New York Jets Five Difficult Decisions: Running Backs Edition

David Aitken on the decisions the New York Jets are facing at the running back position this off-season

The fourth edition of Five Difficult Decisions looks at the running backs, a position group that may look drastically different to last year. With resources likely to be focused elsewhere, New York Jets GM Mike Maccagnan may have to get creative. 

The Jets will enter free agency with just Zac Stacy under contract at the running back position. That means both 1,000 yard rusher Chris Ivory and passing game difference maker Bilal Powell are both set to enter the market. Ivory will join Doug Martin, Lamar Miller and Alfred Morris amongst others in one of the stronger free agent running back classes in recent memory. The draft also has a number of talented runners including a legitimate first round talent in Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to see an entirely new group of running backs, or at the least two fresh faces.

The first question is whether the Jets will be able to bring back Ivory and Powell both, and perhaps add another player in the mix in addition to them. It makes sense for the Jets to bring at least one of them back, the most likely being Bilal Powell. Powell proved to be a real difference maker down the stretch and will be a cheaper option than Chris Ivory who is coming off a career season. It is possible the Jets would welcome Ivory back on a deal similar to what he originally signed, but that is unlikely. Less productive players signed for 4 million annually this past offseason and Ivory is a 1,000 yard rusher in the prime of his career. Ivory is an excellent pure runner, the type that when available to play can transcend the need for a solid run blocking offensive line, but therein lies the problem. Ivory was in and out of the lineup, would get banged up for stretches in games, and the Jets actually were at their best down the stretch when he was relegated from a feature back role.

Even if the Jets have the cap space to bring Ivory back, Maccagnan will be hesitant to give him a major payday. With that said, getting Ivory back on a favorable deal can’t be ruled out given he’ll be just one of several attractive options in the free agent market for a team looking to spend on a potential feature back.

Depending on how other major moves affect the salary cap (such as Cromartie’s contract, Wilkerson’s situation, and Ferguson’s contract), the Jets could have cap space to take a shot on one of the top running backs if they wish or may instead be forced to bargain shop. If there is comfortable cap space available, could Maccagnan replace Ivory with another back?

Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell both had hot stretches in 2015, but neither were reliable as an every down back. Amongst the names with experience as a number one back are Matt Forte, Doug Martin, Lamar Miller and Alfred Morris. The latter three are in their mid-to-late 20’s and in the primes of their career, in Miller’s case with arguably the best to come. Miller, Martin and Forte are three-down options comfortable catching balls out of the backfield in addition to taking carries. Morris is probably the player most likely to be overlooked, but his production also has dropped consistently from his rookie season to last year.

Of course if it’s a feature back the Jets want to prioritize, there is also the draft. In round one the Jets are in a prime position to land the draft’s top running back prospect in Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State, or perhaps on day two a player like UCLA’s Paul Perkins, Utah’s DeVontae Booker, Heisman winner Derrick Henry or his teammate Kenyan Drake. If it’s value shopping Maccagnan does at the running back spot, there are several options available as well. LeGarrette Blount, Ronnie Hillman, and James Starks were all part of a stable this season and had decent years.

In a scenario where Ivory and Powell both return on deals that make sense for the Jets, it would allow the team to go into the draft with a lot of flexibility at the position. There would still be room for a running back in the first two rounds if the value was strong, but the running back group could also be rounded out nicely by a day three prospect as well. The case of just Powell returning has the largest variety of outcomes. With a lot of cap space available the Jets could take a chance on a player like Lamar Miller to be the feature back. If there is less room available, it’s a lower level free agent. In a scenario where it’s just Ivory back, look for a pass catcher to be a priority whether in free agency or the draft to replace Powell’s excellent output there down the stretch. Unlikely as it is the Jets retain neither, the Jets could look to build around one of the workhorse free agents available and prioritize more depth on draft day. With so many possibilities, it’s a position group ripe for remodeling.

Prediction: Bilal Powell returns, Chris Ivory signs elsewhere and LeGarrette Blount is signed on a short-term deal. In round three the Jets draft Alabama’s Kenyan Drake.

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