New York Jets 2017 Positional Preview: Running Backs

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With reliable veterans Eric Decker and Nick Mangold out the door and the quarterback situation being, well, one of the worst in team history, it’s safe to say the Jets’ most talented offensive unit is the running back crew.

If the Jets don’t want to embarrass themselves all season, they’ll run the ball much more than they’ll tell Josh McCown or Christian Hackenberg to throw to a very green receiving corps.

Matt Forte likely will be the day-one starter once again (see depth chart projection below) because he is the bigger name – and one of just four Jets 30 or older – but many might argue Bilal Powell is the better back entering 2017. The Jets’ new running backs coach, Stump Mitchell, a coach around the NFL and college for 25 years, recently said he believes Powell has Pro Bowl potential.

How should Forte and Powell split the workload, and how do the other backs on the roster fit in?

Week 1 depth chart projection: Matt Forte, Bilal Powell, Elijah McGuire

Depth players to watch: McGuire, Jordan Todman, Brandon Wilds, fullback Julian Howsare

One big number: Eight – or more properly, eighth. Powell was ranked the eighth-best running back in the NFL in 2016 by two different advanced analytics websites, Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders.

Youngster to watch: We’ve already written extensively about McGuire, the sixth-round pick out of UL Lafayette, from Max Marcilla’s profile of his upbringing to my positing that he could have a head start in the returner competition. Surely versatility makes a player more valuable to keep on a 53-man roster, and few teams keep a return specialist with one lone purpose anymore. But besides that, McGuire could make a useful option on third downs and in particular offensive packages. Not unlike Forte and Powell, he has good hands: NFL.com scout Lance Zierlein wrote McGuire has “excellent hand-eye coordination in pass-catching,” and he caught multiple touchdowns in each of his four collegiate seasons. On a team very weak at wide receiver, it might behoove new offensive coordinator John Morton to get creative and rotate Forte, Powell and McGuire among the slot, the backfield and the bench.

Jet Factor: I’ll give you two. The obvious one is Powell – can he expand on how well he played at the end of last season if he’s given more carries? Amazingly, Powell did not receive more than eight touches in a game until Week 13 last year. That week was his crazy 145-yard, two-touchdown performance to beat San Francisco single-handedly (he did so on 29 carries). This could be his make-or-break season to prove he can be a quality starting back in the NFL, or at least for New York.

Meanwhile, a dark horse to make the roster is Jordan Todman, who quietly signed during the offseason. A former First-Team All-American and sixth-round Chargers pick in 2011, New York is Todman’s seventh team, and he’s only 27 this year. Last year he played for the Colts as a back-up RB and returner. He didn’t even stick in Indy, despite all their offensive inconsistency. Todman is built like Powell and McGuire, but shorter (5-foot-9). He will have to compete with McGuire for the RB3 spot that the Jets are still trying to settle.

Don’t forget about: Forte, who scored more touchdowns than any other Jet last year (seven rushing and one receiving). We’re all nervous that he’s on the wrong side of 30 and has some injury recovery to deal with. His 3.7 yards per carry in 2016 represented his worst mark since his sophomore season with the Bears. But some improved conditions should be on the horizon: The offensive line (knock on wood) will be healthier to start the season, Powell should get a larger workload which in turn will ease Forte’s and, most importantly, he’s bound to like Morton better than Chan Gailey. Forte went on record this summer calling Gailey’s decision not to use Forte on third downs last year “odd.”

How it all goes well: John Morton realizes he must work with what he has and relies heavily on the running game. Forte and Powell become a consistent two-headed monster in the backfield, one of the few bright spots on the 2017 Jets. Their performance gives the Jets’ young quarterbacks a little room to develop comfortably, so the team can see what they really have in Hackenberg and Bryce Petty. Forte gets more looks in the passing game, especially on third down, and Elijah McGuire is effective spelling the top two backs in the second halves of games. Morton also uses some packages with FB Julian Howsare after the Jets spent most of the 2016 campaign without a fullback on the roster.

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