will develop into what we expect his sophomore year, a deep threat that has the physicality to take over a game? Not if he doesn’t start catching the ball and running routes like an NFL wide out.
Back to Joe McKnight, could we really expect him to play wide receiver in the NFL? While I don’t think he could ever be a full time wideout, his potential as a number four target while also returning kicks is more than enough to make this team. I remember two seasons ago when the Jets played the Giants on Christmas Eve was the first time I realized McKnight had wide out potential. He lined up on the outside, burned the corner on a vertical route by a mile, and Sanchez threw the ball 5 yards past him (shocking Mark, shocking). In four wide sets, McKnight could work the slot opposite Jeremy Kerley, running underneath routes and being a reliable security blanket for either Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith. Much of Geno’s success at West Virginia was through working underneath drag routes and screens to Tavon Austin, a speedy playmaker with reliable hands, much like Joe McKnight. While McKnight may not be as dynamic as a player like Austin, when have we really had an offensive coordinator attempt to make this work?
Another case for McKnight making the transition to back up slot receiver is yet again the lack of depth the Jets have. The competition for that spot right now is solely between former seventh round pick Jordan White and UDFA’s Zach Rogers and Ryan Spadola. McKnight is certainly the fastest of this bunch, offers more on special teams than the previous three mentioned, and has a multidimensional skill set to be lined up anywhere on the field. Unlike many of the current wide receivers on the depth chart, Joe has shown consistent hands throughout his entire career. While this is all speculation and a shot in the dark, don’t be shocked to see McKnight lined up all over the field during preseason. Marty Mornhinweg is much more creative than Tony Sparano and will certainly leave no stone unturned throughout the preseason. In what seems to be the official make or break year for Joe McKnight, it may be time to shine at a new position (and no, not cornerback).