New York Jets Training Camp Preview: Running Backs

David Aitken previews the New York Jets running back position heading into training camp

David Aitken continues his training camp of the 2017 New York Jets with a look at the running back position. Here is last week’s look at quarterback…

Projected Depth Chart/Starters
  1. Bilal Powell
  2. Matt Forte
  3. Elijah McGuire
With the Jets cutting bait at nearly every other position but running back, there’s an argument to be made that outside of the defensive line it’s the strongest group remaining on the roster. But even that is factoring in a six-year pro reaching new heights rather than on proven production. Is this group, particularly Bilal Powell, ready to carry an offense?
Last year the excitement for Bilal Powell was to build on a nice end to the 2015 season, going from under appreciated afterthought to a important piece of a well-balanced offense. 2016 ended up being Powell’s most productive season as a pro, yet was still a disappointment as Matt Forte led the team in carries and was the go-to man early in the season. Now coming off another strong end to a year, Powell is lined up to be one of the offense’s focal points and is being unofficially advertised as one of the few things the Jets having going for them.
Of running backs with at least a hundred carries last year, Powell was second highest in the league with 5.5 yards-per-carry. Coupled with 58 receptions (he was close to team lead), Powell had a very good season as a complementary running back. At 28 years old and little tread on his tires, this should be the prime of his career. If he’s ever going to be a run game’s focal point, this is the year. Yet durability has been a concern at times in his career and the coaches’ own plans may prevent Powell once again from reaching his full production potential, with new OC John Morton favoring a committee approach.
Standing in Powell’s way at this point is Matt Forte, who will be if nothing else a lingering reminder of the failed push toward playoffs in 2016. His signing is the case in point for why it’s risky to give aging players multi-year guarantees. While logic would indicate that Forte should be following the declining cast of characters the Jets have released over the offseason, the truth is that there’s no salary cap benefit to doing so. Is there a football argument? I suppose there is – if Hackenberg gets the nod for significant action this year, expect the Jets to try and run the ball *a lot*. That obviously bodes well for Powell having his most productive season but there also needs to be strength in numbers. Forte, a three-down back and one of the decade’s premier workhorse backs, still has some value in this regard. The problem is he’s already showing some signs of slowing down. His 2016 highlights occurred during the team’s three wins in their first eight where Forte plodded for 3.3 YPC in all three games between 25-30 carries each time out. If the committee is to work best, Forte and Powell should be switching 2016 roles.
Rounding out the group and a dark horse for some touches on offense is 6th round rookie Elijah McGuire. Undersized but versatile, McGuire is an excellent receiving back and should be in the mix to provide some special teams value as well. He could find a niche at some point similar to how Powell was used down the 2015 stretch – a handful of rushing opportunities but most of the damage coming from designed plays in the passing game.
Position Group Strength: 5
Let’s get out of the way what the Jets don’t have here: there’s no home run threat, and with Forte on the decline I don’t know if there’s a true every down back on this roster either (two reasons I figured Jets would heavily consider Fournette if available). There should be some optimism that Powell can handle an increased workload, but it’s not something he has proven yet with half a decade in the league and some knocks along the way hint at durability concerns. And while this is being written a month before training camp, it shouldn’t surprise anybody if the Jets act late on moving on from Forte as well.
What the Jets do have here as of now are two competent, productive NFL players and a rookie who has a chance to carve out a niche early. Powell in particular could be the team’s most productive offensive player if he can stay healthy through 16 games. Even if 2017 is not a Powell revelation, at the least this committee can produce behind solid line play.
Best Case Scenario: As the clear top running back and with a line that comes together nicely in front of him, Powell has a 2014 Justin Forsett type year. Forte is kept fresher in a complementary role but still makes the most of roughly 140 combined offensive touches and red zone opportunities. McGuire earns a few designed plays on offense over the course of the year and makes an impact as a punt returner.
Prediction: There will be games where Forte frustratingly is used more often than he should, but Powell will eclipse the 1,000 yard rushing mark and be the team’s most productive offensive player. The Jets will intend to run the ball often but struggle to do so as consistently as they’d like as game script flips early toward being pass heavy. McGuire will be mostly a special teams player but will get more of a taste on offense toward the end of the year.
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