The most critical addition the New York Jets have made this offseason is running back Le’Veon Bell, who is the best rostered skill position player they have had since Curtis Martin graced the Meadowlands with his presence. How exactly can Bell improve one of the league’s worst offenses over the past few years and why is he so much more than just a running back? Let’s take a high level overview of what a unique improvement he will be in the Jets backfield over what Sam Darnold had to work with in 2018…
Powell, Plus OneThe New York Jets strategy at running back since the beginning of Mike Maccagnan’s tenure has been “Powell, Plus One.” Bilal Powell would function as the number two back, in coordination with a rotating cast of lead backs who gradually had diminishing returns. In 2015 it was Chris Ivory, who exceeded 1,000 yards but struggled to stay healthy and was limited in the passing game. In 2016 and 2017, it was Matt Forte who was running in cement and last year it was Isiah Crowell, who used one massive outlier game to mask a thoroughly mediocre season that ended in injury.
Despite being a productive and efficient back who was generally underused, Powell struggled to stay healthy all four seasons and is unlikely to be back in 2019. Without the presence of Powell for most of last season, the Jets situation at running back gradually tumbled down to one of the worst in the NFL.
On paper, Crowell’s numbers seem respectable enough. Over 13 games he finished with 688 yards, 6 touchdowns, and a 4.8 YPC. Yet a third of those yards came in a single game against Denver with another 62 yards coming on a garbage time home run touchdown in week 1 versus Detroit. When you factor out those runs, Crowell was at 404 yards over his other 127 carries (3.1 YPC). He also didn’t score a touchdown in 6 of his final 7 games and the only touchdown he scored was when the Jets were down 30+ points in the second half versus Buffalo in week 10. He was also a consistent liability in pass protection and made a limited impact as a pass catcher out of the backfield.
When Crowell was lost for the season along with Powell, the Jets elevated second year back Elijah McGuire to the starting role, where he struggled heavily as a runner. Of all players in the NFL with 50 carries or more, McGuire had the lowest yards per carry (3.0) and also struggled to protect the football with a lost fumble in two of his three starts. Despite being a decent pass catcher out of the backfield, McGuire has consistently shown himself to be overmatched as a runner when given extended opportunities as he struggles with both vision and decisiveness.
The Jets struggled when they tried to attack down the field with their running backs in the passing game, regularly trying to utilize rookie 6th rounder Trenton Cannon in this capacity. Despite his straight line speed, Cannon lacked a feel for route running and tracking the football when in the air, to Darnold’s detriment.
Our favorite analogy when arguing for the Jets to sign Bell was the team taking advantage of their gift certificate (Darnold’s rookie contract) to buy themselves a steak dinner in Bell to boost a notably weak spot on their depth chart. The Jets didn’t just have a glaring need at running back, they had one at receiver where despite a surge of production from Robby Anderson to close the season, there were still questions around the rest of the depth chart due to Quincy Enunwa’s injury history and a lack of other proven options. The signing of Jamison Crowder has helped patch some of the void but it is still a middle of the road collection of options right now. Bell helps make that situation substantially more palatable.
As a runner, Bell exceeded 1,250 yards in each of his last two seasons and he did so in only 12 games during the 2016 season (1,268 yards with a 4.9 YPC) and 15 games (1,291 yards with a 4.0 YPC) during the 2017 season. Bell is not a back who only gets what his offensive line gets him, as he was second in the NFL in broken tackles during the 2016 season with 47, and then followed up in 2017 by forcing 61 missed tackles which was third in the league. He has a signature, patient running style that allows plays to develop in front of him which will be a welcome contrast to Crowell, McGuire and Cannon who regularly looked blindfolded while running directly into a brick wall over and over again.
Bell’s value goes far beyond running the football, as he will also immediately become the Jets most proven and productive receiver. When Bell is not functioning as a receiver, he holds up his end of the bargain in pass protection, an area the Jets running backs struggled with last season after Bilal Powell went down. Bell has a reputation as one of the best backs in the NFL in pass protection and only allowed a total of 2 sacks between 2016 and 2017. The Jets question marks on the offensive line and at blocking tight end are a little less severe because of Bell’s ability to pick up the slack.
As a pass catcher, Bell has been more productive than any player on the Jets roster, catching 312 of 397 targets (79%) for 2,660 yards and 7 touchdowns throughout his career. In 2017, he racked up 85 receptions for 655 yards. Bell is unique because he can be productive on more than just check downs with the ability to run routes and attack the football in the air like a wide receiver. He also can create separation, which is something the Jets backs struggled with on wheel routes and similar downfield shots last season.
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) January 15, 2018
Bell is also going to function as a cheat code for Darnold to improve his accuracy and yardage totals because of his ability to take simple check downs and convert them into big plays. A pass that was either dropped by a player like Cannon last year or was only a 4-7 yard gain from a player like Crowell, will much more frequently be converted into a bigger gain by a player with Bell’s ability. This is going to lower the amount of times of the Jets are off schedule or behind on down and distance.
There is reason to expect that Adam Gase is going to lean on Bell as a high volume workhorse. The last time he had a highly productive three down back was Jay Ajayi during the Dolphins 2016 playoff run. Down the stretch that season Ajayi topped 18 touches or more in 12 straight games to close the year (including the playoff game). He was at 25 total touches or more in 4 of those games. The Jets backup running back situation is also currently hazy at best.
Overall the Jets substantially improved both their running and passing game with the Bell signing. They turned one of their weakest roster spots, running back, into one of their strongest and also added needed support to league average (at best) wide receiver and offensive line positional groups. If Bell can quickly get acclimated back and stay healthy, he will be given every opportunity to be the 1,200 yard back, with 65+ catches he regularly was in Pittsburgh.