New York Jets – Joe McKnight: A New Niche In A New Offense

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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).

  • Jeremiah Johnson

    I’d be surprised if McKnight doesn’t make the team. He’s a playmaker on a team lacking playmakers.

    Since Rex mentioned 4 RB alignments in his press conference on 6/12/13, I’m hoping MM is building an offense around the available talent rather than trying to fit players into a particular scheme.

  • Circles26

    Why not CB. 4th RB. 4th WR. and 4th CB. So keeping Joe would actually save us a roster spot.

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  • JetOrange

    Joe has great hands. Lavernes Cole was a RB before he was a WR. Marty’s offense is ideal and McKnight could do some damage in the slot. Because of the problems with Holmes and Hill, Kerley could move to the outside making McKnight in the slot a stronger possabiliity.

  • Harold

    Hopefully, he finally gets a chance to show what he can do. I think he has talent but now is the time for him to put it together.

  • David

    I hope he gets a good shot this year. I thought too many times last year, the coaches didn’t utilize him well enough. There were a few games where it seemed like everytime he touched the ball, he was gaining 8-10+ yards.

  • Charles Gallo

    The running back coach Anthony Lynn son had a problem with McKnight and even had a physical fight in training camp a few years ago. The son was cut, but ever since that time it seems McKnight has never had a chance to show what he could do in the running offense. I do not know if Lynn holds a grudge against Joe McKnight, but I see no reason otherwise why Joe has never played.

  • KAsh

    The problem with McKnight permanently moving to wideout/slot receiver is that is actually the best and deepest part of our wide receiver corps. Kerley was a gem on a stagnant offense and can be kicked outside due to the lack of talent there, but Rogers, Spadola, and White are the UDFA and 2012 draft WR creme of the crop. Replacing one of them with a McKnight, whose route-running over the middle we have no intel on, would simply be crowding out developmental-type players.

    Mornhinweg loves RBs that can catch the ball on routes and screens, so there should be a place for Joe. But it will be along the lines of a traditional WCO RB. He will play all over the field, but the Jets have not yet fallen as far as to permanently move him to wideout.

  • John C

    I’m a big McKnight fan. I’ve said it before, the Jets would be fools not to keep all 4 halfbacks, because McKnight can also be your 5th or 6th receiver (and 7th DB). Guarantee you, 5 minutes after being cut by the Jets, McKnight would be headed to Foxboro. Think we looked bad letting Woodhead walk – Bellichick would make us cry with McKnight.

  • __fense

    I…agree…with KAsh? I never thought I’d say that, but here we are. He’s got playmaking potential, and good hands, but not much in the way of WR technique (because he hasn’t been a WR for more than one play before). So, the best place to be is a pass-catching RB, where he can just be a safety valve and make plays, without having to worry as much about running the routes perfectly and getting open. Then you maybe think about converting him all the way to WR next year, when he’s already been a receiver in all but name for a year, and when the slot isn’t the only place we don’t need WRs.

  • __fense

    Also, with what John C is saying, cutting Woodhead was the right thing to do, not because he isn’t good, but because he didn’t fit with the scheme. It was just unfortunate that he ended up fitting into the scheme for a division rival, or no one would even know his name.

    But in this case, with a WCO, McKnight is a scheme fit, so cutting him would be wasting talent with a player that can help, instead of wasting talent with a player that really couldn’t.

  • kc.

    the BEST part about McKnight is his ATTITUDE going into this season. CAN’T WAIT for training camp!

  • John C

    I don’t want to go overboard about Woodhead (or McKnight), but sometimes, you need to fit your scheme to the players too. I guess that’s why I’d hate to see McKnight go – It’s not exactly like the Jets/Rex’s scheme on Offense has been working the last two years.

  • Sterling Archer

    The departures of two of my favorite Jets of recent times, Leon Washington (yeah… I know he was damaged goods) and Danny Woodhead are linked to McKnight coming to, and still being on this team. It would be nice to see him given a real opportunity to be a component in our passing AND running game so that getting rid of W & W was not in vain.

    The value of guys like Washington and Woodhead is also measured in the clubhouse and on the practice field, as well as in actual games. It still kills me to see Woodhead playing for the Pats and being a significant contributor to their success at times.

  • peterv

    I think the MM signing really helps McKnight’s chances going into the season. It would be silly for the Jets to let him go considering his versatility and explosiveness.

    With that being said, we have to remember what the main issue that has continually held JM back — ball security. Hopefully he can back up his passionate remarks with equally passionate off-season work on ball security.

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