Following the demolition of the core of the 2016 Jets, legit competition for playing time has been created across the roster. Most of the positions on the team will be fought for by young players, whether they be draft selections, undrafted free agents, or backups from previous years. However, one starting spot up for grabs is being coveted by a 28-year old entering his seventh NFL season, looking for his first taste of being a Week 1 starter.
That man is Bilal Powell, the longest tenured Jet on the offensive side of the ball. Powell emerged from a seldom-used 4th round pick to perhaps the only consistency of any kind on the Jets offense from 2012 onward. Each year, his game has improved in one way or another.
His steady improvement is a real reason to be excited about his potential in a larger role. Late in 2016, the Jets finally gave Powell the opportunity to carry their load, and he really delivered. From Weeks 14 to 17, Powell ranked 3rd in the league in rushing with 411 yards (102.8 per game) on 5.0 yards per carry, trailing only Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard.
Despite all of this, there is reason to be cautious in your optimism with Powell. There are a few question marks that make you wonder if he’s best suited in his complimentary role, which could be why Matt Forte is still around. Injuries are one of the red flags. He has only played in all 16 games twice in his career, those years being 2016 and 2013. He’s had quite a few minor injuries holding him out of a few games at once. Does he have the durability to handle 20+ touches a game? On the bright side, it should be noted he has only notched 703 career touches on offense. For comparison, Matt Forte had 694 just two seasons into his career.
Age is another concern. Powell will be 29 when the season starts. In addition to the injury worries greater age can cause, it also makes you wonder if he can really progress any further. This past season, only one of the league’s top ten rushers were at or above that age (LeGarrette Blount at 30), and he actually only gained 3.9 yards a carry. In fact, among the 43 qualifying running backs last year, the highest ranked in yards per carry at age 29 or higher was Ryan Mathews at 15th.
If you go back a year, multiple 30+ running backs hit high yardage, including Adrian Peterson (1st), Frank Gore (9th), and DeAngelo Williams (10th). Despite this, the question of efficiency in older backs popped up again. At just 15th of 47, Peterson ranked as the most efficient per carry of the 29+ year old backs.
Powell has been a really good Jet. Any time a 4th round pick sticks around and produces as much as he has, it’s a big win. He’s shown flashes along the way of being much more than just a valuable role player. Powell has had stretches of simply great running back play and there have been times (namely late in 2015) where he was invaluable to the team’s success. He is versatile, has really good feet, and excellent vision. He finally has a great opportunity to show us how great he can be. But have the Jets waited too long to try and unlock his potential?