Should Matt Forte be the Jets’ primary passing target this year?

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The 2017 New York Jets’ debut depth chart lists Robby Anderson as the team’s No. 1 receiver with Quincy Enunwa out for the year with a neck injury. Simply put, the Jets’ pass-catchers look iffy. That’s why it’s totally reasonable to expect the team’s leading receiver to come from a different unit – the running backs.

Matt Forte might be the Jets’ leading receiver this year. I first said it with a cynical spit on the most recent Jet Fuel podcast; the more I think about it, the more it makes sense.

Let’s get this out of the way first: We can all agree former offensive coordinator Chan Gailey did not use Forte the way he was used throughout his career in Chicago – namely, as a dual-threat, pass-catching back. Forte himself subtly complained about this after Gailey retired, calling it “odd” that Gailey rarely used Forte on third downs.

Yes, “odd” is the right word for designing an offense that only targeted Forte in the passing game 43 times. In 2014, Forte broke the single-season receptions record for running backs with 102 catches for Chicago. Two years later, he was thrown to 43 times in 14 games. Odd.

Granted, last year’s squad included Brandon Marshall, a healthy and improved Quincy Enunwa and decent secondary targets Jalin Marshall and Anderson. But Anderson, a feel-good story last year, is a second-year player who went undrafted in 2016 and who is due back in a Florida courtroom Sept. 11 (the day after the Jets open the season at Buffalo) for a felony charge of resisting arrest with violence.

Whether or not he’s found guilty, the NFL could choose to slap him with a personal conduct suspension as soon as the court proceedings wrap up. Even if he plays in all 16 games this year, Anderson will be facing some of the best cornerbacks in the NFL as New York’s top option on the outside.

Forte’s season of record lows also was under a different, arguably less creative offensive coordinator. We don’t have any game tape to dissect new coordinator John Morton as a play-caller; what we know about him is he will run a Jon Gruden-esque version of the West Coast offense.

In general, the West Coast offense is predicated on completing short passes (often to backs) in order to open up the running game, and Gruden is especially fond of the practice. With Gruden as head coach, Oakland RB Charlie Garner caught 72 balls on 91 targets for 578 yards in 2001; Tampa Bay back Michael Pittman was one one of the Bucs’ leading receivers in Gruden’s early years there, and even caught 75 balls on an absurd 121 targets for 597 yards in 2003. (Heck, the play “Spider 2 Y Banana” Gruden is famously enamored with is a designed pass to the fullback, a position the Jets didn’t even employ a season ago.)

Forte would be a match made in heaven for this type of offense. Considering the personnel around him, Forte would likely draw favorable matchups. Starting cornerbacks and safeties across the league will contain Anderson, Marshall, Peake or the rookies with relative ease. You might get tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins a catch over the middle once a game – or you might consider the slippery veteran running back who’s beating a linebacker as we speak.

But there’s one other catch to my argument (pun intended).

Jets’ quarterbacks also threw to running back Bilal Powell quite often last year. He finished 2016 with 74 targets for 58 catches and 388 yards, all higher totals than Forte’s. According to Pro Football Focus, Powell only got 131 carries last season but ran 332 receiving routes.

If we’re picking a running back to be the Jets’ leading receiver in 2017, then, why wouldn’t it be Powell? He’s younger (though by a mere three years) and the team clearly used him more a year ago.

My response to that is two-pronged. First, everyone is expecting the Jets to move away from a 50-50 timeshare and start to feature Powell more than Forte in the backfield. This is fair: Powell is younger, like we said, but also healthier and more durable. So whenever Forte isn’t taking a hand-off, he can line up anywhere on the field – not just in the backfield, but in the slot or even out wide. Wouldn’t you rather see Forte eight yards downfield than Jalin Marshall or a rookie receiver?

Which brings me to my second point: Forte has done this before. He has more receiving experience than any “natural” wide receiver on this roster. Forte’s career receiving stats: 517 receptions, 4,379 yards and 20 touchdowns.

The career receiving stats of Anderson, Marshall, Charone Peake, Marquess Wilson, Myles White, Chris Harper, Lucky Whitehead and Frankie Hammond combined: 174 catches, 2,114 yards and eight TDs.

Forte, in his nine-year career, has more than twice the production of these eight young receivers in all three categories.

If you’re concerned about getting the Jets’ young receivers reps and you’re glad Enunwa’s absence puts more pressure on them, your take doesn’t impress me. Enunwa wasn’t siphoning off coaches’ attention from the others by merely existing. Third- and fourth-round picks ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen obviously will be closely groomed, or the team wouldn’t have spent mid-rounders on them. (Assuming those rookies are safely on the 53-man roster, only three or four of those eight homely receivers listed above will make the team, realistically.)

So if your argument then becomes, “Don’t bother throwing to Forte during the regular season – let Chris Harper and Frankie Hammond get some work in, because the season is lost anyway” – well, my friend, good luck suffering through a whole season of one of the least competitive NFL teams in history, for the sake of “evaluating” guys who’d ride the bench anywhere else.

If you want the Jets to be exciting once in a blue moon this year, send some letters to John Morton. Remind him what Forte can do, and what Gruden’s West Coast is built for.

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