New York Jets – Breaking Down the Backfield Depth

Clayton Smarslok breaks down the New York Jets battle for roster spots at running back

The NFL is long past the days of every team needing an every down back. Excluding a few teams, we are now and have been in the running back by committee era for a few years now. The last time the Jets didn’t go by this was when Thomas Jones was carrying the rock back in 2009, shortly after Curtis Martin held down the position for nearly a decade. However, that’s not to say they haven’t had a successful running game since then. Finishing in the top 12 in rushing in six of the eight seasons, with three of those being in the top six.

This upcoming season, the committee will be headlined by Bilal Powell and newcomer Isaiah Crowell. The latter comes in from Cleveland signing for 12 million dollars on a 3 year deal. With those two taking the majority of the carries, touches for anyone else will be few and far between barring an injury. As we all know, running backs tend to go down pretty often compared to most positions. With that being said it’s important to have depth at the position especially with a rookie possibly starting at quarterback. With three guys fighting for one, maybe two spots, who should we expect to see on the field in 2018?
Trenton Cannon, 5’11 185, Rookie

Cannon comes in as a 6th round rookie from Virginia State. Being from such a small school you see very little to no NFL talent on the field so that means he will undoubtedly see a big jump in competition.

On the ground Cannon is an electric runner with the capability to take it to the house on any play proven by his 7.7 yards per carry last season. But with a smaller build than the average running back, it isn’t expected he would be able to carry a full workload. That won’t be a problem now as his calling card to making this team will be his ability in the return game. Over the past few seasons there have been so many different names but the same result, often ranking in the bottom three league in returning punts and bottom half in returning kickoffs.

During his last two seasons in college he has been a dynamic kick returner averaging over 32 yards per return to go along with 3 touchdowns. The Jets will gladly take that production but returning punts is another area in dire need of help, something Cannon has no experience in. Since he’s been drafted, they have been trying him out there but many in the media have noted it’s been a bit of a struggle for him. If he can handle the responsibility of a punt returner, keep an eye out on Trenton Cannon.

Elijah McGuire, 5’10, 214 pounds, 2nd Season

Feels like this is the 100th former sixth round pick by Maccagnan that I have written since joining TOJ. Anyways as a rookie last year, McGuire showed to be a solid player in his role. When Forte and Powell were healthy he didn’t see the field all too often but he was the first man to step up if one went down.

In 2017 McGuire was able to run for 315 yards at a 3.6 clip to go along with 177 catches on 17 catches and 2 touchdowns. As a runner he is an east-west runner who much prefers to bounce out to find space rather than find holes up the middle. If he does hit the corner, he has the extra gear to get that breakaway play.

Where he is most impactful is as a receiver. McGuire has reliable hands and has shown the ability to gain yards after the catch with his 10.4 yards per catch, which ranked 7th in the league. Look for him to be used in a variety of ways in the passing game under Bates’ offense.

Running backs coach Stump Mitchell has put lofty expectations on the second year running back, saying he has the skill set to be like the future Hall-of-Famer and ex-Jet LaDainian Tomlinson. While he acknowledged that’s not how it is at this point in time, it’s great to see that the position coach thinks so highly in McGuire.

Thomas Rawls, 5’9, 215 pounds, 4th Season

The third of the bunch comes in via free agency after spending his first three years in Seattle. Rawls was an undrafted free agent back in 2015 but made a name for himself during his rookie season rushing for 830 yards and 4 touchdowns with a league high 5.6 yards per carry.

The measurables may be similar between him and McGuire, but don’t let that fool you in believing they’re the same style of runner. Where McGuire is more elusive, Rawls brings a more physical mentality. He’ll gladly take contact and run through wimpy tackers. Not to say he isn’t elusive though. He shows quick feet to make sharp cuts in space when needed. As a receiver Rawls shows soft hands and should be able to make impact in this part of the game but nothing that’ll put him over the top.

Over his three years, he has yet to play a full season due to injuries. With being such a physical runner, Rawls will be more prone to injuries than the others on this list. It’d be great for him to show the coaching staff that he is back to his 2015 self and make a true difference.

In reality, this is a two man race for the backup running back position between Eli McGuire and Thomas Rawls. Meanwhile Trenton Cannon is on the outside looking in, really competing with WRs Andre Roberts and Lucky Whitehead for the returner positions. As for the running backs, these two have both shown promise so it will be interesting to see how they perform leading up to the season opener. When it comes down to it, McGuire should be the guy they decide to keep and there are three key reasons for this.

First, when looking at the contract situations, Rawls is only under contract for this upcoming season, whereas McGuire will be under contract for three more seasons. Second, if you keep Rawls and then Powell gets hurt, you have a harder time filling his role. I consider McGuire a younger version of Bilal Powell and would step in perfectly. Lastly, availability is the best ability. Rawls has struggled to stay healthy in his three years, so it will be tough to depend on him if Powell or Crowell go down. If a couple things break in certain ways, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them both make the team with Cannon being stacked on the practice squad.

Fullback

In recent years, the Jets have been trying to become one of a handful of teams that use a fullback but it’s been tough to find one worthy of getting on the field. This summer we have a battle for the top spot between the starter from last year, Lawrence Thomas and rookie stud from Oklahoma, Dimitri Flowers. With what should be a summer long fight, what should we expect out of the two?

Dimitri Flowers, 6’2, 248 pounds, Rookie

By far the biggest name to sign with the Jets as an undrafted free agent this year. At Oklahoma Flowers was used in a variety of ways, as a blocker, pass catcher and even got some carries. He was able to shine during the College Football Playoffs and his match up against a stout Georgia defense, including a receiving touchdown against the 8th pick in April, Roquan Smith.

Flowers’ versatility is what stands out instantly. He has a thick build to him that should make him more than capable to take the blow from incoming lineman or blitzers. As a receiver, he could line up in the backfield, as an H-Back or even in-line. Running a 4.83 40 shows he won’t necessarily run past anybody and he also doesn’t really use crazy moves to consistently create separation but he is a smart player who will figure out how to get open and has good hands to be relied on.

Lawrence Thomas, 6’3, 286 pounds, 3rd Season

Thomas is well known for the #97 on the back of his jersey before he made the transition from defensive line to fullback last season. 2017 was his first season at the position after briefly splitting time there in college. With this being his first offseason as the fullback he is going all in. It should be expected that he will be improved, considering he’ll be able to learn the ins and outs and gain more of a complete understanding of the position in a calendar year.

At 286 pounds Thomas is a big boy who will be able to handle the impact the defenders will make, it’s just a matter of getting the technique of blocking down. The offense will want to run more this year so this should be his primary focus this summer. As a pass catcher he reeled in 6 catches for 43 yards, nearly scoring once against the Dolphins. He’ll need to become more comfortable catching the ball as well but that will come with practice.

The Jets obviously thought pretty highly of Lawrence Thomas to make him their full time fullback last year even without playing the position in quite some time. With this in mind, it’s hard to turn your back on someone that was highly regarded for his versatility that can do more than just block. While fullback isn’t a key position, I think if you plan to use someone there, the best bet is to bring in Flowers so he can lockdown the position for many years to come.